On Facebook this week, one of my friends posted a meme joking that "adulthood is just saying 'after this week things will slow down again' to yourself until you die." I chuckled because it's true.
Adulthood can feel like an endless treadmill turned up a little too fast, and most of us have longed to jump off every once in awhile (or when the burnout is bad nearly every damn day). The stories of the many, diverse professionals who swear that taking a sabbatical has rebooted their lives show that for more people than you'd imagine, a sabbatical isn't a daydream but a real way to finally slow down and get a little perspective.
You're less indispensable than you think, and that's a good thing.
Let's be clear from the start. Not everyone is in a financial or logistical place where an extended period of time off is possible. If you're struggling to pay the rent or have two kids in grade school, that might be impossible at this moment in your life. (Though stories of people who managed to travel the world on tiny budgets and even with infants in tow show that for the extremely determined, where there's a will there's a way).
But for many successful but time-strapped midcareer professionals, the roadblocks to taking an extended break are more mental than practical. Take Help Scout co-founder and CEO Nick Francis, who recently wrote about his month-long break on his company's blog. Like many strivers, he worried that everything at work would fall apart without him.
"When a great leader is absent, the team steps in to fill the gaps without any real disruption. Maybe that's why for eight years I was nervous to take time off -- I was afraid to face all of the ways in which I've failed as a leader and failed to set my teammates up for success," he confesses.
In some ways he was right to be anxious. His absence did flag up many ways he'd been unnecessarily gumming up the decision-making works at his company. But identifying the areas where he could better empower his team was actually one of the benefits of the break.
There were plenty of others too. "I needed a reboot. The time off gave me an opportunity to do just that, and it was everything I'd hoped for," he writes.
"It's been several weeks since I returned to work, but not a day goes by without reflecting on my absence in some way. I can see the big picture more clearly. I'm more patient. It's easier for me to not be involved in a project. I can take a half day to do some strategic thinking and planning without getting distracted. Most important, I can turn the laptop off or put the phone down and be more present at home -- with full confidence my teammates are taking great care of the business. What a great feeling," he reports now that he's back.
Or maybe take an even bigger break.
If Francis's one-month break was the perfect way to rejuvenate his excitement for his business, a longer sabbatical can be a fantastic way to radically reimagine a life that's grown stale, according to a fascinating group of professionals who have written about their experiences of extended time away.
On the TED Ideas blog, for instance, former executive Caroline Harper explains how a corporate restructuring led her to take a year-long "gap year" in her mid-40s. She used the extended time off to travel around the world, an experience that both broadened her horizons and highlighted skills and interests she never knew she had.
"I discovered that I was fascinated by more things than I thought I was" and "I could talk to villagers in the middle of Pakistan the way I could talk to presidents of companies," Harper says. When she got home she realized she wanted to make a transition and lead a non-profit.
Here on Inc.com, programmer-turned-founder Winston Chen wrote about how his year-long sabbatical on an Arctic island led him to create a text-to-speech app to help those who struggle with reading because of a visual impairment or learning disorder. Making the world more accessible for all is now his full-time job.
Sabbaticals are the ultimate perk.
All of which suggests that if you're in the midcareer doldrums, a sabbatical might not be a crazy idea, but instead the right way to re-energize yourself or find a new path forward. That's good to know for individuals, but also for leaders who are designing vacation policies for their teams.
Francis was so moved by his own break, he made it company policy that employees can take a month off after five years of service. The company even throws in a $2,500 bonus to help them make the most of their time away.
It might sound like a heavy lift losing a team member for a month, but according to Nina Velasquez, an HR leader at PR firm N6A, which offers employees a month-long break every year, it's actually easier to juggle than trendy "unlimited vacation" policies.
With "unlimited" leave, "you and your supervisor may find it difficult to decide the best time frames to take those unlimited days off. This uncertainty, combined with feeling guilty about taking time off during a heavy workload for the team, may cause you to actually take less time off," she cautioned on Fast Company recently. (The experience of other company suggests her fears aren't misplaced.)
Sabbaticals require lots of planning, but their fixed time frame make those adjustments easier, and a standardized offering removes the question mark about how much time is too much. Plus, the results of the policy have been impressive, according to Velasquez.
"The sabbatical program has been a huge test of organization skills for everyone involved," she allows. "Yet many of our employees have noted that upon their return to the office, they also felt refreshed and ready to get back to the daily grind, which provides another boost to the team's overall productivity. Recent research underscores these benefits."
So whether it's you or your star employee who's feeling that adulthood is just week after week of grinding through life, a sabbatical might be a less crazy daydream and a more practical (if radical) solution. I'll give the last word on the benefits to Francis, who promises:
"The experience will be transformational both personally and professionally. Once you've been working on something for at least three years, it's important to take a step back and see what the universe has to teach you. No excuses ... just give it a go."