‘A Sabbatical Isn’t a Fun Vacation’ — Experts Share How to Do It Right
Many of us dream of taking a sabbatical and leaving work behind, but that’s not as simple as it sounds. Experts say preparing for a sabbatical requires the same attention to detail as succession planning. What’s more, sabbaticals are not just a break from work. They require deep introspection and significant planning to schedule time for rest and reflection, and sometimes adventure — all with the goal of self-revelation.
Now in her second month of a yearlong sabbatical, Tatiana Poladko, co-founder of the college-access nonprofit TeenSHARP, is reflecting on 10 big-picture questions about what she really wants out of life and work. They include, “How do you want to feel at the end of your sabbatical?” and “Are there new boundaries you want to establish by the time your sabbatical concludes?”
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Many of us dream of taking a sabbatical and leaving work behind for a few months, but that’s not as simple as it sounds. Experts say sabbaticals are not just a break from work. They demand deep introspection and significant planning to schedule time for rest, reflection, and sometimes adventure — all with the goal of self-revelation.
Now in her second month of a yearlong sabbatical, Tatiana Poladko, co-founder of the college-access nonprofit TeenSHARP, is reflecting on 10 big-picture questions about what she really wants out of life and work. They include: “How do you want to feel at the end of your sabbatical?” and “Are there new boundaries you want to establish by the time your sabbatical concludes?”
Such reflections are a key piece of a sabbatical experience, says Kira Schabram, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business who has researched sabbaticals. “A sabbatical isn’t a fun vacation,” she says. “It’s a period in which you are actively working on yourself during exploration periods or working on building new insights or skills during working periods. And because that’s effortful, that requires breaks in between.”
To get the most out of the sabbatical experience — and to prevent work from intruding on it — experts recommend that professionals spend six months or more preparing themselves and their organizations for their time away. That means thinking hard about what they want out of their sabbatical and planning a few activities without sacrificing time to rest. Employees also need to ensure that their organization can continue to run smoothly while they’re on leave, giving their colleagues the chance to learn new skills and even step into leadership.
Choose Your Adventure
Before taking a sabbatical, professionals should consider how they want to spend their time and what they hope to get out of the experience. The Sabbatical Project, which advocates for the inclusion of sabbaticals in workplace-benefits programs, even has an online quiz to help sketch out the right sabbatical style for each individual.
Schabram’s analysis of sabbaticals taken by 50 professionals in various fields revealed that they typically included some or all of three phases: recovery, exploration, and practice. “How you put those together tends to inform how life-changing the sabbatical is,” she says.
Professionals who pursue a passion project, such as writing a novel or becoming a certified yoga teacher, generally spend their sabbatical resting and practicing a new skill — what Schabram and her co-authors call a “working holiday” in their research. People who take working holidays tend to return to their jobs rather than leaving them for whatever new skill they’ve cultivated. “You got a good break. You’re coming back more rested, but you’re essentially coming back to the same work,” Schabram says.
Another common type of sabbatical is the “free dive,” which combines rest and exploration — such as hiking a long-distance trail and recovering from the experience. Professionals who embark on free dives also tend to return to the same career after their sabbatical, but they often do so with a new perspective. During their explorations, they’ve asked themselves what they really want out of life and work, Schabram says. That can lead them to request a promotion upon their return or change jobs within their field.
The third type of sabbatical — “quests” — combine recovery, exploration, and practice and generally inspire those who take them to make the most significant life changes. “You have to explore what you want out of life, and then you have to practice those skills, and in between, there has to be rest in order to fundamentally transform,” Schabram says. “The rest really is just the thing that you need to make the other stuff work.”
DJ DiDonna followed this model on his sabbatical from the financial-technology company he founded. He went on a six-week spiritual pilgrimage in Japan, helped lead a nonprofit he’d previously supported as a trustee, and spent time with loved ones — including his sick mother — whom he hadn’t seen when he’d been traveling nonstop for work. After four months away from what had been his dream job, DiDonna realized he needed to reset and took his career in a new direction. The sabbatical, DiDonna says, “gave me a confidence in my own judgment and [the] energy to be able to make that decision.”
Now, as the founder of the Sabbatical Project, DiDonna dedicates his career to making sabbaticals more common and accessible and is writing a book about their benefits.
Schabram recommends employers consider adopting sabbaticals as a recurring practice for their employees, similar to academia, in which professors typically are granted a sabbatical every seven years. The cadence helps academics stave off burnout because they know they’re guaranteed a break from the day-to-day grind.
Some employers may worry that if employees take time away from work and explore other interests, they’ll quit. While some do, many others return to their jobs re-energized and with new ideas of how to contribute to the organization.
“People change during the sabbatical, but the degree and the nature of the change often has to do with how they started the sabbatical,” Schabram says. “Starting out of burnout is usually not the ideal scenario if you’re an employer hoping for them to come back.”
To reassure employers considering adopting a sabbatical policy, DiDonna points to foundations around the country funding sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders. These grant makers recognize, DiDonna says, that nonprofit leaders and founders are highly skilled and their knowledge and passion need to be protected for their missions to succeed. “If something happens to them — if they burn out, if they leave, if they quit — the organization is kind of existentially put at risk,” he says.
Sabbaticals offer necessary breaks to ensure a lengthy and successful career, DiDonna says. “It’s better to treat it as a dental checkup versus having to have emergency surgery.”
Make a Plan
The Durfee Foundation, which has funded sabbaticals for Los Angeles nonprofit leaders since 1997, recommends a sabbatical length of three months. That allows leaders to fully unplug from their job — a process experts say takes six to eight weeks — without putting too much strain on the staff who are covering for them. But that three-month leave demands extraordinary planning. The Durfee Foundation encourages sabbatical-takers to spend six months to a year preparing their organization for their absence.
“There’s very much similarity between succession planning and sabbatical planning in that you have to identify what needs to be done and who’s going to do it and who’s going to hold them accountable,” says Leslie Bonner, a nonprofit consultant who helped design a sabbatical program for Pittsburgh nonprofit leaders, administered jointly by the McCune and Richard King Mellon foundations.
In the six months to a year before a sabbatical, nonprofit professionals should be preparing for all eventualities — from identifying the colleague or team of colleagues who will adopt their duties while they’re on leave, to transferring personal correspondence from their work email address to their personal one so they won’t read work emails while they’re away.
“Especially in the smaller nonprofits, a lot of things like the phone systems and the insurance and the banking and all of that — which once upon a time it was like, who do you call? Now it is: What’s the password and what’s the two-factor verification number?” Bonner says.
Imagine a nonprofit leader on sabbatical and trying to relax on a beach, Bonner says, while her phone vibrates with notifications of two-factor verification codes. That’s what nonprofits should avoid.
The upfront work before a sabbatical is worth it, says Elizabeth Atwell, a project manager at the Wallace Center, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit housed at Winrock International, who took a four-month leave in 2022. “I had to put in a lot of time in thinking about who needs to also have this knowledge that I have? Who do I need to introduce my colleagues to so they also have easy relationships? How can I make sure that my systems are documented well and my projects are set up for success?” Atwell says. “I didn’t want anyone in my team to really be hurting because I was gone, so that made my projects stronger.”
In addition to drafting a written plan assigning responsibilities and determining whether on-the-job decisions would be made independently or by consensus, the Durfee Foundation recommends that the interim leader or leaders meet the board and work alongside the departing leader for a few weeks. Before leaving on sabbatical, leaders and their interim replacements need to agree on when — if ever — interruptions to the sabbaticals are permitted.
Let Your Organization Change
More than 40 percent of leaders who returned from a sabbatical reported gaining increased confidence in staff, according to a survey of 69 Los Angeles nonprofit leaders who took sabbaticals funded by the Durfee Foundation. While leaders are away, their staff members also gain confidence in themselves — taking on new responsibilities and learning new skills.
“I am a stronger leader because my boss has gone on sabbatical,” Atwell says. A year after Atwell returned, their boss became the second Wallace Center employee to take a sabbatical. During those three months, Atwell and their colleagues built relationships with new partners and grant makers and learned to solve problems without their boss’s direction.
“It’s created opportunity for all of us to step more into leadership and into management in ways that ... I don’t know that we would have otherwise,” Atwell says.
Research has shown that when leaders take sabbaticals, they deepen the bench of future leaders by giving midlevel staff a chance to try management. Now that Atwell’s boss has returned from sabbatical, Atwell hopes she feels confident offloading some of her very full plate to staff who proved themselves capable while she was away. Spreading more of the work around, Atwell says, could help prevent burnout.
Leaders returning from the first class of McCune and Richard King Mellon foundation-funded sabbaticals are not taking back all the responsibilities they delegated to colleagues while they were away, says Bonner — and that’s a good thing.
“You think, I have to do it all because there’s nobody [else] and everyone’s plates are too full and it needs to be done a certain way,” Bonner says. “And then you come back and you realize that everything worked out fine and that you don’t need to take every single thing back.”