A study exploring the impact of taking a sabbatical from work has shed light on how the experience can have a transformative effect on work–life balance. In the research conducted by The Sabbatical Project, 50 people were interviewed about their experiences of taking a sabbatical from work, and how it played a part in shaping their lives afterwards. Patterns in their responses show that separation from a stressful working environment, and the opportunity for rest and restoration, can provide a powerful ‘identity workspace’ to reflect and make lifestyle changes for the better.
DJ DiDonna is the founder of The Sabbatical Project and a former fintech business owner. After speaking to us recently about his own experience of taking a sabbatical from work, he also gave his insights into the research project and its findings so far.
The motivation behind the research
Recognising that very little research has been done investigating why people take sabbaticals and the benefits they can bring, DJ explains that he wanted to help plug the gap and build an evidence base.
“I was really surprised to see that this has never been covered in research,” he says. “I want to change the culture of work, and change the conversation around time off. And from being a business owner, I think that business has a huge role to play here.”
DJ has teamed up with Matt Bloom, a professor who leads the Wellbeing at Work programme at the University of Notre Dame, and Laura Giurge, a research fellow at London Business School and the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford, to undertake this new research into sabbaticals.
How the research was done
The team interviewed 50 people who had taken sabbaticals – ‘sabbatees’ – from a diverse range of demographics and professional backgrounds. The participants included a balance of men and women, couples and single people, various working sectors and different ethnic groups.
For the purpose of the research, a sabbatical was defined as ‘an extended separation from work, lasting two months or more, with an express purpose of seeking rest, restoration and/or renewal’.
Following the interviews, the researchers examined the responses to identify patterns in their experiences, and draw a narrative from the stories people told about their own sabbatical experiences.
An escape from functional workaholism
One aspect of the interviews focused on the participants’ lifestyles before they took a sabbatical. A common thread to emerge from this was an experience of ‘functional workaholism’. Many of the participants described intense and demanding work lives with very little downtime, an experience they felt at the time was acceptable, something that was necessary to endure.
“To me, burnout is a bit of an overused phrase, because it represents an endpoint,” says DJ. “Functional workaholism is a way that we work that seems totally normal in the context, and then outside of context, when you take time off, you think ‘I can’t believe I was doing that’.
“I think it’s an existence that many of us live in, but once you step out of it you think ‘that is not the existence that I actually want to live’.”
Sabbaticals catalysed by negative events
Another similarity among many of the interviewees’ stories was in how their sabbaticals came about. For many, it was not a proactive decision, but rather that they were pushed over the line by an external ‘catalysing event’, for example a health crisis, burnout, the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one.
“When you have a negative event that catalyses your time off, there’s probably a lot more healing that you need to do upfront in order to actually be able to enjoy your sabbatical,” says DJ.
A sabbatical as an identity workspace
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the research was the role that taking a sabbatical played in changing people’s personal and work identities. Participants spoke about how the separation from their previous environment and identity helped them establish a truer sense of who they were, and how they wanted to live their lives.
“In order to undergo identity work and to figure out who we are and who we want to be, you need to feel safe in setting aside your primary identity,” explains DJ. “So, if you are a high-profile lawyer and you want to investigate yourself or spend a little time with family, you can’t do that within the confines of your normal existence. You need to feel safe in setting aside that mask and picking up another one.
“What a sabbatical seems to do is it just allows you to be yourself, not around people who know you otherwise, and not around your role as a manager or a leader, or whatever role you play at work. The separation from that identity is what allows you to pick up another identity, or be more authentic.”
The power of geographical separation
Most of the research participants spent their sabbaticals separated from their regular working and living environment, whether travelling or spending time with family in a different location. The physical separation also acted as an important psychological break from their previous stressful environment, and provided a space to disconnect and reflect.
“There’s something about travel and seeing new places that can fill you with awe and inspiration in a way that your routine life doesn’t,” says DJ. “How many times do you stop to watch the sunset when you’re at home versus when you’re on vacation?
“Secondly, your routines are self-reinforcing with your geography. So if you quit your job or take time off, but you’re going to the same coffee shop in the morning and seeing all your coworkers, it’s harder to do anything different. You have to explain yourself at every turn. There’s just an importance that separation provides.
“One of the people we interviewed did a sound-healing retreat, and then became a sound healer and offered that practice to other people. So she’s continued to enrich and deepen that identity. I don’t think she could have discovered on weekends that she had a passion for sound healing and got trained up in the way that she did.”
Discovering your ‘coherent self’
The identity workspace provided by a sabbatical can empower individuals to establish a more coherent sense of their identity; to understand who they really are and what is important to them. After returning, this perspective allows them to better align their career with their true values and priorities.
As DJ explains, this can often lead in an unexpected direction. “A lot of people who make changes after taking a sabbatical from work might not have seen those changes as positive or prestigious before the sabbatical,” he says. “But their after-sabbatical self is saying ‘this is the best move for me’.
“Their pre-sabbatical self might have said ‘there’s no way that I would want to be a consultant or a coach, it’s not prestigious, it’s not what I want to do’. But their post-sabbatical self is saying ‘I lived as the first version of myself, and I am proactively choosing the second version’.”
Can taking a sabbatical from work together strengthen a couple’s relationship?
The research also suggests that for couples, the experience of taking a sabbatical from work together can help to strengthen their relationship. But this is not a universal outcome by any means.
“We tried to seek out negative experiences,” DJ elaborates. “Not because we’re masochistic, but to try to fight this notion that everyone should go on sabbatical, they’re great, nothing wrong can happen. There are definitely some adverse consequences.
“It helps you to deal with reality in a way that it might not have surfaced for a decade in regular life.”
“For couples I’ve heard all ends of the spectrum. I’ve heard people say that it was the best thing they’ve ever done for their marriage. People who spent their honeymoon on sabbatical, people who went on sabbatical together and came back decided they wanted to have kids when they never thought they wanted to have kids.
“Then I’ve also heard from people who opened up big wounds and had to enter into therapy, and people who actually got divorced on their sabbatical. So I think it can go either way.
I am not a therapist, but my interpretation of the folks who had negative experiences – and these were their words as well – they don’t regret going on the sabbatical. They still feel like it was one of the most important experiences of their life. If anything it moves you forward in time, it brings forward experiences, learnings, understandings and questions that were there under the surface. It helps you to deal with reality in a way that it might not have surfaced for a decade in regular life.”
Companies offering sabbaticals can improve retention
Taking a sabbatical from work does not only bring benefits to individuals, but also to companies who offer sabbatical leave to their employees. Although this particular research covers a small data set, the findings suggest that when businesses offer sabbaticals, they are rewarded with heightened loyalty among employees and better retention rates.
“There’s a narrative among business owners that says ‘I don’t want to give my employees a sabbatical, because it’s like a golden parachute so they can just look for another job,” DJ says. “That just didn’t pan out in the data. Of the people whose companies offered sabbatical policies, the supermajority, I think 80% of them, ended up coming back to work.
“Companies are always losing employees,” he continues. “People are always leaving, whether for parental leave and coming back, or going to another company. No company has zero turnover. And so in a sense, building a sabbatical policy into the normal workings of your company is building a muscle for how we determine what people are doing for their jobs, how we transition those jobs to other people, how we give other people growth opportunities for short periods of time, how we deal with turnover, and how we deal with personal growth.”
The team at The Sabbatical Project is now developing further research on the corporate side of sabbaticals.
Making sabbaticals a part of company culture
Brighton Jones, a financial advisory company on the west coast of the USA, gives all its employees a three-month paid sabbatical after ten years of service. As well as being a powerful vehicle for staff development, the policy has also helped to increase employee engagement.
“They celebrate it,” says DJ. “People are pumped up when their coworkers take a sabbatical, because it’s fun and it’s interesting. And people care about each other, especially when they know that they qualify for it as well.”
Paid sabbatical programmes like this can help break down the financial barriers that prevent many people from taking time off work. “A lot of people can’t afford to take a long vacation, let alone a sabbatical,” says DJ. “Where the resentment builds up is where you feel like it’s only something that privileged people can take.
“So celebrate it, make it a part of the culture, be proud of your coworkers being human beings, and help people of all socioeconomic levels to be able to take it by funding it.”