Summer is obviously a time when many of us take a break and enjoy some travel, time with family or friends, and, most of all, some time away from work and the everyday. For many of us in mid-career or with some years under our belt, it may also be a time we’re contemplating taking a longer break than a week or two. I’m a proponent of the sabbatical and wish our industry offered them like other public service jobs, but it’s possible to create the perfect “unofficial” sabbatical if you plan well. The three steps include the following: a) become clear on why you want to take a break; b) create an action plan to make it work for you and those impacted by this decision; c) remain connected, since I assume you will need to work again someday.
Determine Your Reasons (aka, Soul Searching)
Get clear on why you want the break. A sabbatical is not meant to be maternity leave or a Caribbean vacation or a way to get away from your boss, it’s meant to recharge you personally and professionally as you refocus your energy and attention away from your daily work to a project related to it and/or your passions. For example, you have always wanted to live in Cape Town and help disadvantaged women find new ways to earn money; you have always wanted to write a book; or, you’ve wanted to pursue an advanced degree or hobby and have not had the time.
Do not use this time to run away from a specific problem; taking a break from it may help in the short term, but it’ll be there again when you return. Specific issues and problems should be addressed directly; otherwise, you will spend your time obsessing over them.
If you need time off for other personal issues that are related to health or family, consider using the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. There are many stipulations to FMLA that can be found on the U.S. Department of Labor’s site. I’m not talking about FMLA-related breaks here. Taking care of a sick relative or a newborn is not going to reenergize you personally or professionally.
And, finally, you may think you need extended leave, when all you really need is a week with no BlackBerry and lots of rest to restore you. I do think we all need vacations – some longer than the week or two most Americans take – but taking a vacation to relax is not the goal of this leave.
Plan Your Leave
There are very important reasons why you may need an extended break from work that is not related to a health or family crisis or just misguided angst for a current work problem. The first thing you need to establish is if you’re one of the very few and fortunate whose company offers a sabbatical (some even offer a paid one). If you are, consider yourself lucky, but also realize that you’re then still on company time and your company may need to approve your leave. They’ll be looking for something that will bring them value in the long run. For example, you’re taking a course on a subject that you can then educate staff on; you’re traveling to a market where the information you learn can change your company’s operations; or, you’re writing a book that will affect your industry and, obviously, your company will receive credit. If your company doesn’t offer sabbaticals, you may still request it, but keep your expectations in check.
If you’re flying solo, then you’ll have total freedom in how you decide to use your time. In exchange for the freedom to choose, you will have to deal with the reality of no job, no paycheck, and some uncertainty about the future. Therefore, planning will be needed. Not only do you need to plan professionally the right time to do it (i.e., not in the middle of a global pitch that you’re the lead on), but also personally (i.e., not while you’re having your first baby).
Money, family, friends, and colleagues are all things that should be taken into account. Also, the timing of where you’re going needs to be considered. If you’re starting a course that is only offered in September, taking your sabbatical in February won’t make much sense. Make sure you have “all your ducks in a row,” as my mother likes to say.
While You’re Away
Since at some point you’ll most likely need to reenter the workforce, you should plan your return strategy before you have even left your current position. Networking will play a major role since it will provide a way to continue to stay on people’s radar. Since you’re most likely embarking on some adventure, I would invite your contacts to follow you while you’re gone. Create a blog, hashtag, or community where people can follow you on your adventure.
If you’re staying local, continue to network through events, courses, lunches, and conferences. You may even line up your next position while you’re in the midst of your sabbatical or you may change career courses completely. The most important thing is to remain open to the experience and to not let the pressure and stress of your next position outweigh the excitement of doing something you’ve probably been thinking about for a long time.
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