Change FMLA How to Psychology Rest Sabbatical

The Value of a Sabbatical

White Toyota 4Runner in open space near red rock canyon walls. iKamper roof top tent open and ladder from tent to the ground.
My rig, affectionately named Hot/Haute Sake, became my home for Part I of my sabbatical. Learn more about what sabbaticals are all about and how to plan for one. Photo: Red Rocks Canyon campgrounds, Las Vegas Nevada, Oct. 2021.

When I first thought about taking a sabbatical in order to reflect on my 30+ years in the healthcare field, it made professional sense. It made logical sense. Everything lined up on paper. It just didn’t line up with life.

The purpose of a sabbatical is to take time away from the world of work to reflect on your accomplishments, engage in personal development and enrichment, and consider professional development in your career.

For those in the corporate world, a sabbatical has sometimes overlapped with the need to take FMLA, a form of paid leave after a tenure specified by the company. Employees use FMLA for a variety of reasons, yet often the circumstances are more urgent: physical illness, disability due to injury, recovery from a surgical procedure, or care for an ageing family member.

I have lost count of the number of applications I have helped clients submit over the years. And with each one, I wondered if and when I would someday undertake my own version of unpaid leave from all work.

When I hit that 30th year in 2020, our world plunged into a global pandemic. All thoughts of taking that well-deserved and thought-provoking sabbatical disappeared behind a mask, face shield, blue plastic gown, and nitrile gloves. I worked until I was exhausted and asked by my own doctor to take a brief break. I did, and then jumped right back into the work, working in 2021 and hoping that things would improve.

Twenty months later, I started reconsidering whether a one-month sabbatical would work. And I am not alone. Perhaps you are considering something similar.

What is a Sabbatical?
As mentioned above, a sabbatical is an extended break from school, religious duties, work, and everyday routines. Its roots are found in religious literature of the ancient Hebrew people, such as Leviticus 25, which describes a break of one year after six years of regular harvest for the land to rest, with an implication that the people were not to press themselves or the land to produce more food for the purpose of selling for profit. The harvest of the seventh year was meant to be given to those in service to it. Loose translation: land and people should take a rest every seventh year, and the laborers were to enjoy the efforts of their labor without the pressure of production.

Today, sabbaticals are more typically between two to six months in duration. Extended sabbaticals tend to be paid for the first portion and unpaid for the remainder of time; however, there are some types of extended sabbaticals that are paid because of professional development that is involved. An example of this is a company that provides paid sabbatical to allow employees to volunteer for an environmental non-profit, or for a professional to pursue an academic credential.

For the most part, sabbaticals are not simply vacations, although there may be vacation time built into it. The main idea is a change from everyday work routine that frees one up to pursue other elements of life and work that would otherwise not be possible.

Who takes sabbaticals?

There are many people who take sabbaticals from their work, and many reasons to do so:

  1. A death or imminent death in the family with a need to manage an estate of the deceased or care of a remaining family member
  2. Injury, illness, or adjustment to disability of self or a family member
  3. Work burnout, after all other means to address the burnout has failed
  4. Academic pursuit
  5. Refreshing one’s career
  6. Volunteer work

How to Take Time Off for a Sabbatical

First of all, sabbaticals take planning. As a friend once advised me, take a look at Simon Sinek’s TedX video, “Start with Why” The video can help you tap into the inspiration for you to dedicate some perspiration to planning and preparing for a sabbatical, including saving some extra money if your sabbatical involves some unpaid time off, an entire overhaul of your work life, or further education.

Part of the planning may involve contacting your HR department to go over the policies and application process for time off. Some companies have sabbatical leave baked into their hiring contracts; others have a requirement of seven years of work before you qualify for sabbatical or FMLA under certain circumstances. You’ll want to find out if your job is protected while you are away, and how your role will be covered so you don’t get pulled back in if there is a challenge or crisis during your leave of absence.

If your sabbatical requires international travel, you will want to contact the countries you’ll be traveling to, and these days, that also includes understanding the requirements of the host country regarding COVID-19 protocols when arriving and leaving the country, as well as the risks to yourself and any household members traveling with you. I suggest you conduct a risk assessment regarding travel, and how much risk you can bear.

For example, if you travelled to a country that later went into a restrictive lockdown to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks, or if you have co-morbidities that put you at risk for severe illness and the country you wish to travel faces a challenge in their hospitals to provide care and beds, you may need time to plan a more extensive care strategy.

If you are working with a tighter budget and longer period of time off, you may need to look at your expenses and cancel or pause subscription-based expenses, monthly charges such as cable and Internet if you go abroad, and consider holding off on luxury purchases. Instead, you might want to schedule those doctor and dentist visits, make sure you are up-to-date with medical prescriptions and immunizations, and think ahead through the needs of your children and pets to anticipate expenses.

See You in January 2022

As my planned sabbatical Part 2 is about to start (Part 1 was in October to early November), I’m looking forward to the remaining month of a two-month sabbatical. I’m expecting to have good news to share with the counseling community when I return.


Getting Ready to Return to Work

You may be asking yourself right along with your boss if you are ready to return to work. After a long year of WFH (Work From Home) for many people around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some places are readying for that call or email regarding an anticipated date of return to the workplace.

Are you ready?

What should you be considering?

Connect And Be Humans First

If you haven’t been in the same room with others from your workplace for more than a year, it’s going to take some getting used to being together again. And if you are starting a new job or new position, you’ll need to take time just getting used to being around other people who have a history and a culture that isn’t familiar to you.

You might not know who has had a death in the family due to COVID-19. You might not know who isn’t able to get a family member vaccinated because of their immunocompromised state. You won’t know until it’s shared who has lost the sense of taste and smell and cringes at the sight of fresh donuts or coffee because right now they taste like sand. You need time to talk and be humans first before jumping into working together, and yet I can anticipate that some places of work may try to circumnavigate these realities and ask people to get back to the rhythm of work quickly.

Why is it important to give yourself some time and intentional space to connect with people you are working with in the same physical space?

It can’t be iterated too many times that the world has been going through one of the most epic and catastrophic health crisis in a hundred years. With crisis comes grief, trauma, and recovery, all of which do not follow specific timelines for all people. Additionally, the U.S. has been shaken by political and social conflicts. What one person can say with lightness and joking can be another person’s nightmare.

Gathering together may help you make an assessment of where you and others are “at”. A fellow colleague might have close friends and relatives in an area of the world that is struggling with high COVID-19 transmission rates and a fragile or overwhelmed healthcare response. It’s your opportunity to share with others if you’ve been under stress because of the additional duties of managing your children’s ZOOM school time or an elder’s additional care needs that changed because of local guidelines on assisted living and group home care.

Grooming and Hygiene Needs a Once-Over Check

Stores that catered to people seeking fragrances, cosmetics, and haircare protects saw a drop in sales in 2020. When hair salons were forced to close during lockdown or go to very low capacity, many people pivoted the best they could.

As we return to places of work, it’s time for a grooming and hygiene “once over.” Teeth brushed? Breath checked? Shirt ironed (or, at least unrumpled)? Shoes free of dirt (wait, we can’t wear slippers to work, right?)? No scented products on? Hair dried and brushed?

Are you in need of replacing or repairing an item of clothing that shows wear or dirt? Do you know the policies at your workplace regarding designs that might be off-putting or inappropriate? Will there be places you cannot socially distance that will require mask-wearing, and are those masks in good condition?

Depending on where you live, hair salons and barbershops may not be able to accommodate same-day appointments, due to capacity limitations and staff availability. Anticipate delays and book appointments in advance of your anticipated day of return to the workplace.

Oh Yeah, I Forgot About That Commute Time!

After a year plus of WFH, many of us have adjusted to the flexibility of tucking in work responsibilities we could do remotely simultaneously with running errands or having others around us.

I was surprised by a businessman who continued to keep his cell phone pressed to his ear when he walked up to my station for a COVID-19 vaccination. He was asked to put his call on mute and put the phone down because he had entered a medical environment with privacy concerns. We also needed his full and undivided attention for just a few minutes.

Similarly, your commute time to work and your adjustment to being “all there” at your place of work will need to be factored into your adjustment period. In Washington State, distracted driving comes tickets and the possibility of being charged if you cause an accident.

Additionally, online counseling sessions with SDC follow current telehealth laws and ethics of conduct that support safe practice and patient safety. We do not encourage counseling sessions to be conducted in a moving car while clients are driving, in any public location while running business or running errands, or in any public location where the client cannot identify their location in case of emergency. The exception to this is for crisis calls of 15 minutes or less whereby a licensed professional can prove that it was in the patient’s best interest to take that call and support the patient’s immediate need and set up an appropriate follow up session.

Your work commute time, while on public transit or in a private vehicle, will need to be factored back into your overall daily and weekly routines again. For many of you, this might be a breath of fresh air. For others, everything from car repairs after your vehicle has sat unused to adjustments of parking one’s car and walking into the door of the workplace will need to be considered. For example, two flights of stone steps might not sound bad, but they could feel worse than normal after 10,000 steps during the workday on a hard surface.

Productivity Expectations

Expectations on your level of productivity when returning to the workplace, whether in hybrid mode or all in-person, will need to be discussed. For some, bosses expected their employees to be available at a moment’s notice and for more hours because there was no commute involved. At the same time, you may need to request an honest talk about productivity in a return to work because the previous expectation was unsustainable.

The demands of your home life may not have changed; that is, there are still adjustments to be made when your spouse or partner has not transitioned back to the workplace and there are still needs to be met for children who will be home from ZOOM school for the summer (and likely into the Fall 2021 school year). All of these factors affect your ability to pivot and transition back to the workplace.

Physical and Mental Health Concerns

When I heard from my dentist how many of his patients had fallen behind on their dental hygiene, I did not judge. We were doing the best that we could, and offices had to decrease their patient load to accommodate local COVID-19 restrictions and lock downs.

Now that many of our healthcare and mental health care services are available (masks, PCR tests prior to more involved treatments, remote access when useful), you may need to take a careful look at what needs a tuneup.

Besides looking at your blood serum lab results, are you having any symptoms that your HCP should know about? Are you having trouble with sleep, depression or anxiety, or issues that you think might be related to being COVID-19 positive, even if was a year ago?

Adjustments to Constant Disruption

It’s fair to say that we have all experienced disruption to our lives. Even if you were in a remote area of the world, you might have noticed that supply chains were disrupted and deliveries delayed. Mail and shipping slowed. One moment you were told masks weren’t necessary; another moment, you were scrambling to learn how to sew one yourself or get the right type of mask made by a reputable source.

Similarly, there will be present and future disruptions and changes to deal with. Your employer may insert the right to deliver a verbal attestation of your current health status related to COVID-19 symptoms, or to ask if you would like to put an app on your phone that does the same thing. You would then be required to share your answers on the app before entering your building’s workplace.

Because of breakthrough cases (1-5%) of vaccinated people getting COVID-19 because of high transmission rates in outbreak areas, you may still be wearing a mask and socially distancing. It may feel like a disruption because when you have been at home, you haven’t had to wear a mask. While healthcare workers are used to this dichotomy of worlds, many workers in the general population are not accustomed to it.

Additionally, there are many strong feelings about these behaviors and choices. Talking about them and explaining your choices can be exhausting. When I would wear a mask outdoors just for dust and pollen season, I was often scolded by uneducated people. I’ll leave this here for your own contemplation: wearing a mask as a protective device hurts no one else, and you may be protecting someone who is vulnerable.

Permanent Work From Home

Some employers made the decision to allow some or all of their workers remain on work from home. They shuttered their expensive office spaces when productivity remained high and their workers transitioned to online video conferencing services such as Microsoft Teams and ZOOM meetings.

Others were furloughed, laid off, and rehired into jobs that would remain remote. They never got a chance to say good-bye to their co-workers; instead, they picked up their things quietly and in isolation.

If you never took the time to grieve and mark the dramatic changes as you tried your best to pivot to the next step, maybe it’s time create a way to mark that point. If you got hired to a new job, mark the anniversary of the new position and celebrate it. It could be something as simple as ringing a bell each time a colleague celebrates a work anniversary, or more involved such as a small gift box of things to help celebrate the occasion.

Do you have any other thoughts about returning to work post-pandemic? Please send them in a comment.


Could Group Therapy Help During the Pandemic?

Post written by B. Imei Hsu, RN-LMHC

Starting in 2020, I reverted to a protocol that I had not needed to enact in several years.

I began a waiting list. And I was not happy with that. Let me explain.

This is not a practice I have ever wanted for my community. From an ethical point of view, a waiting list can give a false sense of security to both the client and the therapist if there isn’t a set of guidelines and reasonable timelines that are communicated when a client makes requests for reasonable availability as well as suitability of a therapeutic alliance.

As people look for available therapists, they are running into the same challenge: most therapists in the Greater Seattle area are reporting that their schedules are full.

Don’t Give Up! It can be discouraging when you finally call to make an appointment, only to find out the counselor you so carefully chose has a really long waitlist or isn’t taking new clients. You might feel like it’s a sign you’ll never get the help you need, but that isn’t true.

From Open Counseling What to do when there’s a waiting list

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of mental health therapy, and the waiting list has become an aspect of delivering mental health services. Many therapists made the transition from in-office counseling sessions to online sessions, and with a block of time that was once dedicated to commuting and maintaining a professional office, those extra hours were often transferred to client hours in order to help meet the demand for mental health services. Yet even with more counselors offering online counseling than ever before, you may still find that there is limited availability.

While it is left up to the discretion of the practitioner to determine how many client hours should be opened in their work week, my own professional ethics that help determine patient flow revolve around the following:

  • health of the provider and the provider’s ability to enact self care
  • the totality of the severity of issues of the typical weekly flow of clients
  • the amount of time needed to keep up with administrative tasks associated with the counseling practice
  • wiggle room for urgent issues and rescheduling

While it is it true that most therapists do not want to turn away clients when they are in need, therapists must triage clients seeking therapy and help refer them elsewhere when it is determined that the client is in considerable distress or crisis and needs more immediate attention.

Still, therapists only have so many hours a week that they can safely provide care to their counseling community. Overcrowding their schedule can cause client needs to go unaddressed; it can also cause burnout in the therapist.

And while individual counseling provides flexibility for clients to change days and times of time to suit their needs, it does not always help the provider to meet the overall needs of the counseling community.

During the past month, I’ve been leaning towards offering group therapy as a possible solution to the high demand for counseling in a time where most therapists, including myself, are at the top of their capacity with no end in sight. I find this ironic, because in the past, most clients declined group therapy because they viewed therapy as “me time” in which that time was seen as the hour in which each person could focus on healing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we see healing – not just as an individual process that occurs during “me time”, but as a process that happens within the context of relationships. After a year of isolation and distance, Group Therapy delivered via HIPAA compliant video conferencing may help to change the face of mental health services.

What has happened to us as a community because of COVID-19? Here’s just a few thoughts:

  • We have covered our faces – and part of our identities — in order to reduce the risk of illness and slow the spread of the virus.
  • We have physically distanced ourselves from one another, again for the same reason. This has caused widespread isolation and loneliness for adults and children.
  • Some have become mistrusting of one another in the absence of repeated socialization that happens in places of work, school, and activities outside the home such as shopping, playing in team sports, and even gabbing with others in the neighborhood
  • We have taken to more forms of one-way communication, especially after hours of sitting in front of screens for Zoom calls. Texts and other asynchronous forms of communication have taken over many of the interactions that require listening, patience, processing time, and the reading of body language to connect with and affirm one another.
Could Group Therapy Help During the Pandemic?

When I was first introduced to the concepts of Group Therapy, I saw it as the kind of therapy one did in the hospital during a very long stay due to recovery time, or a type of therapy created around a topic that was very specific and intense, such as Eating Disorder group therapy for a specific age group, such as teens to young adults.

While there isn’t a problem with this view, this perspective, in my own reflection, is limited. The reality of Group Therapy is that it is style of therapy that is appropriate for most people and most issues except for more severe forms of mental health issues. With a skilled group leader, a defined theme or content that helps clients select the group, and a clearly communicated beginning, middle, and end, a group context often allows individuals to progress through the phases of therapy faster than they might with individual therapy.

An additional bonus is that for the cost of the average group therapy session (around $45-50 a session), it is more affordable as well. Yet the intriguing part for us all is that a group may help therapists see more clients who need attention NOW versus having to wait weeks if not months for an available counselor. The counselor opens 1.5-2hours per week for 12 to 16 weeks, yet that time serves 12-15 clients who make the commitment to attend group therapy sessions until the group ends.

Finally, Group Therapy is often conducted with a co-therapist. This means that for the price of a group therapy session, each client has the eyes of two licensed mental health clinicians on them. I consider that “more bang for your buck”.

I enjoyed being a Group Therapy provider in the past, and I believe I would enjoy it again in 2021. The bigger question I have is this: will today’s client choose Group Therapy to meet their needs? If today’s client spends a couple of weeks trying to find an available therapist with whom they find some affinity, only to be told there is a waiting list that may be three weeks to one and a half months before an opening may be available, will Group Therapy be something people try if the group description is a good match?

These are questions I’m trying to answer before April 2021. If the answers start coming back in the affirmative, I’ll be advertising for group therapy clients soon. The hope is to alleviate the burden for people who have been searching for a therapist for a long time. And it would be my pleasure to invite a co-therapist who balances my therapeutic style with fresh thinking and other lenses in life experience.

Do you have comments about Group Therapy you would like to share? Feel free to reach out in the comments (and indicate if you would like keep your comment anonymous, as that is the default for me when I edit comments before republishing).