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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.

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 29+ years in healthcare (20+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She is launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018), and is currently training for her third Ironman in August 2020; she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for two separate 100 Mile trail races in 2020. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, and cooking real food.

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