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  • Sue MT

The Anatomy of a Sabbatical

Do you have the opportunity to take an extended break from work, a chance to recharge and refocus over several weeks or months? Some health care systems do offer time for members of the medical staff to take a sabbatical every few years. Perhaps you simply need a break and can request time for such an opportunity. Either way, consider exploring a time of respite and use the tips below to guide your planning.

A sabbatical is a special respite from work that is meant to provide relief from routine work duties. It is an opportunity for personal and professional development. Yet, often the goal of a sabbatical gets lost in poor planning. Reasons to take a sabbatical include using it as time for personal growth, to reconnect with family and loved ones, for extended vacation, to complete a project or learn a new skill. Some individuals choose work in a different setting during sabbatical to explore other interests. No matter what you choose, you do yourself a disservice if you enter respite already burned out.

Studies have shown that taking a sabbatical diminishes negative well-being (i.e. it reduces feelings of burn-out) and increases feeling of positive well-being. The impact a sabbatical has on well-being is not uniform and varies with the personal resource reserves an individual utilizes when under general daily stress. Those who enter into respite with limited reserves, an empty tank per se, are less capable of resource gain, and some may only be able to maintain their reserves during sabbatical. In addition, such individuals may be poorly equipped to increase their reserves as they prepare to transition back to work.1 In short, starting a sabbatical with feelings of burnout and overwhelming stress make it difficult to recharge and feel refreshed. Furthermore, the length of time one reaps the refreshing benefits of a sabbatical is variable. Many return to their pre-sabbatical levels of stress within a few months.

Individuals with high self-efficacy, and perceived control seem to fare better with a longer respite break and with the transition back to work. High self-efficacy is an individual’s ability to exhibit coping behavior and sustain this effort long enough to overcome obstacles.2 Perceived control is the extent to which an individual believes they can influence their environment to reach a desired outcome. Both of these behaviors come into play when planning and executing a sabbatical, in part, because a sabbatical typically involves a change in routine and environment, including a change in interactions with friends and family. Similarly, these behaviors of self-efficacy and perceived control are active when an individual returns from sabbatical. Sabbatical offers a time to replenish reserves and improve well-being; however, it is important to be aware that there can be loss of perceived positive well-being upon return from such a break. Preparation for re-entry into the work environment is important.

By knowing the benefits and challenges of taking a sabbatical, it becomes important to decide why you want a sabbatical and how it will benefit you. Along with this self-reflection, it is important to understand a sabbatical is not just a prolonged vacation. As well, it is helpful to maintain a realistic view of what your return to work will look like. Understanding your level of self-efficacy, perceived control, and ability to make value-honoring decisions is key in planning your sabbatical strategy. In addition, developing an intention statement and setting goals around what you wish to accomplish during your break will provide necessary structure to engaging in your time off. Even if all that you set out to do is not accomplished, there is learning and personal growth in such attempts.

Plan your start and end time. What may be a lengthy sabbatical for some, may not be long enough for others. How much recharge you experience from a respite varies among individuals. The period of planning for your sabbatical is also a time of personal growth, as you explore what you want to do and how long it will take you to do it. Decide on the length of time you need for your sabbatical after you have chosen your intention and set your goals. Perhaps two shorter sabbatical breaks over a 2-3 year period with allow opportunity for greater personal exploration, creativity and recharging than a longer period of time away. An employer who respects an individual’s right to explore their preference in this regard is honoring their employee’s unique abilities and gifts.

Bring in an accountability partner to make certain you follow through with what you have planned for your respite.3 Ideally, this should not be your spouse or partner. Those closest to you deserve to have you at your best and should not have to monitor your progress toward accomplishing your goals. An excellent accountability partner is like a coach. They listen well, ask though-provoking questions, have no agenda other than your agenda in mind, and will offer constructive feedback even when you might not like what they have to say.

At the end of a sabbatical it is common to have feelings of loss, frustration and dismay at not achieving all you wanted to do. There can be dread about returning to overwhelming piles of work. Returning from respite part-time, for a week or so, may be more tolerable. No doubt, your team members will want your attention and help once you return. Setting boundaries for how you will be reentering the work environment protects you from overwhelm and protects the team from disappointment. Also, be mindful of your emotions when you returns. Feeling of frustration, anxiety, worry and anger can enter into your day. Take frequent breaks to recapture the bliss of the respite you just had may help with the difficulties of this transition.

Simply being aware of these potential difficulties can go a long way to allaying them.

In summary, sabbatical time offers an opportunity for personal growth, creativity and reconnection with loved ones. It is a way to recharge and reenergize around your work life. It is not without its unique challenges. Feelings of loss, rather than gain, can follow the return to work. Be mindful about why you want a sabbatical, what you will do with your time and how you will accomplish those goals. Once you have thought through these logistics, determining the length of time away will be much easier. Lastly, have a reliable accountability partner who will challenge you to accomplish what you set out to do. Give yourself grace as you plan and execute the respite and for when you return to work. Set boundaries with your team to make reentry tolerable and prepare to maneuver through the possibility of feeling overwhelmed upon return. Simply being prepared and mindful of these challenges can help you avoid them. Best wishes for a successful, incredibly creative time of renewal!

For more information on how to develop an intention statement and set goals around planning a sabbatical email me at


1. Davidson OB1, Eden D, Westman M, Cohen-Charash Y, Hammer LB, Kluger AN, Krausz M, Maslach C, O'Driscoll M, Perrewé PL, Quick JC, Rosenblatt Z, Spector PE. Sabbatical leave: who gains and how much? J Appl Psychol. 2010 Sep;95(5):953-64. doi: 10.1037/a0020068.

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