My company paid me to take 2 months off. The sabbatical didn't just prevent me from burning out — it was also a huge career boost for my coworkers.
Why paid sabbaticals are good for business
For eight weeks this summer I did no work. I was still employed, but I did not respond to an email, hop in a meeting, or chat with a client on the phone. For two months, I simply spent time with my family and recharged my batteries. And through it all, I didn't get fired, there was no formal reprimand, and I got paid the entire time. In fact, it was my employer's idea.
I work for Stoltz, an independent, woman-owned and women-led marketing agency in Boise, Idaho. The company recently instituted a new policy in which employees who've worked at the firm for 10 years get a $1,000 bonus and — as I experienced — an eight-week paid sabbatical. So when I recently crossed that 10-year threshold, I became the first team member to pack my bags and log off for two months.
Sabbaticals aren't just for academics — they're also for people like me who have committed their careers to the same employer and earned an extended break. As the policy at my company says, "When you stick with us, we stick by you." But these extended breaks are also more than just a pat on the back. Amid the call for improved work-life balance (or work-life harmony, as I like to say) that began with the start of the COVID pandemic and continued through the Great Resignation, employers are scrambling to keep their employees satisfied. Sabbaticals provide a proactive hedge against employee burnout, an antidote for attrition, and a protection from career wanderlust. Some employers argue that offering paid time off won't help keep employees around, but my sabbatical made me more passionate about my work — and my workplace — than ever.
8 weeks off didn't make me want to leave my job
Heading into my sabbatical, I was worried I wouldn't let myself truly take time off — my perfectionist tendencies can easily turn me into a workaholic. But three days in, my laptop was closed — and it stayed closed. And while I had grand plans to tackle my never-ending to-do list, that wasn't what kept me from worrying about what was going on at the office. I didn't clean out my pantry or start that book that's still on my bedside table like I'd planned; instead, I simply prioritized being present and making memories with my husband and kids. Movie marathons, a trip to Disneyland, homemade pizzas (thanks to the pizza oven I purchased with the bonus from my company), elaborate chalk murals on our driveway — I did nothing I had planned to do, but everything I needed to do. And that ended up being a more effective and memorable sabbatical approach than I could have imagined.
Before my sabbatical, I often found myself grabbing my phone to check in on work during what was supposed to be family time. I love my job and want to be sure my team and clients get the best of me. But in reality, none of my roles — a marketer, teammate, mom, wife — were getting my best. Having the dedicated sabbatical time to completely focus on my family taught me the value of staying wholeheartedly in the moment. Now, when I'm at work, I'm fully at work. When I'm at home with family, I leave my phone on the counter. We cook, do homework, cuddle on the couch — whatever is needed in that moment. After recently taking a week off work for the holidays, I had a much easier time disconnecting than I had before my sabbatical, because I now understand the value in being truly present.
I think there's a healthy fear of how taking an extended leave might impact your career, but there shouldn't have to be. I can't say I didn't have my doubts. Working for a creative agency often means projects move quickly — once you finish one task, you're on to the next. I was worried that it would be hard to jump back in after being gone for so long. But I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I fell back into place when I returned to work. Nothing had drastically changed. Sure, a lot of great work had been produced while I was out, but there weren't any huge surprises or shake-ups.
And there certainly was a lot of work done by my company to make sure that I was able to seamlessly step away and return. We've worked to streamline our processes and operations over the past two years, making it easier for me to be away. And my coworkers were fully prepared for my time off. In fact, it gave my coworkers an opportunity to grow — the creative leads who took over my workload stepped up to the plate while I was out, and when I returned, they were more confident and kept taking the lead for more clients. My sabbatical wasn't treated as a favor, but rather as an investment in my well-being. And not only was my job still there when I returned, but I was promoted to creative director about a month later.
Sabbaticals are good for business
My sabbatical wasn't an anomaly — research shows that sabbaticals help employees fight burnout and improve their well-being. As the organizational psychologist and author David Burkus noted in an article for the Harvard Business Review, "those who took sabbaticals experienced a decline in stress and an increase in psychological resources and overall well-being." He also wrote that "those positive changes often remained long after the sabbatical takers returned to work." The intangible effects of my sabbatical, both the investment Stoltz made in me as a human and the confidence and trust they have in me, have had a tremendous impact on me post-sabbatical. I feel inspired, motivated, humbled, and truly seen and heard. It makes showing up and working hard very easy.
Experts agree that sabbaticals benefit the broader team as well. Burkus' study found that "the interim leaders (those who filled in for them during their leave) were more effective and responsible when the sabbatical takers returned."
Before beginning my sabbatical, I was leading multiple creative projects for high-value accounts. While our team is nimble and adaptable, it was important to leadership that my sabbatical leave was as seamless as possible for both our clients and our team. Colleagues who were already familiar with my projects and clients were assigned to each account, and we brought on a contractor to supplement where necessary. We decided on my sabbatical dates six months beforehand to make sure we had a solid plan in place. After casually giving clients a heads-up about my upcoming plans, our CEO sent out an email to make a more formal announcement, which was met with support and excitement. When I returned, I was quickly brought up to speed by team members, and while it took me a few days to reacclimate, I soon jumped back in like I had never left.
While there are certainly logistical challenges to implementing a paid sabbatical program — from ensuring the shifting of work is equitable to communicating the absence to clients — it can also provide major benefits for companies. Sabbaticals help companies retain workers, which is essential in a turbulent job market. A study by McKinsey about "The Great Attrition" found that the top drivers for retention were meaningfulness of work, flexibility, and total compensation. In addition to those factors, the study also found that 34% of people surveyed said that uncaring and uninspiring leaders were their deciding factor in leaving their job. Policies like our sabbatical show that my executive team cares about me.
And yet sabbaticals remain uncommon, especially outside of the academic field. As of 2019, the last time the Society for Human Resource Management polled its members on this issue, only 11% of employers offered an unpaid sabbatical program and 5% offered sabbaticals with pay.
A crisis for women in the workplace
The problems that sabbaticals can solve are especially prevalent for women. In the past few years, women have demonstrated they need more fulfilling and rewarding work experiences — both in the financial and interpersonal sense — by leaving their jobs in record numbers. The Women in the Workplace report by the nonprofit Lean In found that in 2022, women leaders left their companies at the highest rate in years — and the gap between women and men leaving was the largest it's been since the group started tracking data in 2015. And while 43% of women leaders said they feel burned out, only 31% of men leaders reported feeling burned out.
Especially in my field, where only 12% to 16% of creative directors in design, concept, and film are women, retention is essential. Our executive leadership team is all women, and our managing executive team is 88% women. And while I've certainly had male bosses and mentors in my career whom I admire, I've found that working for a women-led company makes for a heart-forward, genuinely empathetic work environment.
After leaving for a brief stint at another Boise-based agency in 2015, I decided to rejoin Stoltz. Despite spending two years at the other company, Stoltz still honored my full 10-year tenure. Policies and leadership like that make it no surprise that more than half of Americans want to work for women-led companies, a Harris Poll study found. Compassionate policies also help keep women around and in leadership roles.
At the end of the summer, I returned to a team that still supports, encourages, and inspires me. I mean it when I say that I missed them. And since we spend one-third of our lives at work (or about 90,000 hours) with our colleagues, it's imperative that companies take care of the whole human.
As we gear up for a new year with new business strategies, more companies should strongly consider what a sabbatical program could look like in their organization. It may just be the difference between attrition and retention — a workplace that burns you out or fills your cup.
Crissie Hoskins is a creative director at marketing agency Stoltz Group.
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