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Sabbatical Stories

Sabbaticals aren’t just for college professors anymore. Many workers are taking time off to pursue a creative project, build a skill, or simply expand their horizons.

woman on sabbatical

Adriana Barton is in the middle of a yearlong sabbatical from her job as a Vancouver-based reporter for Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. She and her husband, Scott Sinclair, and their 11-year-old son, have made a small French city, Aix-en-Provence, their home base. They hope to spend at least 12 weeks traveling elsewhere in the world, too.

“I was initially reluctant to get on board with the family ‘gap year’ plan because I did not want to jeopardize my job, which I love,” says Barton, 48. But her husband, founder and CEO of an energy-efficiency engineering company, eventually won her over. “He had traveled extensively for two years earlier in adulthood and felt very strongly that it would enrich our family life. He wanted to focus on spending concentrated time with me and our son while he was still young.”

The Globe and Mail rarely offers sabbaticals, so Barton proposed combining a book leave, which the company does offer, with a family gap year. She’s earning no salary and has elected to jettison her benefits package rather than pay for it out of pocket. So far, she has zero regrets about stepping away.

In 2017, 17 percent of American companies offered sabbaticals (12 percent unpaid; 5 percent paid). Unlike “jobbaticals” and other work-while-away trends, a sabbatical offers the opportunity to completely disconnect from a job in order to rest and explore or accomplish personal and career goals. Because it often involves travel, learning, and volunteering, it requires some planning.

“The most valuable sabbaticals are the ones in which you immerse yourself in something completely different,” says Clive Prout, a Seattle-based executive coach.

With today’s low unemployment rate, these getaways are an attractive addition to company benefit packages. People working at businesses that don’t offer sabbaticals sometimes quit their jobs, take some time away, and return to work for a new employer. When employees return from sabbaticals, they’re refreshed and energized — and often display a renewed commitment to their work.

Family Bonding + Road Trip

A store manager for outdoor retailer REI in Madison, Wis., Wendy Crabb, 51, recalls her excitement when she’d hear stories from coworkers returning from monthlong sabbaticals. “Almost every employee I had would come back saying, ‘I rode my bike across the country!’ or ‘I traveled across South America!’”

Those stories aren’t surprising at a company that encourages outdoor adventure and values work–life balance. REI offers all employees — part-time and full-time — four weeks of paid sabbatical in addition to their vacation time after 15 years with the company. After that, workers get a four-week sabbatical every five years.

Crabb’s initial sabbatical coincided with the birth of her first child, so she used it to extend her maternity leave. Her second sabbatical included a road trip with her husband and two young children.

The family spent the first week with the kids’ grandparents in Eugene, Ore., before embarking on an epic three-week road trip around the Great Lakes. They stayed in state, national, and provincial parks, visited with Crabb’s grandmother in Vermont, and connected with family friends at a cabin on Lake Huron. “The power of a sabbatical with your family is memories,” says Crabb. “We wanted our kids to know their family members, especially their grandparents.”

During her 22 years at REI, she says, her time away “gave other employees a chance to step up and for the team to grow.” Because the Madison store was in the middle of a remodel during Crabb’s second sabbatical, executives deployed managers from other stores to cover for her while she was away. “The company had a commitment to me, and I felt really, really good about committing to them.”

Crabb’s Sabbatical Advice: “If you can, include being outside or in nature as part of a sabbatical. Smelling pine needles, smelling dirt — those things have benefits you don’t even know you’re getting, but you are.”

Following a Passion + Exploring Heritage

During the eight years Sandy Lurins, 61, worked in the customer-experience department for Autodesk, a San Rafael, Calif., software company, she made the most of her sabbaticals.

“During the first sabbatical, I started a newspaper about dogs,” she recalls. The opportunity to create a publication that melded her passion for animals with her advocacy for animal shelters, rescue, and adoption was so meaningful that she didn’t take a day off. “It was so invigorating for me. It was about my dreams and my visions. I worked harder on my sabbatical than most people do at their full-time job!”

Downtime is essential for people working 50 to 60 hours a week in the demanding world of high tech. So Lurins appreciated that her employer offered a six-week paid sabbatical every four years that employees could combine with vacation time. “That sabbatical — that was the golden sun on the horizon,” she says. “It was time to unplug.”

When she earned her second sabbatical four years later, Lurins decided to travel. She spent a week in Kauai, Hawaii, with a friend before traveling to Europe with another companion. She visited her mother’s hometown in Latvia and worked on a family-heritage project. From there, she went to Stockholm and Amsterdam.

Lurins is glad she spent those six weeks doing what was most important to her. “It feels like the older I get, the more I appreciate time.”

Lurins’s Sabbatical Advice: “Make it about your dreams and what you want. Give yourself the gift of time, and do something that will rejuvenate and inspire you.”

A Solo Pilgrimage + Time With Teenagers

Jennifer Schuster Jaeger, 52, has a demanding job as deputy director of administration in a county corrections office in Minnesota. When her kids were about to become teenagers — and her role as a parent was about to change — she knew she needed time to establish even stronger relationships with them.

“The idea of a sabbatical appeared full blown in the course of an hourlong conversation with my spiritual director,” says Schuster Jaeger. “It was obvious that’s what I needed to do.”

So she began negotiating with her employer — in a field not known for offering sabbaticals — and made her desires clear. “If I didn’t get the sabbatical, I was going to quit,” she recalls. The result: nine months off, unpaid.

Schuster Jaeger traveled to Spain and spent four weeks walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. She was on her own for the first three weeks, appreciating the rare period of solitude, before a friend joined her for the final week. Her husband watched the kids while she was away. “I was free to be present,” she says.

During her children’s summer break, they enjoyed a bike trip and some time in Holland, where they explored their family history.

“I thought I would be bored,” Schuster Jaeger says. “But it was a lot easier to get used to than I’d thought it would be. Maybe because

I started by slowing down so much on my walk.”

And she loved the time she spent with her children, now teenagers. “I feel like I strengthened and established my relationship with my kids. They know me and I know them.”

Schuster Jaeger’s Sabbatical Advice: “Think about what’s possible. Don’t assume you can’t do something.”

A Couple’s Yearlong Sabbatical

At 27, Walter Guillioli thought he’d found his dream job: a marketing position at Microsoft. But he eventually felt bored and unchallenged. “I had achieved what I wanted, but I didn’t feel fulfilled,” says Guillioli, now 40.

Based in Redmond, Wash., he and his wife, Alejandra Lucero, 39, a consultant in social-media analytics, decided they wanted to take a sabbatical. Guillioli knew he would need at least six months to a year to do it well. Microsoft offers leave of absences for employees, but Guillioli wanted more time than only two to three months. So he quit his job, as did Lucero. For both, this move seemed enormously risky.

“We come from very conservative families,” says Lucero. “My mom worked at the same company for 45 years; my aunt for 50 years. Just to think of quitting and not working for a year was crazy. But Walter and I wanted to do something different with our lives. We wanted to take a break and see what other things life had that we could enjoy.”

They spent the first several months taking short trips. They particularly enjoyed exploring the Canadian Rockies with their dogs in a rented motor home.

About halfway through the year, concerned that he hadn’t done much more than rest, Guillioli contacted executive coach Clive Prout for sabbatical coaching. During their work together, he started meditating and identifying his values. He also took a hard look at his career, discovered his “geeky side,” and began studying coding, data analysis, and statistics. “I realized I was in the wrong discipline,” he recalls.

Despite concerns that his former employer would view him as irresponsible for having taken a year off work, Guillioli eventually returned to Microsoft in marketing and now works as a data scientist. Lucero was able to reclaim her old job.

Looking back, both Lucero and Guillioli — who are now raising a 2-year-old son — say their year off was life-changing.

“Society tells us every time that we need to acquire material stuff to be successful and happy,” says Lucero. “Once you get away from all that and start enjoying small, simple moments, you realize you don’t need all that stuff. As long as you have the members of your family you love and you spend time doing the things you like doing, you don’t need more.”

What was most life-changing for Guillioli, a Guatemala native, was the month he spent volunteering at an animal shelter in his home country. “I was picking up poop from homeless dogs, and I never felt I had done something as useful,” he says. That experience inspired him to start a nonprofit, People Saving Animals, that raises money through social media for animal shelters in Central America.

“I’m most proud of having the courage to do a sabbatical,” Guillioli says. “It gave me more confidence. Honestly, it’s one of the best things I have done with my life.”

Guillioli’s Sabbatical Advice: “As long as you have the financial means, don’t be afraid and go do it. If anything, you’re going to come back a more mature person.”

Lucero’s Sabbatical Advice: “Think about all the activities you are interested in and make a list. Open your mind for new adventures, for meeting people, for experiencing life to the fullest.”

This originally appeared as “Absent With Leave” in the March 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

is a Minneapolis-based leadership coach and writer.

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