Should You Take a Sabbatical?

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

A sabba- what?

The word sabbatical comes from the Greek word sabatikos, which means “of the Sabbath,” i.e. the day of rest. Harvard defines it as a period of time one takes off work to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.’


So, it’s like a vacation?

Not exactly. Sabbaticals(lasting at least a few weeks to about a year) are usually longer than a vacation. And unlike vacations, they tend to be more purpose driven. It could be to pick up a new project, write that book you’ve been putting off for sometime, pursue an entrepreneurial venture, invest time in developing a side hustle, learn a new skill/hobby or anything else that helps you grow personally or professionally.


Originally only meant for professors, people across industries have started taking sabbaticals from work. Some cases in point -


  • Mark Beinoff, founder of the $140 bn Salesforce, came up with the idea when on a 3-month sabbatical from his job in Oracle

  • Inga Beale, the first female CEO of the 300+ year old Lloyd Electric, took off the better part of a year to backpack across Asia and cycle around Australia before joining Lloyd


It’s not just our global peers - more and more Indian millennials are also opting for sabbaticals. Anuradha Bernadette Tekkethil, lecturer, (sociology) at St. Joseph's College, Bengaluru attributes this trend to a change in mindsets and increased global exposure.


“There’s a thirst to do more. A change in terms of how you measure what life is worth. Society has evolved: today it is more accepting of people who have done something unusual from their regular career path. Someone, who gave up his or her secure and highly-paid job to be a chef is exciting and bold to everyone.”, she says.

India inc is also joining the bandwagon with a few organizations, although few and far between, that have started having a sabbatical policy in place.


But why take a sabbatical?

Many studies have pointed out the long-term psychological benefits of taking a sabbatical. It can help you reduce burnout, arrive at new ideas and gain valuable life experiences. There is evidence to suggest that new experiences increase brain activity and create new connections between synapses. This makes our brain better at adapting to change, solving difficult problems and ability to remain calm in difficult situations.


Does it mean that everyone should take a sabbatical?

Not really. I’ve known people who have had absolutely fantastic sabbaticals and I’ve known those who came back terribly frustrated.

After many of these conversations, I noticed a simple pattern. Some of the things I have heard from those who regretted their sabbaticals were -


“I took two months off work. I thought I’ll figure out what to do with my time after I leave. But I ended up doing nothing. I wish I hadn’t wasted all that time.”


“I packed my bags, bid goodbye to my copywriting job, vacated my house in Bangalore and shifted for 4 months to Goa. Over there I rented a terrace room in a quiet, peaceful locality of Madgaon. I wanted to use this time to write a blog around food and travel. Maybe also a short novel. But after only a couple of days there, I was bored. It was too quiet. I missed the hustle and bustle of Bangalore. The partying. I didn’t have any friends around. I somehow got through a month and then came back.”


“It’s only after you stop getting your salary that you realize how expensive everything is. I had to cut down on eating out, shopping online and booking flight tickets for trips. I knew I’ll have to cut down on my expenses but it didn’t fully sink in how difficult it would be. I ran out of money in two months and had to really struggle till I found another job.”


You will notice a pattern of expectation-reality mismatch. While a sabbatical can have many psychological benefits, it also comes with its fair share of challenges. Those who had experienced more emotionally fulfilling sabbaticals also faced challenges but had considered these challenges, evaluated how they will deal with them and were mentally prepared. If you are considering a sabbatical, these are some of the questions you might want to sleep over -


- What are you giving up?

What is your opportunity cost? There is the financial cost, in case you are letting go of a salary but there may also an emotional cost. Are you going to stay in the same city or move out? If you move out, you give up on being around family and/or other support system you formed in that city. Do you want to re-join your field/organization after your sabbatical or move to another field? In either case, how accepting are these organizations of sabbaticals? In case they are less accepting, there is the additional cost of delay in getting back into the workforce.

On the other hand, what are the benefits, both personal and professional, that you expect to get from your sabbatical? Are they enough to offset the cost of everything you are giving up?


- Are you financially covered?

One of the most common challenges faced by sabbatical-takers! How much do you spend in a month? Do you want to spend an equal amount when on sabbatical, more than that or less? If you add some buffer amount to how much you expect to spend (to cover for any unexpected expenses), do you have that amount saved? If not, are you willing to take up freelance work to fill in the gap? How easy or hard is it to get freelance work in your field?


- Do you have a plan?

In a workplace, there are those who thrive in chaos and those who prefer structure. But from what I have experienced and been told by many of those who have taken sabbaticals, even if you are the former, not having a structure when you’re on your own on a sabbatical can be very difficult. Even if you want to use your time off to relax and do nothing, having a plan in place can be very helpful and reduce stress.


- Do you adapt well?

How much will the plan you have for your sabbatical change your life? Does it call for a change in your habits, city, daily routine?

I had a friend who worked as a Brand Manager with Aditya Birla a couple of years back. He approached his boss for an extended sabbatical to stay in Goa. She offered him a one week leave. He took her up on the offer, stayed in Goa, got bored and came back with a change in heart. All change is painful, at least to some extent.

Are you mentally prepared for the change your sabbatical is going to bring?


This is only an indicative list and, depending on your unique situation, there will be many more factors to consider. The larger point here being that while a sabbatical can be great, it's important to think through it carefully before you go for one.

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