Talking to Your Family About Taking a Sabbatical

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

I have spent the last few weeks speaking to a dozen others who have either taken a sabbatical or are planning on one. These have been incredibly insightful and, often, inspiring conversations. I’m writing a series on the nuances that I have come across from these interactions.

One of the questions I ask is ‘What are the challenges you faced while deciding whether to take a sabbatical?’ The responses I get can broadly be bucketed into ‘professional’ and ‘personal’. Professional challenges range from current workplaces not being supportive, concern about having to explain a ‘gap’ in the resume in future job applications to fear of falling behind peers in your career trajectory. On the personal front, while the most quoted challenge, rather unsurprisingly, was - ‘How will I manage my finances?’, some of the conversations also revealed another factor - ‘How do I convince my family to be comfortable with me doing this?’

‘I come from a traditional TamBrahm family. When I told my parents about my plan to take a 3 month unpaid sabbatical from work, they flipped out. My father worked in a public bank for 32 years. My mother was a high-school teacher for two years, took a 4 year break when I was born and then went back to teaching for another 25 years. To them, the idea of taking so much time off was unheard of, even irresponsible. I spent weeks trying to get them to understand why I was doing this and in the end they were okay with it. Not too happy about it. But ok with letting me go ahead with it”, says 28-year old Anand, who worked at Wipro and spent his sabbatical setting up a kitchen garden in his Bangalore home, taking up a pottery workshop and doing volunteer work.

Given that there is no culture of taking sabbaticals in India, those who end up going ahead with it are often the first ones to do so in their organizations, family and friend circles. It can be isolating and difficult to have a conversation about it with your loved ones who may not be immediately supportive of the idea.

Here are a few steps that can help -

1. Build conviction

The first step is to introspect and build absolute conviction about why you are looking for a sabbatical, what are the potential issues you might face and how it will help you personally and/or professionally. Depending on the nature of your sabbatical, there will be pros and cons of going ahead with it - Is it a paid sabbatical? If not, would you be able to manage financially? Will you be joining your current employer back post the sabbatical? Or will you need to start applying for jobs afterwards? Are the HRs in your industry typically welcoming of this idea?

Thinking through these and evaluating whether the cons outweigh the benefits is a good starting point.

2. Be honest about why you want to do this

When you first thought of a sabbatical, chances are you faced some resistance in your own mind questioning whether this is a good idea. A conversation with a loved one is the same. If they are uncomfortable with the idea, just explain your thought process in coming to this decision - why you wanted to do it, what are the issues you might face and how you will deal with them, how it will help you and so on.

3. Show them the bigger picture

Talk about how this time will help you fulfil any personal or professional goals. Are you going to spend time relaxing to avoid burnout? Focus on recovering from any health issues you are facing? Pick up a hobby that helps you reignite your creativity or a sense of adventure? Spend some quality time with your family? A new skill that will help you move forward in your career? Broaden your perspective by traveling to a new place and spending time with local communities? Or, best of all, a combination of these.

4. Identify what you see yourself doing in this time

It may sound ironic to have a schedule for your time off, but even if you want to lay low for a while and relax, it’s a good idea to structure your time. It will make you feel happier, less stressed and give your loved ones some confidence that you’ve thought this through.

I have found that these conversations, although somewhat tedious at times, often help you strengthen your conviction, build a support system around yourself and arrive at more ideas on how you could spend this time.

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