Hit the pause button!

For some it’s about slowing down, for others it’s about learning new things. Most sabbatical stories have an element of self-discovery. Jisha Krishnan delves into the causes and effects of taking a breather from work

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines sabbatical as “a period during which an employee can take time away from work to study or travel”.

Did you hear about Chance The Rapper taking a sabbatical? The 25-year-old Grammy Award-winning rapper, singer, songwriter and actor recently shared his decision to take time off to study the Bible, as well as quit smoking, with his 9.3 million Instagram followers.

While ‘learning the Word of God’ may be an unusual reason to take time off, a growing number of professionals in India seem to be smitten by sabbaticals. “It’s no longer considered a western concept. Like the gap year, which usually comes between college and working career, breaks from work are becoming more common. The basic motivation is to get away, renew and refresh,” says Murali Mohan, an HR professional from Bengaluru.

What an idea!

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines sabbatical as “a period during which an employee can take time away from work to study or travel”. Interestingly, the concept has its roots in the Hebrew Bible, according to which a Sabbath (or rest) year was commanded every seven years to give the land a break from agricultural activity. In the same way, the human mind, experts say, needs rest to be able to function well.

Traditionally, sabbaticals have been commonplace in the academic circles, with scholars taking paid leaves of absence from their day-to-day work for a couple of months or even a year. The best part is that they come back inspired to the security of their job, reporting higher levels of satisfaction and lower levels of stress, report studies.

Pursuit of purpose

Kripa Gupta, an interior designer from Mumbai, was doing rather well in her career when she decided to hit the pause button at work about two years ago. The six-month break, she says in retrospect, was the best decision of her life. “Back then, I felt emotionally depleted and unmotivated. My life was on autopilot mode,” recalls the young designer, who took the plunge after watching a TED talk by renowned Austrian-born graphic designer and typographer Stefan Sagmeister. In The Power of Time Off, Stefan talks about how he decided to shut down his New York studio for a year, after “work started to look the same.” In his first sabbatical year, Stefan created a film, explored new design styles and materials, and experienced new cultures and ideas. The result, he declares, was both creatively and professionally beneficial. Ever since then, he has made it a policy decision to take a year-long sabbatical every seven years.

Burned-out employees, says the study, are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.
Burned-out employees, says the study, are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.

“As Stefan puts it, most people spend 25 years learning, 40 years working, followed by 15 years or more in retirement. What if we cut off five years of retirement, asks the master designer, and interspersed them in between the working years? It made perfect sense! I wanted to grab the opportunity to refresh and renew my passion for work,” explains Kripa, who volunteered to teach at a local design school as well as signed up for yoga classes during her sabbatical. “The break has increased my resilience and rejuvenated my career,” she maintains.

No bed of roses

Not all sabbatical stories are the same though. When Ajay Purohit put in a request for some time off to attend to his ailing child, the response was distressing. “They simply couldn’t fathom why a father would want a break, while the mother continued to work… I had spent almost nine years with the company, yet they refused to oblige,” says the Gurugram-based marketing professional, who ultimately had to put in his papers. “My son had three surgeries last year. He is better now, but my prospects of finding a good job seem rather bleak,” sighs the stay-at-home dad.

An interesting study by PwC on women getting back to work post-sabbatical found that three in five professionals are likely to experience an immediate earnings reduction of up to a third, or likely to move into lower-skilled roles. “That’s changing though,” insists Deepak Nair, a Mumbai-based HR professional. “Companies, especially MNCs and corporates, are becoming more flexible and inclusive. In fact, women on maternity breaks are eligible for annual raises and are treated on par once they return. The company even helps them to stay updated in terms of skills and industry trends.”

However, Deepak concedes, the culture is not the same in smaller companies or start-ups, which are not yet process-driven. “There are so many variables. It depends on how the organisation views the resource; whether the employee is an asset… Besides, unlike the IT or manufacturing industry, service industries like hospitality may not find the concept feasible. Because they have such high attrition rates,” he reasons.

Bend, don’t break

A 2018 study from Gallup, a US-based management consulting company, found that employee burnout has reached epidemic levels, with more than two-thirds of workers reporting that they feel burned out at work. Although for most employees it has become ‘part of the job’, the organisational cost is substantial. Burned-out employees, says the study, are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job. And those who stay, typically, have lower confidence in their performance and are less likely to discuss performance goals with their managers.

“The key is to find a balance, especially as the lines between work and life keep blurring. Sometimes, you need more than a vacation to clear your mind and recharge your batteries,” says Divya Singh, a Mumbai-based psychologist. “Also, unlike vacations, the positive effects of a well-planned sabbatical last long after one gets back to the grind. It needn’t be career suicide; it can be a life-changing experience,” she asserts.

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