Going on Sabbatical: More than a Mental Health Break

I believe firmly in the power of a sabbatical, but before I get into why, it’s worth establishing just what a sabbatical entails. I see the word ‘sabbatical’ used as one might use the word ‘vacation’ on a regular basis — it’s become something of a pet peeve of mine.

But a sabbatical is not a vacation. Rather, a sabbatical is an opportunity to cease working on what you regularly do, with an intention of achieving something. The original sabbatical involved a year of leaving your fields to lie fallow. That didn’t mean that you weren’t working — it meant that you were both guaranteeing that your lands would continue to produce crops and weren’t overworked and that you were handling things that didn’t get done when you were out tilling the soil. That might mean meeting religious obligations or it might mean rebuilding a barn, but it certainly didn’t mean laying in a hammock on a beach.

From there, sabbaticals have evolved into something that professionals tend to take for an opportunity to improve their skills or careers. A professor might take a sabbatical to write a book, a physician might take one to learn a new skill and so on.

I remember a series of books I read when I was a kid, where the main character’s uncle was a professor who took sabbaticals to fight evil and save the world. Indiana Jones went on sabbatical to beat Nazis. Think big when you’re thinking about sabbaticals!

The Real Power of the Sabbatical

Personally, I believe sabbaticals are necessary for our mental health: no matter how much any of us love what we do, day in and day out, doing something different every once in a while is just necessary to keep us from getting worn out.

Last October, I took something of a sabbatical. I told my clients that I was taking the month off from their work. I put together a list of a few things that continuously get pushed back on my to do list because they were things I wanted to do, rather than what my clients needed me to do — and I went for them. What I accomplished in that month was enough to remind me of what I do love about the sort of work I do and why. In a very real way, my sabbatical made it possible for me to keep working.

The real point of a sabbatical is not to rest in your labors. It’s to get out of the rut, try something new and accomplish something that you simply don’t have the capacity to manage when your in your usual routine.

Why Aren’t Sabbaticals More Common?

In an ideal world, everyone would have the opportunity to take a sabbatical every so often. There are some opportunities: more students are getting a chance to take a gap year and a growing number of businesses offer an opportunity to take an unpaid leave of absence.

But sabbaticals don’t fit in with the modern concept of success: either you work four hours a week and spend the rest of the time in the sun or you put in eighty hours a week and accomplish everything. Of course, one of those leads to burning out and needing to take a leave of absence just to recuperate and the other leads to a special type of boredom.

Without the view that a sabbatical is a normal part of our lives, though, there’s not support for it as a matter of course. Sure, tenured professors are granted paid sabbaticals fairly regular — but tenured professors don’t actually make up a large percentage of the general population. I’d love to see sabbaticals become a normal part of culture.

In the meanwhile, it’s worth looking for opportunities to create your own sabbaticals — even if it’s just a long weekend or some of your vacation time.

Image by Flickr user Omar

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