How taking a sabbatical helped me

Sabbatical! The dreaded, dirty, guilt-laden, eyebrow-raising corporate word. People in general, take a sabbatical only when it becomes “the last thing possible”. Many don’t even know the sabbatical policy of their company. Many companies don’t even have one.

Why is it that (especially in India) sabbatical is an unacceptable professional exception? Why do people (especially women) fear to take a sabbatical and continue to fight their demons every day instead of taking time off to kill it once and for all? Why are people who have taken a sabbatical seen as criminals and interrogated to justify their time off? And why is it that whatever reasons they may give, it is always viewed with skepticism?

Sabbatical is perceived by many as a career suicide. And to add salt to injury, every job portal and application form that you will fill once you are ready to get back to work, will have holes that will need you to ‘cover up’ or ‘explain the gaps’ in your resume.

In this post, I will break a few myths about sabbatical and how taking one at the right point in time has helped me shape my career, nurture my relationships, and tend to my body.

Conventionally, a sabbatical is a short break from work, granted by the employer to tend to personal needs like, child care, higher studies, parent care etc. It often leaves without pay.

But a sabbatical doesn’t always have to look traditional. A sabbatical could also be a conscious decision to stay out of work for some time in the interim after moving on from one company and before deciding to join the next. This is where the word begins to lose its dignity! It is often seen as unprofessional to have taken a career break, your capabilities are challenged and doubted, and you kill yourself trying to explain the time off.

Why a sabbatical?

I was burning myself out! With twins to care for, a killing three hours of commute to work ad a 10 hour work day, I was burning myself out. I didn’t think I was doing justice to any of my roles. I was giving far less time to my family, I missed my kid’s first school function and physically, I was in the worst shape ever. To top it all, I wasn’t enjoying my work. I was losing control over my life. My circumstances were driving me. Everyone has a unique set of needs to attend to. These were mine. Some may tag me inefficient to be unable to cope with pressure. I choose not argue on that. Cope but at what cost? To each his own. And as I said in my last post “Sometimes opting out of a race makes you a winner more than winning itself”.

Anyways, the point is, I don’t intend to focus on the reasons behind a sabbatical but on the courage for, the outcome of and perspective towards it. Taking a sabbatical need not always be the outcome of being burned out and exhausted. It can also be a time that you need to give yourself to chart your goals and map a plan to achieve them. 

How to plan for a sabbatical 

  1. Finances: That’s the biggest one, especially if you have ongoing EMIs and do not want to survive on spouse donations. Managing finances is the single most factor that delayed my sabbatical decision by a couple of years.
  2. Support system: It is s good idea to sensitize your family and friends about your need for a sabbatical and your vision thereafter. They will have a lot of questions and concerns and addressing as many as possible beforehand will do you well.
  3. Bucket list: Create a list of things that you will use the majority of your time for during the sabbatical.
  4. Foresight and vision: Decide on the duration of your sabbatical and what you will do after it. Chances are it will have changed!

Plan it precisely. Nothing is constant, but planning helps.

Things that are gonna hurt

1Funds (or the lack of it): Yes, it will almost be like being back in college, unless you have saved an insane amount! Personally, I had to give up big brands and expensive dinners. It didn’t hurt much. And surprisingly, I found happiness in taking my kids to the zoo and planetarium.

2. The neverending stream of questions and assumptions: Don’t be surprised to hear from the grapevine that you were given the pink slip. It’s ok. You will have to live with it.

3. Employer interrogation: When it’s time for you to get back to work, many employers will be more interested in your sabbatical than in your profile, skills, or achievements. You will have to deal with a bunch of such interviewers who may be high on technical skills are low on life skills.

4. Compensation compromise: You will be expected to agree to a much lower compensation (sometimes that of a fresher!) by the prospective employer. And the tone may sound as a favor being done to you, of ‘helping you get back to the mainstream’. You will have to know where to draw the line.

5. Frustration: There may be times when you will feel low, especially when people closest to you question your decision time and again, and your answers don’t seem to convince them. You could also be tagged a loser. Take a step back. Go for a  jog. You will feel better when you are back. This too shall pass!

How a sabbatical can help

I took a nine-month long sabbatical….to study (It’s a great cover up!….by the way its a real too). In these nine months, I gained a lot of perspectives. I made many…yes many, friends outside office. I bicycled and swam. I took my kids to the zoo every other weekend. I helped them with their schoolwork. I was there to take my parents to the doc. I read a lot. I painted. I lived.

Many of us are stuck to doing what we have been doing simply because we have not had time to think of anything else more worthwhile and interesting. As for me, I I transitioned to a position that fit well with my newly gained clarity about my personal and professional milestones. I was sure about one thing, whenever I decided to go back to work, I will not make an attempt to cover up my sabbatical. The company that hired me, hired me for my skills, and I did not cover up my career gap during the interview. I enjoy my work and am a much happier person now.

Is a sabbatical right for you? What is the right time for a sabbatical? You, and only you can decide. As someone rightly said “Life is not just about making insane amount of money or advancing a career—it’s about experiencing things and loving what you chose to do.” If you love yourself and are happy, you can love others and spread happiness. Period.

My sabbatical has not only enriched my life, it has also inspired some to take the leap of faith.

There is no burning need to prove anything to the world, to be best mother, best cook, best employee, best team lead…..best…best…best. Huhh! Give yourself a break. You are going to love being “less than best”.

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