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Do You Need A Sabbatical?

Skipping out on your career could prove to be a shrewd move.

That was the case for several workers interviewed in recent stories in American Public Media’s Marketplace and The Wall Street Journal. According to the Journal:

A sabbatical can enhance your career, especially if you acquire valuable skills, experience and insights. Extended breaks allow for personal goals, such as travel, study or research. ...

Sabbaticals are attracting greater attention these days from the nation's frazzled and disengaged workforce, according to Dan Clements, who co-wrote "Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Simple." He took five in 15 years. About 16% of U.S. employers offered unpaid sabbaticals and 4% gave paid ones in 2007, the Society for Human Resource Management reports.

What makes these stints so appealing, especially if you're doing them on your own dime?

A time for reflection

Time away can benefit your mental and physical health, helping you focus on what you want to do next.

Daniel H. Marcus, a former consultant for Mercer, used his sabbatical to improve his physical condition and explore new professional avenues. According to the WSJ:

With constant travel and 60-hour weeks pushing him close to burnout, the veteran partner at Mercer, a major human-resource consultant, decided he needed a sabbatical.

Mr. Marcus pursued an elaborate self-improvement scheme and sharpened his professional focus during an eight-month break, which ended in November 2006. "I'm a better consultant today because I bring a more balanced perspective to my work,'' he says. The 51-year-old adviser now toils about 40 hours a week for Semler Brossy Consulting Group in Los Angeles. ...

To improve his body, Mr. Marcus spent a week at a Mexican health spa, where he learned yoga, drawing and jewelry-making. Later, he worked out almost every day and took his new puppy for long beach walks near his Marina del Rey home. He lost 10 pounds.

Professionally, he explored teaching part time at UCLA's business school, invested $125,000 in two young unprofitable businesses ("I wanted to put myself in an uncomfortable position and try new things," he says), and played in the World Series of Poker. He says the Las Vegas event helped him realize he should focus on what he did best -- advising corporate boards. He also vowed to work only 30 hours a week, leaving room for teaching.

Marcus was wise--he sensed his own burnout, and took steps to reignite the fire in his belly. Keeping long hours and frenzied schedules--as many Americans do--affords little if any time for reflection on what we have learned or where we are going. A sabbatical is the antidote for that ill-tendency to work too much and not spend enough time considering just where all that work is taking us.

Paid sabbaticals, calculated risks

Sabbaticals also boost employee loyalty.

Diana Egusa, who works in human resources at Intel, enjoyed a paid sabbatical in the Caribbean, and returned to her job appreciating it more than when she left. Marketplace explains:

Diana Egusa: My husband and I rented a cabin on the beach in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and we basically spent a month there just kind of hanging out and being beach bums.

Kicking back in the Caribbean was Egusa's antidote for excessive responsibility. The sabbatical is like a buffer against burn-out.

If your company doesn't offer sabbaticals, consider trying to convince your boss, the story suggests:

Charlotte Anderson is the president of a human resources consulting firm called Amethyst and Iris. She suggests approaching the subject as a bargaining tool. If you can't negotiate a raise, she says, consider asking for a sabbatical.

Charlotte Anderson: I think it's really a very savvy move because a couple of the concerns employers have about salary increases -- number one is that they compound and the value of the sabbatical doesn't compound. It's a one-time offering.

To sell the idea, try to anticipate your employer's needs. Anderson says you should come up with a plan for who will cover for you while you're away so your absence won't create more stress.

Ultimately, you're pushing the envelope when you take a sabbatical--so you should make sure you're pushing in the right direction, the WSJ notes:

A successful sabbatical requires thoughtful planning. "You are taking a courageous risk," notes Stefanie Smith, a New York executive coach. "Make sure the return on that risk is worth it."

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