All too often in Singapore, we hear people lamenting about the stress at work and their inability to find time to relax. While some may find their two week or a month’s annual leave enough, there is a longer option – sabbaticals.
Having worked in journalism for a decade, Lin Yanqin, 34, began to feel her daily routine wearing her down. So she decided to leave her job to take an eight-month, self-financed sabbatical.
“I felt like I was stuck in a rut; I wanted to see more of the world, experience different ways of life and encounter different perspectives,” said Lin.
She immersed herself in new environments and experiences, trekking to Machu Picchu in Peru, diving in the Galapagos and staying with a Bolivian family on their farm.
“It was a very introspective experience in some ways. It helped me see my priorities more clearly, giving me the headspace to make peace with my limitations, and note the mistakes I wouldn’t make again,” said Lin.
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The journey allowed Lin to come back rejuvenated with a fresh perspective, but more than that, she felt it helped her become a better person.
“I didn’t feel so drained all the time, and I hope this made me a better daughter, friend, and coworker,” said Lin.
And she certainly isn’t the only person to experience the positive effects of going on a sabbatical.
A study by James Campbell Quick and a team of researchers followed a group of 129 university professors who went on sabbatical and juxtaposed them with a control group of another 129 peers – equally qualified and with similar positions and work experience – who stayed put at their jobs.
The study found that while there was no change in the control group, the group which went on sabbatical saw an increase in well-being, self-control, and efficacy.
In fact, among the group that benefited most were those who had travelled overseas and fully detached themselves from all university activity, including calls, meetings, and emails.
The results also showed that those who returned from a sabbatical displayed an increased ability to “think outside the box” and generate new and innovative ideas for the organisation.
The study also proved positive not just for the sabbatical group, but for their successors who stepped up to take on their responsibilities during their absence. It was found that the second-tier leaders developed their skills and abilities while standing in for their bosses and became more effective and responsible when their bosses returned.
While sabbaticals may sound like a great idea to employees, what do others think?
David Ang, director of corporate services at Human Capital (Singapore), and with over 40 years of experience in human resource, told The Pride: “Originally, sabbaticals were a reward for an employee that had served the company or institute of higher learning for some time.
“It allowed them to leave for a period to pursue their own interest, upgrade their skills, or to record their experience on a certain topic, like an emerging market for example, all the while retaining their position upon return.”
But today, the word sabbatical has been “very loosely used” and can be offered by any organisation to any individual – most of the time referring to unpaid leave for an extended duration.
How do sabbaticals affect employers?
“It depends on the organisation, typically most multinational corporations (MNC’s) do offer some sort of sabbatical scheme, with a payment or reward attached to it,” said Ang.
An example of a perfect scenario, said Ang, is when an employee’s agenda for improvement aligns with the company’s goal – making the sabbatical a mutually beneficial agreement.
“In a more formal arrangement, if a company can afford to send an employee overseas to survey an emerging market, or get attached to another global office. It could be a win-win situation,” explained Ang.
However, a recent article by CNBC sheds light on one of the glaring issues of paid and unpaid sabbaticals. Smaller organisations like startups and SMEs simply don’t have the financial bandwidth for it.
Will Lee, 35, owner of boutique agency That Marketing Guy (TMG), explains: “Substantial absences must be planned for, and even then, this would take up time from the management, colleagues, and resources to hire, train, and temporarily replace that individual.”
For companies such as TMG that are unable, operationally, to allow their staff to go on sabbaticals, an alternative would be to offer work-life benefits like flexi-work hours and telecommuting, with the hope of preventing employee burnout.
Said Ang: “Flexi-work arrangements can lead to better work-life balance but shouldn’t be confused with sabbaticals. Sabbaticals are a privilege to be earned, it’s not a right.”
Even though Ang concedes that the positives of sabbaticals outweigh the negatives, there are circumstances where taking a sabbatical could still be deemed irresponsible.
“If you don’t want to present a disadvantage to your company, you should plan your sabbatical ahead of time. Ensure that you have someone to take over your responsibilities,” advised Ang.
However, Lin cautions to “not get carried away with the fantasy that the time-off will be life-changing”.
Which means you’ll need to go into your sabbatical with a plan: what you hope to achieve, the skills you want to learn and what you want to experience.
Lin’s sabbatical helped her decompress and find new perspectives, but it didn’t just happen – she made the best of her time off work to make herself a better person.
“You could still end up in an unsatisfying job, you may still have problems with your family. You can only hope that the respite and reflection during your sabbatical gives you the strength to tackle these problems,” Lin advised.
“Just because I want a break from work, doesn’t mean that I should take a break from being a responsible adult.”
So take that sabbatical if you feel you need it but time it such that you aren’t too much of a burden to your colleagues or a strain on your company’s resources. Then return as a better co-worker to your colleagues and a greater asset to your employers. Nobody will begrudge you your break if you did that.