Time Out: more employees jump at chance to take a sabbatical

Source: American Demographics
Date: 6/1/2002
Author: Paul, Pamela

In an effort to cut costs and mitigate the number of layoffs, global consulting firm Accenture last year offered employees an unusual proposal: Workers who agreed to take an 80 percent pay cut would be allowed a 6- to 12-month sabbatical with full benefits. Reaction to the proposal was swift, as more than 1,400 of 17,000 eligible workers in the United States jumped at the chance. Says Keith W. Hicks, director of people matters at Accenture: "When we first rolled out the program, we had no idea what the appeal would be. We were pleasantly surprised."

Computer giant Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif., experienced a similar employee response when it created a pilot sabbatical program in spring 2001. Staffers who accepted a two-thirds pay cut were offered a chance to volunteer for a year at one of 29 not-for-profits chosen by Cisco. In addition to paying one-third of those employees' salaries, the company would continue to provide full benefits and stock options. According to spokesperson Chris Peacock, Cisco expected 20 or 25 employees to sign up. Instead, 300 people expressed interest, and 80 were ultimately eligible to sign on. The program proved so popular that Cisco is considering ways to permanently integrate it into its benefits package.

Once the privilege of tenured professors, the sabbatical is branching out from the cosseted world of academia into the mainstream. Propelled by today's economic climate, more companies are offering semi-paid "leaves of absence" as an alternative to laying off employees. According to New York-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting's 2000 Survey of Work/Life Initiatives, 15 percent of the 450 large employers surveyed offered paid sabbaticals last year, up from 11 percent in 1998; an additional 5 percent said they were considering adding such programs to their benefits policy. Another 2000 survey by Hewitt Associates, the Lincolnshire, Ill.-based outsourcing and consulting firm, found that while only 6 percent of the 520 employers it polled offered sabbaticals, an additional 12 percent had such programs under consideration. Says Accenture's Hicks: "It helps companies cut costs in the short term, and it gives employees the opportunity to go out and try different kinds of things they wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to do."

Taking a break has never been so tempting. Driven by a multitude of factors - from layoffs to burnout to the lingering effects of Sept. 11 - the idea of taking a time out is seducing a significant percentage of Americans. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the number of "discouraged workers" (defined as those who are not currently looking for employment specifically because they believe no jobs are available for them) rose to 371,000 in February 2002 from 289,000 in February 2001. Although figures are not available for the total number of people who have taken some sort of time off, anecdotal evidence suggests a wide range of Americans are jumping at the chance to get off the reality treadmill temporarily. "Many are taking the opportunity to reassess their direction, think about changing careers or go back to school," says John Van Cleve, a work life consultant at Hewitt Associates.

Julie Jones, a 26-year-old consultant at Accenture's Chicago office, was among one of the first to sign up for the company's sabbatical program. Three months later, she was living in Los Angeles and doing volunteer work for a joint United Way/Americorps program. Not only does Jones not regret going, she believes it has made her a more well-rounded person, and encourages others to make the same leap. "People I know say that if they had the opportunity, they would take it in a minute," she says.

A 2001 survey by New York-based nonprofit Catalyst found that 18 percent of Generation Xers (born between 1964 and 1978) currently take leaves and sabbaticals, and an additional 43 percent would like to. According to a 2001 survey by Des Moines, Iowa-based The Principal Financial Group, more than half the employees of small and midsize companies say they long for a sabbatical. Ten percent of 1,500 employees surveyed have taken or plan to take a sabbatical. An additional 47 percent say they would like to take one but feel they can't due to financial factors or the unwillingness of their employers.

The most common factor leading to the decision to "check out" temporarily is burnout. But experts say long-term trends, such as changing American attitudes about the workplace, are also fueling the surge in sabbaticals. In some ways, the end of the dot-com boom and the disappearance of the 1990s mentality of working around the clock have made more people open to sabbaticals, says Hewitt's Van Cleve. What's more, workers are now taking a less linear, more cyclical approach to their careers. In today's flexible workplace, where people change jobs frequently, there is less loyalty to employers (and vice versa), making employees more inclined to give up a job without worrying that they're sacrificing their long-term career prospects. In addition, workplace experts say the new "free agent" approach to work lends itself to sabbaticals.

"Employees are driving the movement themselves," says Roger Herman, CEO of Greensboro, N.C.-based The Herman Group, a futurist consultancy specializing in workplace strategy. "They're saying, 'I want control of my career destiny and if I feel like I need a break, I'm going to take one.' If that company wants to support that, fine. If not, goodbye. There's no question Sept. 11 has played a role. People went home from work immediately to be with their families and their loved ones, and there was this sense of, 'Is this really worth it?'"

Americans are using sabbaticals as a time to contemplate career change or reexamine goals. "People end up in a rat race where they lose sight of their core needs, a sense of purpose and a connection with something beyond themselves," says Dr. Susan Reynolds, a Los Angeles-based executive coach. Reynolds says her clients are often looking for more than a career move; they see sabbaticals as a path to some form of self-fulfillment. Call it a pursuit for inner growth, soul-searching, self-discovery, recalibration or finding oneself. "People are looking for life transformations," Reynolds says.

At Outward Bound's Colorado school, the number of adults enrolling in the company's Life/Career Renewal programs has risen 95 percent in the past five years and 18 percent in the past year alone. While many first come to deal with a crisis or life transition, people return to refresh or rejuvenate themselves. Peter Mason, director of marketing, says the program offers participants a chance to reflect on their lives in general, not just their professional careers. Mason says the reasons people enroll have changed in the last couple of years. Whereas many companies allowed workers to take a leave during the economic boom in order to retain them as employees, now people are coming to reevaluate their lives following a layoff. The program was originally designed for people age 30 and older, but when so many burnt-out dot-commers expressed interest, the minimum age was lowered to 25. Outward Bound has also begun to sell its courses so that companies can offer them as part of severance programs.

But sabbaticals today are not just limited to "work breaks." Cheryl Jarvis, author of The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home (Perseus, 2001), says that many women are taking a break from their personal relationships. She says some women - those recently married as well as those married for a long time - need a respite from their marriages to renew themselves emotionally, physically and spiritually. "It's the pursuit of an individual dream, which adds another dimension to sabbaticals taken in the company of one's spouse or family," is Jarvis's description of the difference between a marriage sabbatical and a plain old sabbatical. According to her research, most women choose to study, pursue an adventure, relax or explore their personal goals. Norwalk, Conn.-based market research firm Yankelovich found evidence of this desire in its September 2001 report, The Marriage Sabbatical. A majority of 352 married moms surveyed (64 percent) say they need to know themselves better, and 48 percent say that when they want to give themselves a treat, they spend quality time alone. At the same time, 64 percent say they do not have enough time to spend by themselves.

People are getting started on the sabbatical track before they even hit the work world. In the United Kingdom, the so-called "gap year" is common, with about 200,000 students a year taking off between high school and college. In the U.S., the numbers have always been much smaller, with a break after high school taken primarily by wealthy students who travel abroad, poorer students who need to work to save for tuition or young people enrolled in the military. That's starting to change. In 2001, The Journal of Higher Education reported that taking a year off before college is a small, but growing, trend. Due to overcrowding, many colleges are even encouraging the practice, giving tuition break incentives to students willing to defer matriculation for a year. "Taking time off is now part of the mainstream," says Ron Lieber, coauthor of Taking Time Off, a 1996 book being reprinted by The Princeton Review this fall. "It's not something people have to apologize for the way they did 10 or even 5 years ago."

Admissions officials at Ivy League institutions and other liberal arts colleges in the Northeast say they've seen an increase in students requesting time off or deferring enrollment. At Harvard, 20 percent of undergraduates take off at least a year. William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions, actually encourages students from the moment they get their acceptance letter to take a year off before heading to Cambridge, Mass.

Even after they graduate from college, young people are discovering that they're not automatically on the treadmill track. In the face of the recent recession, a number of firms delayed the start dates for new hires. Several large firms that recruit among the nation's top business and law schools made offers, then paid recent hires not to come to work. The practice became so widespread this past year that several universities banned such companies from recruiting on campus.

Some predict that the stigma associated with taking time off will soon disappear. Pam Withers, co-author of Values Shift: The New Work Ethic and What It Means for Business (FairWinds Press, 2001), believes this is a realistic and smart move on the part of employers, especially considering the career approach of younger workers, who tend to job-switch at a much faster rate than prior generations. Withers says young people in particular are inclined to create their own sabbaticals, by switching jobs more frequently and leaving time off in between. Once employers see how employees benefit from such flexibility, they'll be more accommodating. "There's less punishment today for having a gap on your resume," Withers says. "You can fill it in with contract work or consulting. Even if you backpack off to Nepal, that's considered valuable international experience."

Businesses have not caught up with the desire to take sabbaticals, or with the ample opportunities to provide services to those who take time off. Financial planners could create strategies for financing a sabbatical and financial managers could set up services that would handle financial obligations, such as bill payments, while people are gone, says Herman of the workplace strategy consultancy, who is working with several companies to see how such a program might work. Realtors could help homeowners and renters deal with leaves better, or facilitate vacation-time home shares. A range of companies could help people yearning for a sabbatical to figure out where they want to go and help them get there. Travel agents could build sabbatical experiences through extended travel packages and combined travel/education programs. Sabbatical consultants could tailor volunteer or education programs for children, adults, couples or families.

However, a few companies already cater to high school and college students. Milton, Mass.-based Time Out Associates advises high school students on gap years and arranges personalized programs. Students can have an internship in social justice in Belize, intern with a coral ecologist in Bermuda or study meditation while living with a family in Nepal. "Depending on their interests and budget, students may do any number or combination of things," says Barbara Ladd, Time Out's associate director. "They might begin with an internship in the U.S., then travel to a foreign country to do community work and then learn a new language or take a class. Colleges see the value in such programs when they see what students gain from them."

The Center for Interim Programs is another counseling service for high school students who want to explore their options before going to college. The agency's president, Cornelius Bull, says that since he founded the company in 1980, the number of people taking gap years has gone way up. "If you're 18, you've got 72 years before you die," Bull says. "You don't need to have that pressure."

Those who have taken sabbaticals cite a number of benefits. In addition to de-stressing, people say they feel re-energized, inspired and motivated to go back to work. Keith Hicks of Accenture says that the response from employees returning from their hiatus has been overwhelmingly positive. "Time away has given them a completely renewed sense of focus and enthusiasm for their work," Hicks says. "One man told me that he felt the same way he did when he joined Accenture eight years ago - ready to take on the world."


The longer the sabbatical, the less likely it is to be paid.


People who want a sabbatical are most concerned about ongoing health-care coverage.

Top benefits most wanted to be maintained while on sabbatical:


Discouraged workers are defined as those not currently looking for work specifically because they believe no jobs are available for them.

The Dot-Com Dropout

Ty Ahmad-Taylor had been working as creative director for the Redwood City, Calif.-based Internet firm @Home when he realized that at 31, he was "burnt out and tired." It was June 1999, and the small company he had joined three and a half years earlier (he was the 43rd employee to sign on) had grown to 1,800 people (and within nine months would expand to 3,000). When he joined @Home, he left behind a career in newspaper journalism, where the union environment ensured a civilized work schedule. Now, Ahmad-Taylor was toiling away in a place where there was "too much work for too few people." As he explains, "I got in at [age] 28 and didn't have a mentor to guide me through, because everyone in the industry was young. So I learned the hard way. And I got to the point where I was doing too many different things and being pulled in too many different directions."

He decided to pull out. He gathered his savings and flew to London, where he stayed for 10 months, enrolling in cooking school and taking French lessons. In March 2000, he was lured back with offers from two high-tech firms. For over a year, Ahmad-Taylor lived a hectic bicoastal life, flying between his job in New York as a marketing consultant at ProcurEase, a b-to-b, e-commerce company, and his job in Mill Valley, Calif., where he was chief creative architect for MetaTV, an interactive television firm.

In November 2001, Ahmad-Taylor made the decision to take his career in a new direction and look for employment at a cable operator. But with the economy on the slide and the types of firms he wanted to work for placing hiring freezes for at least a year, he decided to take a second sabbatical. While many of his friends were being laid off from high-tech jobs, for Ahmad-Taylor, leaving was voluntary. "I actively chose what I wanted to do, though a lot of people in San Francisco were forced into the same situation," he says.

He has been traveling throughout Europe and South America since November 2001, but plans to look for work in the fall, when he expects the job market to improve. "Both my sabbaticals allowed me the time and energy to focus on what to do strategically with my career," Ahmad-Taylor explains. "At the same time, I learned that if you work hard, you can play hard. If you're going to work inhumanly for several years, make sure you take time for other things - family, personal relationships, human relations."

The Student Sabbatical

Elizabeth Greiner's only regret about her year off is that she didn't take it sooner. Instead of taking a break, Greiner went directly from high school in Rye Brook, N.Y., to college at Northwestern University. Big mistake.

"If I had taken a year off after high school, I wouldn't have picked Northwestern," says Greiner, 21, now a junior at Georgetown University. "It would have been smarter for me to do so before college instead of after freshman year, because I would have been on a much better track." She found herself cold, miserable and ready to leave the Chicago area after one year. "I was doing very well academically, but I was burnt out."

Without knowing what she would do next schoolwise, Greiner decided to take a year off. She worked with Milton, Mass.-based Time Out Associates to help shape a program to fit her needs. In the end, she decided to go on Seamester, an 80-day academic program aboard a 46-foot catamaran. Sailing from the British Virgin Islands while studying interpersonal communications, leadership, nautical science and oceanography, Greiner earned college credits along with the other students, most of whom were taking a semester or a year off after high school. "When I got off that boat, I knew I didn't want to go back to Northwestern," she says.

Instead, Greiner went home, filled out transfer applications, mostly for smaller schools in warmer climates, then flew to New Zealand. Although she originally planned to enroll in a wilderness program, she ultimately took an apprenticeship with a jeweler in Auckland. For two months she learned how to make silver jewelry, selling some of her pieces through the store. Greiner felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

"I actually got to learn a real skill pretty quickly," she says. For her final sabbatical month, Greiner backpacked around New Zealand by herself. "People are realizing it isn't necessarily a good idea to go directly from high school to college," she says. "A lot of people are taking gap years now." As for the ones who don't, when Greiner tells them about what she did, they invariably respond, "I'm so jealous. I wish I had done that."

A Life Transformed

Growing up in Decorah, Iowa, a town of 8,000, Bathsheba Demuth, 20, felt she had lived a sheltered existence. Home-schooled by her parents, by the time she completed her studies Demuth felt like she had been "sitting inside, reading books for four years in Iowa," and had acquired neither practical experience nor any basis for knowing what direction to take in terms of college.

Seeking a completely different experience, in August 1999, Demuth flew to Old Crow, a town of fewer than 300 inhabitants on the northern edge of the Yukon Territory in Canada, where the nearest road was more than 200 miles away. She moved into the log cabin of a family from the Gwich'in tribe, where her host father, Stanley Njootle, introduced her to their daily routine.

Demuth spent her first month fishing for food for the dogs (dog food is too expensive to fly in by airplane). As a novice angler, Demuth says that salmon fishing with nets and motor boats proved to be a "trial by fire." By September, hunting season began. Demuth learned to carve up caribou killed by the tribe, a humbling experience. "Stanley could carve up a 300-pound animal in 20 minutes. It took me about two hours." The following month, Demuth learned to mush dogs, and fell in love with the practice. She decided to stay in Old Crow for another year.

"I think this experience is what got me into school," says Demuth, who is planning to attend Brown University this fall. "You read about people doing crazy things to get into Ivy League schools. Well, my application was pretty wacky in and of itself." Demuth is also writing a memoir, Finding Quill River, about her two years in the Yukon. "I think taking a break from academics is a good thing, as long as you're not just floundering around for a year," she says. "I grew up in a very sheltered, middle-class lifestyle, and for me, learning that life doesn't come easily to everyone was invaluable. It's just not something I could have been taught in school."

Family Adventure

Cuenca, Ecuador, is a long way from Minneapolis, but that's exactly why Rick and Carol Cousins, both 47, decided to move there for nine months with their two sons, Collin, now 14, and Drayton, 11. "We wanted an extended period of time away from the U.S. as a family," Rick says. "Ecuador is relatively stable politically, there's an interesting indigenous culture and the boys had some background in Spanish. We wanted them to have this experience, and to make memories as a family."

Rick and Carol had fantasized about such a trip for 10 years, and in early 2001, after paying for the house and clearing their debts, they realized they were financially ready to move to South America. Moreover, they felt mentally ready for new experiences. For more than 20 years, Rick had owned and managed a small masonry contracting business. "I was ready not to own my business anymore," he says. "I enjoyed my work, but it was physically demanding and I knew I wanted to do something different for the next 25 years." Carol, a high school principal, had been an educator for 25 years. She, too, was looking for a new challenge.

In August 2001, the family left Minneapolis. Once in Cuenca, Carol volunteered at an orphanage and worked to provide those with lower-incomes with child-care facilities, Rick studied Spanish and kept house, and the boys enrolled in a local school. "We gave them the gift of learning Spanish," says Rick, "But another gift is that they've become very self-reliant young men. It's not about what you give your children materially, but how you allow them to handle themselves in the world. They've seen so much and gained so much perspective."

They're not the only ones. Rick says that although "going away at age 47 to figure out what you want to be when you grow up," isn't an obvious choice to make at that age, during his sabbatical he decided that when he returned, he wanted to go to college and get his bachelor's degree in political science. "We have other friends doing this," Rick says. "Another family from our parish lived in Cuenca, another in Quito. But so many people get locked into their lives."

Independent Woman

Stella Araya, 33, an advertising sales manager for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, took the first of two sabbaticals in 1997. She had been working in advertising sales at Rolling Stone magazine in New York but felt she was "open to making changes" and "wanted to treat" herself. "I was burnt out and I knew I could leave. I was single, I wasn't tied down, I could sublet my apartment, and I wondered when else am I going to get a chance to do this."

Araya planned to take a year off, but ended up taking a year and a half to travel in Southeast Asia. When she returned, Araya decided to move from New York to Los Angeles, where she bought a house, spent some time working in advertising sales at GQ magazine and saved money. "There's definitely this theme of 'I'm feeling claustrophobic, I need to get away.'" Araya explains. "Then I have a taste of freedom, I'm able to make some big decisions and focus on my next move." Araya took stock of her life and realized, "This is going to be the last time I can do this before I'm married with a kid."

In February 2001, Araya left for a year's sabbatical in Europe, where she traveled until September, then cut her plans short. She hadn't left with the idea of contemplating any major career moves. "The economy was looking really bad and I had gotten a good job offer," Araya says. "While I was abroad, I did a lot of thinking about maybe starting my own business, but I realized that what I really enjoy is working for a large company."

She was able to position her time off as a mark of courage and found employers were intrigued by her experiences. Araya is a firm believer in sabbaticals. "Life is too short to be tied down if you don't have to be," she says. "There's a big world out there, and it constantly goes around whether you're sitting in your cubicle or not. As my grandmother used to tell me, 'nobody says at the end of their life, I wish I had worked more.'"