OPINION: Sabbaticals are path from Great Resignation to worker revitalization

Jonathan McMurry plays squash with his 16-year-old son Sam at their home squash court in Marietta. In August, McMurry will begin a yearlong sabbatical during which he plans to focus on his health and figure out then next stage in his career.  (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Jonathan McMurry plays squash with his 16-year-old son Sam at their home squash court in Marietta. In August, McMurry will begin a yearlong sabbatical during which he plans to focus on his health and figure out then next stage in his career. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Periods of leave can benefit employee, employer

Just after 9/11, Barbara Pagano took a leave from her work as an executive coach and spent six months sailing. She and her daughter traveled 2,000 miles from Pensacola, Florida to Antigua in a 43-foot sloop called “Revival.”

A decade later, the duo launched a company that worked with businesses to implement customized sabbaticals — a period of leave outside of traditional time off that allows workers to indulge personal interests.

But they were a little ahead of the times.

Despite consulting with several corporations and individuals to craft personal plans for sabbaticals, “there wasn’t enough work at the time to financially support two people,” Pagano said.

The sabbatical was once the domain of tenured university professors who would take a year away every seven years to teach at other institutions, write books or research topics of interest. As we began to live longer, corporations began to see the value in offering periods of rest and rejuvenation to their employees.

ExploreOPINION: For women, midlife can be a crisis or an opportunity

“We are looking at extended work lives now, well into our 80s ... Why aren’t we taking a break while we are working?” said Pagano, who is currently writing a book about pre-retirement.

The last few years have seen an upward trend in companies offering sabbaticals. According to a 2017 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, the percentage of companies offering sabbaticals (paid and unpaid) rose to nearly 17% compared to 4% in 2011.

Then came a pandemic that left workers exhausted, disengaged and looking for a way out.

By November 2021, the 4.5 million employees that had quit their jobs marked the highest number since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the data in 2000. Some employees were leaving for better jobs. Others were leaving for a better life. The Great Resignation has slowly become the Great Revitalization.

Companies ranging from AARP to Zillow offer sabbaticals to their employees. Most programs offer one to three months for employees who have worked at the company for periods ranging from 5 to 10 years. Corporations like Citigroup and PricewaterhouseCoopers pay up to 25% of the employee’s base salary during the sabbatical.

Employers are “really paying for an experience just like you would pay for (employees) to go to a leadership development program,” Pagano said. But in this case, she said, not only does the individual on sabbatical benefit, the company benefits when the employees left behind have the opportunity to develop additional skills by filling in for their colleague.

To be successful, sabbatical programs have to have the support of upper management, Pagano said. They should be more than six weeks, otherwise it’s just extended leave. And it should be a structured program that is tied to employee development.

ExploreResignations are just part of the story. The pandemic reshaped attitudes

Naturally, concerns about fairness and equity arise. Who gets to take a sabbatical? If it is unpaid, is that fair to employees who can’t afford it? How long is long enough to recover from burnout? What if burnout isn’t the problem?

Pagano said one way for companies to answer those questions and determine if they have a sustainable sabbatical program is to introduce it as a pilot program. If a company does not offer a formal sabbatical, individual employees should feel empowered to craft their own plan and make the request to management, she said.

Jonathan McMurry, a professor of biochemistry at Kennesaw State University is taking a yearlong unpaid sabbatical in August. His decision has less to do with burnout and more with his current impact as an educator.

“I have had a growing sense of frustration that no matter what I do, I can’t help my students,” said McMurry, noting that so many of his students have fallen into a pandemic-induced academic chasm.

In addition, for the first time in his career at KSU, as of July, he will not have grant funding. A year ago, he had 16 people working in his lab through a grant from the National Institutes for Health. Now he has one.

“I am not going to win a Nobel Prize. I am not going to change science in any earth-changing way. My value to society has been training the next generation of biochemists in the science world,” he said.

McMurry is planning to focus on his health, read, and maybe help community organizations write grant proposals. And he will try to figure out the next act of his career.

For many employees, a sabbatical is a luxury. In the modern workplace, it should be the standard.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

About Real Life Relationships

Real Life with Nedra Rhone introduces Real Life Relationships, a monthly reader-contributed essay that explores the many ways in which we are connected and the attendant emotions — happiness, sadness, fear and anger — those connections can bring into our lives. Interested in contributing? Email nedra.rhone@ajc.com with the subject line “Real Life Relationships.” Here are some recent essays from Real Life Relationships that you may enjoy:

The joy and heartbreak of teaching my Black teenage son to drive

Holding on while letting go

Losing the gift of gab

Parenting: Mommie Dearest or Dearest Mommy?

Recent columns from Real Life with Nedra Rhone