Career Breaks and Sabbaticals (ULEASH Magazine)

Fish on!

Touring France on a bike with her sweetheart.

A summer living in a van and exploring western American.

Providing transportation to scientists in Antarctica for six months.

These are just a few of the adventures friends taking career breaks or sabbaticals are in the midst of or recently completed. Other friends taking extended time off work cited the opportunity to focus on health and wellness, giving themselves time to reconnect with family, or simply enjoy summertime in Alaska as the reasons they’re taking a break. Whatever the motivation, it seems like an increasing number of people are carving out time from work to focus on a different areas of their lives.

I started noticing the trend one sleepy Sunday morning as I lazily perused an old friend’s rad mountain biking photos on Facebook. “Cool weekend,” I thought. “Sarah’s really getting after it!” And then – maybe it was the coffee kicking in – I realized she’d been posting A LOT of envy-inducing photos. And wasn’t there something about selling her adorable Portland, OR home? And embarking on a new adventure with her husband? Yes and yes. I reached out to say hi and see what was up, and discovered that she and her husband, Thor, are two of the many people I know who are taking some time to live work free.

Although sometimes used interchangeably, career breaks and sabbaticals differ slightly: sabbaticals are time away from your job, usually for a predetermined period agreed upon with your employer, with a clear return date; career breaks are a time out from employment, dependent only on your ability to live without a job. Although fairly common in academia and religious institutions, only 23 percent of all U.S. companies and 17 percent of small to mid-sized businesses offer sabbaticals. Not surprising, considering that the U.S. is the only developed country without legally mandated paid vacation and holidays (even Japan requires ten days of paid annual leave).

However, we can’t just blame the federal government or stingy corporate leave policies for lack of time off: U.S. workers, on average, fail to use nearly five vacation days a year, and are taking the least amount of vacation in nearly 40 years. Not only are employees basically giving away their time, they’re on the fast track to burnout, and worse: women who don’t take vacations are 50 percent more likely to have heart attacks, and men are 30 percent more likely; some women are also more likely to suffer from depression. Additionally, 80 percent of workers report feeling stress on the job, and it’s probably not a coincidence that 70 percent of visits to healthcare providers are due to stress related conditions.

Skimping on vacation isn’t just bad for our physical and mental health, it’s bad for our employers’ bottom lines: the U.S. Travel Association says that companies carry approximately $224 billion in liabilities for accumulated employee vacation time. These sobering statistics, combined with the benefits of taking time off – better physical health, more productivity, closer family relationships, newer perspectives, increased mental power, lower chance of burnout, and improved mental health – can only lead to one conclusion:


Or, if you can swing it, why not a sabbatical or a career break?

Here’s a closer look at a few current and recent adventures:

Ten Weeks in France on a Bike (Sabbatical)
Aimee Chauvot recently returned from a ten week sabbatical in France where she and her fiancé, Adam, spent 50 plus nights in their tent, logged over 1,600 miles on their bikes, and consumed more than 240 pain au chocolats. Their trip was the result of a years’ worth of careful planning and budgeting, and was a lifelong dream for Aimee. Despite the obvious draws (wine, cheese, baguettes…history, art, architecture) the trip held greater significance. “When I look ahead to becoming the kind of woman I admire, she’s experienced other cultures and traveled the world,” says Aimee. “You don’t just wake up that woman one day, you have to do it.” Upon returning home, she discovered that her priorities and values had shifted; after spending two and a half months mostly unplugged she felt a renewed appreciation for personal communication, listening, and laughing with friends. Now, she seeks these moments out and focuses on living a quieter life, valuing quality over quantity. “I’m so grateful that my employer [United Way] gave me the time off,” says Aimee. “The entire trip was the best experience of my life.”

Van Life and Outdoor Adventure (Career Break)
For Sarah and Thor Tingey, their career break is an intentional shift in lifestyle. After a head injury had lasting impacts on Thor’s ability to enjoy his job as a corporate attorney and Sarah decided she was ready to leave the city, they secured jobs with Alpacka Raft in Colorado and realized could spend a few months living in their van while focusing on their mutual love for the exploring the outdoors. “We’d both be leaving jobs, selling our house, don’t have kids, and had guaranteed employment with a flexible start date,” Sarah told me from a 30 minute grocery run before rolling out in search of a place to camp for the night. “We could actually take a few months off to travel over the summer of 2015!!! Win! Van life became a reality.” Although Thor’s head injury was the catalyst for their adventure and change of pace, the career break was something they always hoped to do. So far they’ve visited Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Montana with plenty of mountain biking, hiking, pack rafting, and fishing along the way, and decided to extend their career break to include winter in New Zealand.

From Alaska to Antarctica (Sabbatical)
Craig Updegrove, a talented graphic artist and the art director for the Mooses/Bear/Broken Tooth companies, has longed to spend time in Antarctica for more than a decade. When a position at McMurdo Station opened up, Craig went for it, and says “I’m lucky enough to work for a company that values me enough to allow me to follow up on this dream.” He’s providing transportation services to scientists for the next six months, and says that the experience is requiring him to retool and repurpose previous skill sets.

Full Time Alaskan Summer (Career Break)
When Katie Abbott realized she would be wrapping up her major projects for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development during the spring, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was ready for a new challenge…after enjoying an Alaskan summer, that is. She decided to leave her job without knowing her next step and bask in the sun that doesn’t last long up here in the North. During her career break she loaded her freezer with fish and berries for the winter; explored the Seward Peninsula around Nome; played on Resurrection Pass; enjoyed spontaneous hiking and camping adventures; and even cooked up a couple entrepreneurial ideas before accepting a job with United Way of Anchorage as a Community Network and Data Manager. Katie says that taking the time to enjoy her home was just as fulfilling and rejuvenating as traveling Outside.

Although some jobs lend themselves to extended periods of time off better than others, with the right timing, budgeting, and planning, an uber long vacation or sabbatical could be yours. And if you can’t work it out with your employer, you can always choose to switch jobs…with a healthy dose of time off in between. Don’t be too hasty though; your employer may be open to negotiations. Aimee’s supervisor admitted that in her generation (Baby Boomers), people were more likely to save their travel and time off dreams for retirement, but because she valued Aimee’s contributions to the organization she was willing to work with her. In addition to earning Aimee’s loyalty and gratitude, it was a savvy financial decision. The UK-based Centre for Economics and Business Research says that it costs an average of $40,165 to hire a new employee for a firm with 20-49 employees; a hefty price tag that doesn’t include tough-to-quantify elements like team dynamics and relationship building with clients.

The Rasmuson Foundation, which offers a sabbatical grant program to provide nonprofit and tribal leaders time away from their organizations, joined a group of other foundations to examine the results of their sabbatical programs. The report, Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building and Leadership Development in the Non-profit Sector, found that sabbatical awardees returned to their positions with rejuvenated spirits, greater confidence, new vision, and better relationships with staff, board, funders, and community. The sabbatical also significantly improved their overall well-being, including  work life balance, better connections with family, and better physical health.

If you’ve considered extended leave from work – DO IT. Aimee’s sabbatical began with pinning an advertisement that said, “make your dream vacation a reality” on her vision board. Sarah’s career break was catalyzed by her husband’s head injury. Regardless of how they got there, both say their experiences are the adventure of a lifetime, and the pros far outweigh the cons. And if you can’t quite make extended time off work, at the very least USE THOSE VACATION DAYS!


This story was original published in UNLEASH Magazine.

Author: Gretchen Fauske

I love Anchorage. I love what it is, what it's been, and what I dream it will be. I share my adventures with DJ (my husband), my fabulous family and friends, two frenchies named Grover and Teddy, and now, all of you. If you love Anchorage too, get in touch - guest posts are welcome!