Research & Ideas

When a Vacation Isn’t Enough, a Sabbatical Can Recharge Your Life—and Your Career

Are you ready to give up? Instead, consider an extended vacation. Inspired by his 900-mile trip, DJ DiDonna gives practical advice on how to take a sabbatical.

DJ DiDonna had everything going for himself a few years back. He started a successful business called the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab which used psychometrics to help banks in developing countries avoid risk.

He says, “We created an alternate credit score to help people get access to finance and live up to their full potential. We also wanted to help their families.” DiDonna lived out of her suitcase for years while traveling the world, meeting inspiring entrepreneurs, and talking to bankers. He says, “It was a wonderful journey.” It was a tiring and unsustainable lifestyle.

It helped me to process the possibility that my time at the company I had started could be finished and that it might be okay.

He felt his life crashing even as he helped others. He says, “I never thought you could burn out from your dream career.” In 2017, he realized he had to take more than a week-long vacation. He decided to spend six weeks in Japan on a Buddhist pilgrimage, walking 900 miles. This was an opportunity for him to explore his neglected outdoor interests and spirituality.

The experience changed my life. It helped him to accept that his time with the company he had founded could be over. “I could give up that identity and wonder, What else can there be?”

DiDonna studied sabbaticals to determine if others had experienced similar benefits. His research is timely as more people are reporting being burned out at work. In the US, 43 percent of middle-level managers report burnout and 70 percent of C-suite employees consider quitting their jobs to find ones that suit better their mental health.

Take time off

DiDonna then returned to the University of Notre Dame where he ran a research lab on domestic policy. Throughout the entire process, his colleagues and friends asked him questions about the pilgrimage and how it affected him. He wanted to know if it was just a coincidence.

He says, “I wanted to know if my experience was unique.” “Was I alone?”

DiDonna started The Sabbatical project by interviewing 50 people who took similar time off to learn from their experiences. He published his results as a paper for the Academy of Management Journal. The article describes the different ways a sabbatical can transform an individual.

He interviewed people from all age groups, from 20s to 60s. Some people were singles, others had partners and children, while some had both. He has spoken to an additional 250 people since then.

Nearly everyone said that taking a long break from work helped them return to their jobs with vigor, perspective, and new energy. Some even changed the direction of their careers. DiDonna says that “even though people didn’t go into it with the same plan,” “it was incredible how similar these experiences were.”

Recover, explore, and practice

DiDonna and her colleagues, Matt Bloom, a University of Notre Dame professor, and Kira Schabram (assistant professor, University of Washington), used techniques from social sciences research to code quantitative interviews so that they could be systematically examined. He discovered that sabbaticals usually follow three distinct phases.

Recover 

Participants began their recovery with a period that was largely devoted to relaxation and unplugging. DiDonna says that participants may go on yoga retreats, spend time in nature, or see family and friends. It takes about six to eight weeks, which is longer than most people think. He suggests that those who are considering a sabbatical should take at least four months off, and if possible, longer.

Explore 

Participants in the explore phase have collected some personal resources and are now looking to see what else they can do with their lives. The participants might travel to new places or take a class on a topic they are curious about. They may also work on a writing project that they have always wanted to do but never had time to complete. DiDonna says, “It is all about discovering a new side to yourself and experimenting with different things.”

Practice 

Sometimes, experimenting isn’t enough and the participant wants to try out an activity to determine if it will work. Someone might travel to Spain to learn pottery techniques, or they could work at an eco-lodge to think about a career switch. Others might choose to write a novel or solve a company problem that is completely separate from their normal work. DiDonna says that “oftentimes we find these experiences lead us to the most transformation”.

He developed three “sabbatical archetypes” based on the analysis of how these phases interacted to describe most participants’ journeys: a working holiday that alternates between practice and recovery; a free dive that alternates between exploration and recovery, and a quest that unfolds from practice to exploration and recovery.

Reinvigorating workers

DiDonna says that in all these paths, it is clear that a vacation can be more than a simple long break. Those who use them to make radical changes could do anything from a new focus on their work to a complete career change.

“WE WANT to NORMALIZE the idea of the Sabbatical by sharing these stories that show a lot of people do this and end up OK, or most likely better.”

DiDonna says, “It gives people the opportunity to shed their identities and reaffirm themselves or to gain confidence and self-discovery to do something else.” He says that this is important at a moment when many companies want their employees to see themselves as nothing more than cogs in a machine.

DiDonna says that Americans see business in a similar way to Elon Musk sleeping underneath his desk and not Steve Jobs studying calligraphy. “We want to normalize the idea that people take sabbaticals by sharing stories that show how many people end up doing this, and are OK and probably better for it.”

DiDonna suggests that employers might want to offer sabbaticals to employees as an incentive to show them how much the company values their growth as individuals and is committed to it. DiDonna says that it can also help the company to revitalize staff. When people return, they are more autonomous, and creative, and have a broader perspective. They can offer more holistic solutions.

DiDonna believes that those who do not return to their company once their sabbatical has ended are probably better off working elsewhere.

How to take a sabbatical

DiDonna advises employees to not wait until burnout is complete before taking time off. He says that if you don’t plan, you will be taken on a sabbatical.

“WE FIND THAT PEOPLE WITH ACCESS TO THEIR WORK EMAILS OR WHO LEFT AND TOOK UP A CONSULTING JOB IN THE SAME PLACE AS THEIR JOB DID NOT HAVE THE SAME EXPLORING ABILITY.”

He advises people to set aside time for the various stages of time off–at least 6 months, if they are able–and unplug as much as possible from their daily work during this time. DiDonna says that those who have access to their work email or quit to take a job as a consultant in the same field do not have the same freedom to explore.

These opportunities are not only available to singles. He says that some of the most inspiring stories come from those who have managed to make it work with their families. For example, a family who has traveled to a different country and homeschooled their children there for a long time. “You’re showing them that life is about more than just work.”

DiDonna says that no matter how you spend your time off, it’s impossible to know how it will affect you. People who plan their sabbaticals too carefully are often shocked when they find themselves in situations that completely change their expectations of what to do with their time. Even then, the changes can be positive, as they help people discover what they want to do in life, and even who they are.

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