The Modern Sabbatical

Think taking a voluntary break from work right now seems like a crazy idea? Overworked women and the experts who advise them say now might just be the perfect time to retool.

Photograph by Martha Busse

Laura Gallagher’s advertising and public relations agency, The Creative Company, was ranked in the top ten percent of women-owned businesses in America for gross sales. She was traveling several times a month and juggled a busy home life as a wife with two young children. On October 16, 2007, Gallagher turned forty and decided to take a two-week vacation. She didn’t return to work until April of the next year.

“I was very disenchanted with everything,” she says. “It wasn’t fun anymore. I turned forty and I just knew that everything had to change.”

It wasn’t planned, but a badly needed vacation turned into the sabbatical that repurposed Gallagher’s entire life. For a woman who had hit the ground running after college and founded her business in 1989 at the age of twenty-one, it was the first time she had ever actually stopped. She returned to writing, a passion she’d long harbored but rarely indulged. She took long walks and got regular massages. She played with her children and played the piano. She got a divorce.

“I hadn’t taken care of myself in many years,” she says. “I was so busy taking care of other people. And I was technically very successful but I felt too responsible for everyone else. I was burned out, feeling the weight of the world, and a sense of failure, quite honestly.”

When Gallagher returned to work after her six-month sabbatical, it was on her own terms, and that made all the difference.

“We lost some business but we gained more, and far better,” she says. “No one wants to hang out with or do business with someone who is frustrated and bored and unhappy. There is a physical cost and an economic cost to being that other person. Somehow, someway, you’ve got to find your way out.”

Diane Weiner is a private practice psychologist with a Masters degree in nursing, and a long history of counseling and coaching women to take sabbaticals. She has seen everything from unexpected breaks like Gallagher’s to carefully planned and structured experiences. Regardless of the type or length, Weiner says sabbaticals are essential for women to maintain good health. She says women have a hard time granting themselves permission to take sabbaticals, particularly prolonged ones.

“We have to get away from the idea that taking care of yourself is selfish, because it isn’t,” says Weiner. “It really helps to have a break, especially if you can do it in a non-judging way. There is no substitute for having time, actual space, so you can know what’s going on, what you’re interested in and how you might do things differently.”

In addition to counseling women, Weiner takes her own advice to heart. For years she and a small group of her professional female friends have met monthly to support each other in their need for space, essentially granting each other that elusive permission. They call themselves the “Overly Responsible Recovery Group.”

“We have a tendency to feel guilty, and very responsible to others. It’s amazing how things that we absolutely essentially think we have to do sometimes don’t even need to be done at all,” says Weiner, adding that if women don’t make personal time a priority, they may eventually crash and burn. “As women we have our cues when we’re overstressed, overwhelmed, but we just keep overriding them. If you’re not paying attention, they’ll get louder until you do. That’s why I think sabbaticals are wonderful—true sabbaticals, where you can really take a break, say, ‘Stop the world, I want to get off.’”

“Stop the world, I want to get off” is exactly what Kay Plantes did. Actually, she uses a slightly different analogy.

“It’s like jumping off a skateboard when you’re going downhill,” says Plantes of the moment she went from full speed to planned sabbatical. “My legs were going so fast my body couldn’t keep up and I just crashed. It was a state of shock to go from being so busy to not being busy.”

Plantes is an economist and business strategy consultant. Back in 2001, she turned fifty and wanted to give herself a gift. Always a frugal spender, she saved and planned and carved out a full year off. For Plantes, it wasn’t just about slowing down, focusing on her daughter and reconnecting with her creative side; it was a deliberate business plan.

“If you want to attract and retain talent and keep your retirees connected to your company, a sabbatical should be a planned leadership development experience,” says Plantes, who is co-authoring a book aimed at corporate leaders about the benefits of a three- to four-month sabbatical experience with Anne Simon Wolf, a twenty-eight-year mental health veteran and family business consultant. Wolf says structured sabbaticals with clear beginnings, middles and ends are the most effective, and she could not agree more that sabbaticals should be an organizational component of every company—and of our culture as a whole.

“One of the dangers in business is people reach this stage, this stage where they’re doing well and getting accolades and excelling but something is missing,” says Wolf. “And they stay, but quit. Quit and stay. Businesses then get top-loaded that way and lose a certain aliveness.”

Wolf—who has taken an extended sabbatical herself and still sets aside one week every quarter—counsels women of all ages, from young mothers to retirees, to take sabbaticals. She points out that twenty years ago, retiring at fifty-five and taking up golf was all that was expected or even needed. “Today, our health is such that our ability to contribute at that age is still really high. And the culture needs it in terms of service, new ideas, sharing wisdom. I think sabbaticals are essential to have a highly functioning aging population. Maybe it’s not something that we needed even twenty years ago, but now retirees are purposely looking to what’s the next calling.”

That’s precisely why Caroline Garber, a bureau of air management official for the Department of Natural Resources, had planned to retire this year at the age of sixty—she wanted to purposely plan out her next twenty years.

“My plan was to try different things and to basically do it like a kid,” she says. “Kids don’t self-judge. They explore and find things out by being curious without telling themselves, ‘I’m no good at this, I can’t do this.’ I wanted to see where that takes me.”

Garber thought it might take her to Vietnam to build schools. It might encourage her to learn Spanish or expand her photography skills. “Instead of a to-do list, I want to look at a blank piece of paper.”

Garber’s retirement plans have been up in the air since the stock market plummeted, and she is now considering a sabbatical as an alternative. The purpose remains the same: To take time out for herself, to recharge, renew and reconnect with the woman she really is—something she has never taken the time to do over the last forty years in the workplace—and it’s never far from her mind that tomorrow is not a guarantee.

“My mom died when she was sixty-eight,” says Garber. “If I have eight years left of my life, how do I want to live them?”

Though a woman’s gut instinct is to get to work when the going gets tough—take a downturn in the economy, for example—taking a true time out to reevaluate your life might reveal more than you ever imagined.

“I have scaled back in a way so that I don’t need to be on the treadmill anymore,” says Gallagher. “Bigger lives cost more. I put myself on that treadmill and I can get myself off of it. It may take some time to get back to where we were a few years ago in terms of dollars but I want to do it this way. Maybe we’ll never get back there because that’s not how I’m measuring our success. So I don’t even know how much that matters anymore.”

Read more: Take a micro-sabbatical 

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

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