The danger of the sabbatical

A month ago I meet a psychologist whilst I was bike touring around New Zealand. He was from Switzerland. He was traveling around New Zealand with his wife. She was a consultant from Ernst & Young in Geneva and had taken a sabbatical from work to join him for 3 months down under. We got talking about the merits of a sabbatical or a ‘leave of absence’ from work. He was surprised to find that my understanding that the purpose of a sabbatical was to recover from career burn-out or stress. To ‘recharge the batteries’, so to speak, and come back to work reinvigorated and with fresh ideas. He explained that from a psychological perspective the outcome of a sabbatical often triggers a significant life change. Rather than recharging the batteries most people will instead replace those drained batteries by quitting their job and do something else entirely. To prove his pointed his wife had already decided to quit her job the moment she got back to Switzerland.

Stewart Island on a sabbatical. Ambitious career decisions probably won’t at a beautiful place like this.

This has certainly been my experience of taking extended career breaks. When I was 24 years old I left New Zealand on a whim and found a 3-month contract working in Luxembourg. I loved it and 6 months later moved the whole family to Europe, where we lived for the next 4 years.

When I was 35 I finished a contract as an Oracle Developer and decided to spend the winter learning iOS development. Ultimately this led me to publish my own Apps and start Touchtech.

Again, when I was 42 and after a particularly tough few months running Touchtech and suffering serious burn-out I took off on a solo trip through South East Asia and Nepal. I absolutely loved those 2 months of travel. The sense of freedom and serendipity was such a contrast to the pressure and grind of running an IT firm. By the time I returned to Melbourne I’d determined that I was going slowly and gracefully exit the business and move into something more mentally sustainable. This took a few years but it got me to where I am now.

This all sounds wonderful but a sabbatical comes with dangers. The type of career pivot it often encourages can have serious financial consequences. Whilst learning iOS development and trying my hand as an indie App developer my income was a fraction of what it had been when I was an Oracle contractor. I’ve found it can also be an ambition drain. Spending time away from the hustle and bustle of working life doesn’t exactly stimulate the mind to seek new business opportunities or grow a career. Usually, the opposite happens.

A well-timed sabbatical is a fantastic way to instigate a major career change. But they should be used with caution. The idea that it’ll combat burn-out: “I just need a few months off then I’ll come back to work revitalised and stronger than ever” is a dangerous assumption. Be careful confusing a sabbatical with a holiday and in most situations, a couple of weeks at a beach might be the safer option.

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