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Are work sabbaticals good for career growth?

We spoke with some professionals who took a long break from work to focus on health and pursue creative interests. This is what they learnt

Many workers take sabbaticals when they feel burnt out and want to reconsider career direction.
Many workers take sabbaticals when they feel burnt out and want to reconsider career direction. (iStockphoto)

Rachna Sharma has spent the past few months coaching people for triathlons and teaching swimming, while training regularly to realise her 50th birthday goal in June: to swim the English Channel.

Three months ago, she decided to take a year-long sabbatical from work so she could spend more time with her son before he leaves for college and work towards her athletic goals. So, she resigned as the national logistics officer at an international development agency. It’s her first long break in a three decade-long career. With enough financial savings, support from husband and steady income from teaching swimming, Sharma is comfortable taking the break.

“Before this, I was not ready earlier to walk away from a steady salary. But I got to a point when I realized this is not enough. I wanted the space to pursue other things,” says the Gurugram resident, adding that she intends to explore flexible work options after the break that will allow her to pursue more interests.

A sabbatical is an extended period away from a job. Some companies offer employees the option to take a sabbatical, with policies varying on offering the breaks with or without pay. Often, workers quit their jobs to take time off and fulfil personal goals, or to take a break from their hectic work lives. There’s no right age to take a sabbatical. Some take it earlier, when they don’t have any family responsibilities or a home loan to worry about. Many take it when they reach senior positions and feel burnt out and want to reconsider career direction.

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It is, however, not an easy choice. For, you need some sort of financial security to help you sail through the break period.

Delhi’s Tilottama Shome, for instance, took a sabbatical in 2016 when she was 45, working with a sportswear brand in a project management and design role. Reason: Eleven years of a demanding schedule, which included managing time between her young daughters and her job.

“I was exhausted with the quantum of work. I wanted a break to pursue some fun interests, and figure out what else I could do,” says Shome, now 52. Though slightly worried about how she would manage financially, she knew she had enough savings to take an extended break. Initially, she missed the routine of the office life. But eventually, she realised the 16-month break was one of the best decisions she had ever taken.

She joined a choir, travelled, and translated and wrote seven children’s books. “I was interested in working for brands and doing creative stuff in the media space. This gap year allowed me to recalibrate and find a way to do that,” Shome says. She returned to full-time work in 2018 with an entertainment company, veering into branding and communications, and currently works with a jewellery design agency.

Health issues and burnout are among the big reasons for people taking sabbaticals. Kolkata-based leadership coach, Tulika Sinha, 56, experienced this 14 years ago.

She had risen quickly through a multinational, managing a large team and several centres across the country. “This continued over many years and I was burnt out. No one realized, as everyone knew me as a workaholic. Work was my primary identity,” she recalls. “I was poised for a senior promotion and I had to convince everyone that I did not want the promotion. I wanted time off.” She took a 10-month sabbatical to focus on her health, spent time with family, travelled, learnt salsa dancing and classical music, and reflected on what she no longer wanted—a return to her previous work lifestyle. While about 50% of the break was a paid sabbatical, Sinha also had savings to help her enjoy the break without any stress. “I had Esops (employee stock ownership plans) and had saved and invested prudently. I did a ‘minimum I need to maintain my lifestyle spreadsheet’ and decided to go ahead with this break,” she says.

I was poised for a senior promotion and I had to convince everyone that I did not want the promotion. I wanted time off.

Her organization was understanding. She returned in an HR role part-day mode, studying alongside at a certified coach training institution, to become a leadership coach through online classes. In 2013, she resumed a full-time business role with the organization for two years. After handing over the project, she started working independently.

While a couple of months may be adequate for an educational course or travel, sabbaticals are often a period of reorientation and reflection, which need an extended time away. A study by D.J. DiDonna, Harvard Business School lecturer and founder of The Sabbatical Project, which defines and explores sabbaticals, shows that healing from burnout takes months.

Sinha agrees that her break was transformative: “I came to terms with myself and the things I didn’t want to do. I was proud that I could identify the issues, and help myself.”

In today’s transformative work environment, it is heartening to observe an upward trend in organisations recognising the inherent value of sabbatical leave, says Partha Neog, chief executive and co-founder of HR technology company, Vantage Circle. Investing in sabbaticals reflects an organisation’s commitment to holistic employee well-being and growth, he adds.

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Capgemini India is among the few companies that has a sabbatical policy. “We enable employees to address their personal needs better without losing on benefits or continuity of service,” says Aarti Srivastava, chief HR officer (India), Capgemini. “Since sabbatical is available to employees after a certain tenure in the organization, it helps retain those who have already assimilated and integrated with our culture.”

Srivastava highlights a shift from before when mainly women professionals took extended time away for caregiving responsibilities, to others opting for sabbaticals in the past few years to reduce stress, increase wellbeing, pursue interests, and upskill themselves.

Not an easy option

“Not everyone can step away from power, money, and seniority. Many people don’t want to retire because of that,” says Delhi-based Ashok Chadha, 62, an independent strategic consultant who took a sabbatical in 2007. Chadha was heading a US-based credit and receivables management BPO in India at the time. “I had worked without a break and was doing 16 hours seven days a week. You get to a point and ask yourself, ‘Why continue like this? What’s the objective?’”

With ample savings, he stepped away, deciding to see where life would take him. Travel, health and fitness, spending time with family, and part-time assignments filled his next few years. In 2010, he got interested in the not-for-profit sector, and now, he’s on the advisory board of a few foundations, which focus on areas like education—work he finds fulfilling.

Many, however, fear the sabbatical gap in their CV might hurt their future career prospects. Gouri Dutt, 41, experienced this after resigning as a network lead with a startup at the age of 39. “I wanted to relax and refresh, take care of my health, and travel,” says Dutt, who took a break between September 2020 and May 2022. “While interviewing after taking a sabbatical, some companies viewed my unemployment negatively,” she says, who finally resumed full-time work in June 2022 as the business head for a company.

Though some organizations may find it challenging to offer structured sabbatical programmes, Vantage Circle’s Partha Neog suggests options that champion the spirit of sabbaticals by offering flexible work arrangements, temporary role adjustments, or project-based engagements. “These alternative avenues allow individuals to rejuvenate while maintaining a connection to the professional realm.”

Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.


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