Do you know what I would like to do if I could take 6 months off? Live out my other dream career as an archaeologist. Spend months brushing granules of dirt off an ancient bone, discovering something hidden and long forgotten with equally obsessed amateur paleontologists. However, balancing an indulged dream against the pressures and demands of a busy life seems nearly impossible. What if taking a sabbatical could actually do more for me than create a chance to realise a dream. How more motivated would I be to take a sabbatical or two, if I knew it would benefit my intelligence, creativity, physical and psychological well being or help me perform better at my real job?
Being a dedicated employee and priding ourselves on our work ethic are important to our self-esteem and value in our working life. Doing the long hours, putting in the effort and demonstrating endurance in the face of insurmountable tasks, are what we do to be successful. These attributes are highly praised and often come at the cost of regular holidays and planned breaks. Maybe we struggle to step away from work because we are unaware of the immediate and long-term effects of taking well-earned sabbaticals? And I don’t mean just one. The more you take the better the effect.
The biggest hurdle is committing to your own self-care. Can you imagine fronting up to your boss or (family) and asking for a few months or even a year off? Most of us get a little nervous just at the idea of taking more than a couple of weeks away from our jobs. Our self-doubts amp up as we worry about loss of respect, skill decline, fear of being replaced or losing our position, the job being made redundant in our absence and workplace culture and demands changing in the interim. However, even with these concerns, it appears that the value of sabbaticals is starting to make sense. People are increasingly selecting to plan and take extended breaks over staying in jobs, opting for other goals than just workplace achievements.
A sabbatical, unlike general leave (and the two-day weekend we sometimes pretend is like a holiday), is a longer rest from our working lives. Sabbaticals often last more than one month and can extend up to a year, depending on your workplace and career. In most businesses’ employees begin to generate long service leave after a period of ten years. Accruing time off for longevity and loyalty in one work environment generally gives a return of around two months paid leave. Sabbaticals fall under a more fluid guideline. They can include paid or unpaid time off. The length of time away from your job is determined by yourself and the flexibility of your employer. It is not determined by length of tenure.
A sabbatical is an autonomous decision to invest in yourself.
The need for self-development, to discover untapped potential and enhance our skill base are driving us to seek something beyond the working life. We no longer need to see time out and our careers as opposing forces. Instead of viewing long leave as the end of our career, it might be time to re-think our approach to taking sabbaticals. Employers may want to embrace the benefits of encouraging sabbaticals in the workplace when they realise those absent employees may return with more skills and ability than before they left. Quality time out might just be the key to increased professional success, reduced psychological injury, profitability and positive performance cultures.
Brain and Body Benefits
It is common knowledge that taking a break is good for us, although in the current climate it seems finding weeks to put aside for rest and relaxation has become more and more difficult. It’s time we paid attention to the increased benefits of, not only taking a holiday, but investing in frequent sabbaticals. These benefits extend across your psychological, physical well being and your brain function.
Time lining sabbaticals into our lives has substantial positive effects on our executive function, creativity and overall career performance.
What we already realise is that extended periods of time off, do us the world of good. For starters sabbaticals;
- Improve your immune system to fight illnesses (like viruses, colds etc)
- Enhance your emotional well-being.
- Build self-esteem and confidence by positive risk taking, new experiences and increased socialisation.
- Decrease your stress (allowing cortisol levels to stabilise).
- Energizer motivation by breaking routines and feelings of apathy in daily life.
More recent research is showing us exciting and significant effects on how sabbaticals can improve our brain and body functioning. The Icahn School of Medicine, University of California and Harvard, conducted a study that showed a six day retreat was capable of causing genetic changes. These genetic changes improved the immune system, decreased stress levels and even lowered the levels of proteins in the brain associated with depression and dementia. Not only that, but the study indicated that these genetic effects were still present one month later.
We can only imagine the long-term benefits from frequent sabbaticals aimed at self-improvement or skill enhancement. (As yet there is no research cross comparing a healthy sabbatical with a cruise ship ‘24-hour-drink-fest-party,’ however I’m sure there will be plenty of volunteers for the later). So, sabbaticals can improve our physical immune system and may help the physical signs of depression and dementia. The benefits lasting much longer than the holiday itself. It doesn’t stop there. Here is another fascinating thing about a well-earned extended break. It can also;
- Boost your creativity.
- Increase your emotional intelligence and resilience.
- Increase your executive functioning capabilities.
There is growing evidence on how sabbaticals can enhance executive functioning, (the area of the brain associated with planning, thinking, organising and problem solving), and allow the creative mind in us all, to be released. And a creative mind is what you need moving into the future.
Judy Willis M.D.M.Ed in The Impact Of Creativity On The Brain, outlines the importance of creativity to enhance brain function. Willis believes that constructs such as ‘long term memory, concept construction, intelligence; academic, social, and emotional success; the development of skill sets and the highest information processing (executive functions) that will become increasingly valuable for students of the 21st century,’ are by-products of creativity. And creativity is a by-product of taking a sabbatical.
The Future of Creative Potential
Not convinced to book that leave yet? The importance of creative thinking is vital for emotional resilience and intellectual achievement. Let’s take a moment to see into the future and learn how creativity will be a much sort after human skill. According to the World Economic Forum in the Future of Jobs Report, in 2015 the top 3 human skills employers wanted were;
- Complex problem solving (part of executive functioning).
- Coordinating with others (part of emotional intelligence).
- People management.
By 2020 (at the time of writing this, that is just shy of 12 months from now), the top 3 human skills to secure your job will be;
- Complex problem solving.
- Critical thinking.
- Creativity (a very new entry into ‘must have’ qualities of future employees).
Beyond 2020, the prediction is that the human skill of Creativity jumps to the number one spot and Emotional Intelligence arrives on the scene, moving from the 6th desired attribute in future employees into the top 3. These significant human skills will be needed to balance our increasingly technologically dependent world and can be connected with the benefits of taking sabbaticals. I know! How easy is that?
A rested mind is a creative mind.
Creativity is coordinated through the right hemisphere of the brain. Let’s not get caught up with thinking this skill is only about creating works of art, making things of great beauty or releasing emotional stress through artistic exploration. Creativity is innovation. It is a human skill that will help you perform better in solution finding (problem-solving), allow you to view opinions from different perspectives, explain and comprehend information from new angles and increase success to communicate, connect and conflict resolve with others. Creativity is integral to change adaptation and flexibility, as it lets you cope and deal with uncertainty by allowing you to include the unknown in your thinking.
Sabbaticals can untap your creative potential by delivering time. Time is the quality none of us have and desire the most. A sabbatical forces you to step out of a busy life, preoccupied with ‘living’ and making immediate choices on a daily basis. It allows your mind to drift, slow down, process and tap into that dusty and underused imagination. Much like the positive effects of boredom to spark your imagination, a sabbatical, by changing your environment, focus and goals, can stimulate the brain to activate a different skill set than you would normally use. Time and personal freedom are the key to growing your creative potential. Two things a sabbatical can offer you.
Research conducted by academics across New Zealand, United States and Israel (Sabbatical Leave: Who gains and How Much?) studied the effects on sabbaticals across 10 different universities. They focused on emotional well-being and found that their colleagues enjoyed enhanced psychological health during sabbaticals, particularly where they journeyed out of their home country, in comparison to those who did not take leave. This cohort also showed increased resource levels (productivity and resilience).
Our mental health is improved by the time we take to venture into the world and gain new experiences. But leave your work and screen obsession behind. Our brains are not designed to be switched on 24/7. They are engineered to problem solve, whether that is a complex problem or an emotional issue, by slowing down and allowing information to randomly explore possibilities. Mastering emotional resilience is a part of effective problem-solving. Contrary to what most might believe our brains need time to disconnect from excessive focus, restructure the process of seeking information, develop the capacity for insight or deeper understanding of the issues and relish in the very scientific term, the ‘A-ha’ moment, which is the sudden realisation of a solution to the problem (according to Simone Sandkühler, and Joydeep Bhattacharya in their research on insightful problem solving). None of which can be mastered in our hectic working lives but can be generated by taking sabbaticals and allowing us to connect with our emotions, randomly work through hurdles and learn to explore and stabilise intense feelings. The brain needs to slow down in order to do this and work as it is intended. If we are screen-obsessed and use holidays to stare mindlessly at technology or continue work tasks, you may as well stay at home and continue the grind because the benefits are going to pass you by.
Studies such as these confirm what we know instinctively; that taking a break will have a positive outcome on your general physical and mental well-being. How you use your sabbatical is also important. We need to create space and time to switch off our working brain and explore and develop our creative brain. Having a different focus, exploring the new and novel, breaking a routine and even being bored by too much free time on your hands, are positive outcomes from taking that much-needed break. It is the restful escape that will develop a more creative, emotionally resilient and intelligent you.
Sabbaticals, especially regular sabbaticals, have the ability to improve our brain function, release our creativity, enhance our emotional intelligence and alter our genetic map for the better. It is time to embrace the body and brain benefits of planning sabbaticals and reap the emotional and physical rewards. Employers should look more positively on the long-term outcomes that sabbaticals can have on their staff, their productivity and overall employee well-being. A well-planned sabbatical has the ability to help us all.
On that note, I think it is time I got myself a safari suit, picked up a shovel and booked my own sabbatical. Afterwards, I can return to my career and family rested, inspired, creatively improved and physically ready for the year ahead.