Swill the coffee, fight the traffic, shuffle the papers, field the phone calls, coddle the clients, answer the e-mails, fight the traffic in the opposite direction. Do it again tomorrow. Thirty years hence, will you regret the things you didn't do, such as climb Mount Everest or travel the world or take the kids across the ocean to meet their first cousins? Maybe it's time to take a sabbatical to put your life and interests on the front burner. Long a staple of universities and law firms, sabbaticals also crop up at other companies during economic upturns as employers try to set themselves apart from the competition, says John Bremen, of Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a benefits-consulting firm. Watson Wyatt estimates that about 20% of large companies offer sabbaticals as a benefit.
And as perks go, it's a good one. Sabbaticals can last from six months to a year, generally with full benefits, at 50% to 100% of salary. To qualify, you normally have to have clocked several years or more on the job, and you must be willing to come back. "There's usually a requirement that you stay for another two years," says Bremen. "The company expects you to repay the debt." Even without company backing, you could turn a break between jobs into a do-it-yourself sabbatical, or take an unpaid leave. Whatever the setup, start planning early, says Bremen, because rejiggering home and work commitments can take a year or longer.
You say you can't possibly jump off the gerbil wheel, even for a few months? Sure you can. We've anticipated your objections and will show you how to overcome them.
1| The boss won't let me. Before you use the powers-that-be as an excuse, check your benefits manual. Many companies allow employees to carry unused leave into the next year, in which case you can add the reserve to your annual leave for a mini-sabbatical. A few employers encourage uuml;ber vacations by eliminating the distinction between sick days and other leave. At Wells Fargo, for instance, employees get up to 35 paid days annually, which they can use for anything from nursing a bad cold to wintering in Tahiti.
Failing a generous leave policy, your company might be willing to bend the rules just for you. Draft a proposal that states your objectives, the potential benefits to the company and strategies for covering your responsibilities. "Be upbeat and enthusiastic," writes work-life consultant Bonnie Michaels, in A Journey of Work-Life Renewal (Managing Work & Family, $14). "You don't want to start with negatives such as 'I'm really burned out by this job.'"
Avi Alpert, 28, of Silver Spring, Md., had no intention of waiting until retirement to pursue a passion for travel. He asked his employer, the Corporate Executive Board, in Washington, D.C., for a six-month unpaid leave so he could tour the world with his wife, Karen, 29. "My manager was a little surprised but very supportive. The company's attitude was, 'We'll do what it takes to keep you,'" says Avi. After some discussion, the company agreed to a working relationship that stretched all the way to Borneo. "I had to get in touch every few months," says Avi, who had access to e-mail while he was on the road.
Karen's approach was more drastic. She quit her job at the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life with the idea of finding different work later, and she did. When she and Avi returned, the Hillel Foundation rehired her in a new position -- for more money.
2| I can't afford it. True, you probably can't afford a six-month vacation at the Ritz. But less costly (and more interesting) possibilities abound. The Alperts traveled mostly in Southeast Asia, where costs are relatively low. The couple rented out their house to cover the mortgage and used savings to replace their income. They spent about $100 a day -- the same as their expenses at home (including the mortgage) -- and traded their group health insurance for travel and health insurance, which ran a modest $440 for both of them for six months. Their group health coverage, through Avi's employer, picked up again on their return.
"Sabbateurs" on shorter sojourns often swap houses to keep costs down. For a fee of about $50 to $80, you can get access to home-exchange listings at www.swapnow.com or www.intervac.com. Or you can avoid pricey hotel stays by renting a home or an apartment in your destination city. For example, a two-bedroom apartment overlooking Lake Como in Italy (at www.vrbo.org) recently ran $600 a week -- a steal compared with what you'd pay for a hotel. Other vacation-rental Web sites include www.untours.com and www.apartmentsapart.com.
Yet another way to travel cheap (and do good) is to volunteer while you're on the road. Bonnie Michaels and her husband, Michael Seef, both self-employed consultants, took a 12-month sabbatical several years ago. They defrayed costs by participating in live-in volunteer programs, a strategy that also fulfilled Seef's goal of contributing to other cultures. Seef and Michaels, then 61 and 57, spent one glorious week working on an organic farm in Australia -- and a grueling few days scything undergrowth at a work camp in Japan. (Lesson: Talk to former participants before you sign on.)