A Pause That Refreshes


A Pause That Refreshes

Sabbaticals are not just for college professors. You, too, can take a well deserved break. Just use your imagination and plan ahead.

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.

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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.

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.)

Most volunteer programs charge at least a nominal fee. Explore the options at www.idealist.org and Volunteers for Peace.

3| No one else can do my job. All the more reason to step aside for a while, says Claire Peeps, of the Durfee Foundation, which finances sabbaticals for nonprofit executives in Los Angeles County. Although the program's main mission is to prevent burnout among hard-driving execs, it also aims to create a deeper bench among second-tier employees. "Many of our grant recipients are founders who haven't delegated as much as they should and are carrying more than a reasonable workload," says Peeps. "We hope that there is permanent redelegation of responsibility, and that does happen in most cases."


Similarly, Intel Corp., which offers employees eight weeks off every seven years, considers one person's sabbatical another person's opportunity. "Someone is designated to fill that job, which opens up another slot," says company spokeswoman Gail Dundas. "It helps people to develop new skills, so it's a win-win situation for everyone." As for the All About Eve syndrome (in the movie, the ingenue steals the lead actress's job), not to worry, says Dundas. Whether you return to your old position or decide to transfer to a new one, "your job is guaranteed."

4| My business will suffer. Most clients will stay loyal if you make adequate arrangements, says Michaels, who alerted clients to her sabbatical plan nine months in advance and trained associates to take over during her absence. She let clients know she was available via e-mail and had an assistant check her voice mail.

Gradually decreasing your workload helps, too. When Stephan Melikian, of Jones Hall, a law firm in San Francisco, took a nine-week sabbatical last summer, he finished most of his projects beforehand, tied up loose ends by phone, and handed off new assignments to colleagues, whom he had prepped. Aside from one difficult deal that needed revisiting, "everything went fine," says Melikian, 51. "All of my clients were happy. They were jealous of me."

5| I can't manage my affairs from afar. With e-mail, online banking and automatic bill paying, you can stay on top of your finances even in remote outposts (scout out Internet cafeacute;s at www.cybercafes.com). Michaels and Seef tracked their accounts online and paid Michaels's sister, to whom they assigned power of attorney, an hourly fee to process bills and sort through mail.


If all else fails and you need to call home, you can reduce both hassles and expenses by using a prepaid phone card (compare rates at www.speedypin.com) or a cell phone that operates on GSM technology, the mobile-phone lingua franca of countries outside the U.S. Cell phones require a SIM card to activate local service. You can buy both phone and card in the country you're visiting, or shop at www.telestial.com.

On the home front, ask a friend, relative or neighbor to keep an eye on things. The Alperts relied on their tenant, a colleague of Avi's. Says Avi, "We trusted her to keep us in the loop."

6| I wouldn't know what to do with the time. Start with a passion, suggests Michaels, who spent part of her sabbatical studying flamenco in Seville. "I encourage people to do something they've always dreamed of doing." Leslie Brenton Ward, a corporate ghostwriter in Chicago, took nine months off in 2000 to write fiction under her own name. Mike Owen, a CPA in Newark, Cal., cut his workload to expand a boutique winery, Crystal Basin Cellars. He came up with a plan with the help of Clive Prout (www.thesabbaticalcoach.com).

Some sabbatical programs shape the choices for you. For instance, service-oriented Timberland gives employees who have worked there for three straight years up to six months off at full pay to work for nonprofit organizations (see the box on the facing page). Conversely, the Durfee Foundation urges grant recipients to avoid any activity that smacks of their day job. "It's meant to be a rigorously nonproductive experience," says Peeps.

For most people, the chill-out scenario is the scariest option. "People are afraid of downtime, of having nothing planned -- but that's what they really need to rediscover themselves," says Michaels. When Maria Cabildo, an affordable-housing activist in Los Angeles, received a $30,000 grant from the Durfee Foundation in 2004, she ignored advice to unwind and embarked on a travel itinerary as frenetic as her regular job. "I regret that I did too much," she says.

Melikian, on the other hand, divided his sabbatical between traveling abroad and kicking back in his own neighborhood. "You have a different perspective on the world when you're at the grocery store at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, with nothing to worry about but what to get," says Melikian. Besides browsing the produce section, he hung out with his kids, hiked in Marin County and enjoyed the ultimate luxury: afternoon movies. When he returned to his firm, which specializes in municipal bonds, "I was refreshed," he says. "Suddenly, the work was interesting and fun."

Still not convinced? Let the lawyer argue the case. With sabbaticals, says Melikian, "you have the ability to completely forget about work. There are no conference calls. You know what it's like to get up in the morning and not have to rush out the door to do everything. You're not coming back to a big pile on your desk. You go into a different way of thinking. It was one of the best experiences of my life."