Taking Time to Reset: The Mental Benefits of a Sabbatical

Posted May 3, 2019 by Marc Rosenberg in Benefits and Perks
Taking a sabbatical can have a huge impact on employees and teams. One early Justworks’ team member shares his experience, and the impact it had on his mental wellbeing.

After five years at the company, Justworks employees are eligible for a three-month sabbatical. We can leave our jobs, keep our benefits, and return to the gig without skipping a beat. The idea is that those who’ve invested so much of their time are rewarded with the chance to disconnect and gain perspective of life outside work. It’s a chance for a mental reset.

I joined Justworks as the ninth employee, and as an early employee at the company, I was lucky enough to be one of the first people able to take a sabbatical. While at first I was skeptical, it ended up being one of the best things I’ve done — not just since joining this company, but in my career.

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Deciding to Take a Sabbatical

I love what I do, I love my team, and I love my coworkers. I wasn’t upset about working non-stop because it was something I was passionate about and something I believed was helping others. But the strain was beginning to take over. The feedback from my team and peers was to take more time for myself, to stop working all the time, and go live life.

Related Article: Improve Your Mental Health at Work With These 6 Midday Break Ideas

At first, I was worried about taking a sabbatical. I had never taken off so much time from work or school in my life, and I was unsure how I’d fare without a sense of purpose from my job. Even on other vacations, I’d checkin with my team and my boss, and answer emails so I’d still feel in the loop. A mental break was not part of my vernacular or my comprehension of how to be a good employee.

Would my team still need me? Would I miss out on important decisions? Would I stunt my career growth?

Not knowing what would be happening at work while I was gone was nerve-racking for me. Would my team still need me? Would I miss out on important decisions? Would I stunt my career growth? These thoughts, and a million more, ran through my head in the months leading up to my time off. I told my boss my fears, and he assured me that he’d take care of me, and that problems would still exist for me to solve upon my return. I trusted him, but still, I was skeptical.

Ultimately, I took the leap. I took time and thought about myself, my job, my place in the company, and what I wanted for my future. I travelled and saw parts of the world I’d only dreamed about visiting. I disconnected. I cleared my head and gave myself some much needed separation from my job and the life I had known for the past five years. Two months later, I’m back at work and, lo and behold, my boss was right. My team carried on without me and there are still new problems to solve.

What Did I Learn From My Sabbatical?

As pointed out by the co-founder of Help Scout, who also recently took a sabbatical, the time off can change you in a lot of ways you couldn’t have imagined. For me, it strengthened my relationships with my team, my coworkers, and my boss. It empowered my team. And it gave me new perspectives.

Strengthening Relationships

I’ve struggled with insecurities at work for a long time. I’ve always felt that I needed to be involved in every project in order to be valued, or that my company would find ways of doing things without me and I would soon be replaced. I think this is a pretty common feeling for people who join companies at such an early stage, but it’s one that can have some rather debilitating effects. If I wasn’t constantly communicating, how would people know that I cared and that I was an asset to the company?

If I'm not present 24/7, I can still add value and be a contributor.

Removing myself from the office forced me to confront these fears head-on. By not talking to coworkers every day, I learned to find other ways to connect. I still communicated with them during my sabbatical, but never about work. My boss would give me updates on the construction happening around our building or hallowed tales about the MTA, and I would tell him about the best donuts in every country I visited. It gave me the confidence that I could have relationships with those people outside of the office, and that if I wasn’t present 24/7, I could still add value and be a contributor. I now have the peace of mind that if things were able to progress and prosper in the two months I was gone, they can continue to do so now that I’m back.

Empowering My Team

When I returned from sabbatical, my boss said something that really stuck with me: “Having your team carry on without you really is a testament to what you’ve built here.” He also mentioned that my absence allowed him to identify areas where we needed more help and ways to take responsibilities off my plate.

Before I left, I made sure that my team could cover my meetings, be capable of escalating issues, and have the tools in place to be able to carry on their duties without anyone noticing a difference in the day-to-day. Each member of my team stepped up to be stakeholders in meetings, escalated issues to other teams when needed, and became true subject matter experts in their fields. It quickly became apparent that they not only had the skills to do their jobs with total independence, but could excel without my help. A true dream for any manager.

My team not only had the skills to do their jobs with total independence, but could excel without my help.

Gaining New Perspectives

Although I wasn’t able to do any work for two months, I certainly thought about work for two months. I thought a lot about things I loved about my job and things I didn’t love about my job. I thought a lot about things my team was doing really well and things I really wanted to fix.

Removing myself from the everyday routines gave me new perspectives on how I operate, how I manage my team, things that frustrate me about my job, and how I should balance work with other parts of my life. If I was able to leave for two months, I could also leave at a reasonable time every night, take PTO, and hand over new responsibilities to my team.

Related Article: Defining Work-Life Balance for Your Small Business

It’s entirely too common to hear about burnout at growing companies where people feel like they need to work long hours and often on weekends to prove their contributions to a company. While having perks like unlimited vacation policies help encourage employees to take time off, having and supporting a considerate sabbatical policy gives employees a wonderful milestone to aim for during their time at the company.

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Motivating your employees to take the sabbatical is an incredible way to show support for their mental well-being beyond just being another item on a perks page. I love what I do, but after working extremely long hours, nights, and weekends helping to build a company, I could feel the exhaustion setting in. My sabbatical gave me the chance to take a healthy break to reset my batteries, rather than say goodbye to something that I still have a strong passion for. Now that I’m back, I can approach problems with a more open mind.

Taking a sabbatical offered a new start that allowed me to focus on me and think about my well-being. I can now pass that message along to the people I manage and the teams around me. Not everyone may have the same experience or luxuries of traveling the world solo for a few months, but everyone can use more time to think about themselves and focus on what truly matters to them.