managemnet company strategy managemanet Why More Companies Should Have a Sabbatical Policy

Why More Companies Should Have a Sabbatical Policy

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

In the academic world, it’s a pretty established practice to take a sabbatical. That’s typically an academic year break where you step out of teaching and on-campus work and spend it researching, traveling, writing something productive, but also something different. North American universities started offering them in the 19th century, inspired by the Hebrew tradition of giving crop fields a break after seven years, similar to the religious practice of resting every seventh day.

In the 1970s, some companies started emulating academic sabbaticals but for managers. And today, in the business world, sabbaticals are often used as a well-deserved break from hectic schedules or a privileged chance to pivot into a different role. The thing is, the pressures of the pandemic prompted more organizations to create new paths for workers to step back or step away. And so, employer-supported absences, including sabbaticals, are more common than ever.

Here to break down work sabbaticals and how employees and employers alike can best go about them is DJ DIDONNA. He’s a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the founder of The Sabbatical Project. He’s also been on one. DJ, welcome.

DJ DIDONNA: Great to be here. Thanks, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: What’s with the growing popularity of work sabbaticals?

DJ DIDONNA: I think sabbaticals have been growing behind the scenes for a long time. Usually, folks ask for special exceptions. I think what’s been growing in popularity are the official sabbatical policies that companies offer, obviously helped a lot nudged along by the pandemic. I think employers typically wait until it’s too late to offer sabbaticals and their employers are completely burnt out. They have a backlog of folks who actually need a break, which can backfire because folks will be maybe less likely to return to work as opposed to being preemptive and trying to retain their best talent, refresh them, give them a break, and let them do things outside of work that are important to them.

CURT NICKISCH: What’s the difference between a sabbatical and leave, like family leave, a longer vacation?

DJ DIDONNA: Yeah. What’s the longest vacation that you’ve taken?

CURT NICKISCH: Oh, lately it’s been… I mean, I’m lucky to make it more than a week, maybe I took breaks between jobs as a vacation. Never more than a month or anything like that.

DJ DIDONNA: Yeah, no, I think in the U.S. typically vacations are measured in weeks and sabbaticals are hopefully measured in months. It was a bit of a surprise to me as well when I took one because I had never taken anything longer than maybe a two-week break since, I don’t know, high school. I took a sabbatical when I was in my mid-30s, and so it takes a while to really unpack and take off your work identity, six to eight weeks typically in our research, which is pretty surprising. I think most folks think, you take a longer vacation, two weeks or a month and you’d be good to go, but you’re really just starting to get to the good stuff around time off and returning to your own self.

CURT NICKISCH: So what did your own sabbatical look like?

DJ DIDONNA: My sabbatical started abruptly and it was not of my own choice. Basically, I was approaching burnout in a way that was very confusing to me because I thought that when you have your dream job, when you model out what you want to do and you go out and get it, that’s the end. That’s the best case scenario, and you ride off into the sunset. I think I was feeling extremely burnt out and I didn’t have a story for that. I hadn’t heard of that happening to folks. You hear of folks burning out maybe from long hours banking or consulting, something they don’t want to do, but-

CURT NICKISCH: You were an entrepreneur.

DJ DIDONNA: As an entrepreneur. Started my own company. Great mission, incredible culture. Everything was bopping along well, but after about seven years, just really started to feel like I couldn’t bring my full self to it anymore. Like I said, very disorienting because I thought that was what I was meant to be doing. Turned out I just needed a break, and really I needed to reexamine what I wanted to do with my life. I think I needed to try something new for a bit.

CURT NICKISCH: So you needed more than a break?


CURT NICKISCH: I suppose that’s especially hard for entrepreneurs because there’s this guilt when you leave a startup, like when are you going to start your next one? Right?

DJ DIDONNA: Absolutely.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s like the pressure to keep founding and keep creating. What did that mean? What did you do?

DJ DIDONNA: I’ll preface by saying that everyone’s sabbatical is different and in different phases in life. What you have access to be able to do is different. The marquee event that I did on my sabbatical was I felt like I was getting pulled by things that were urgent but not necessarily important for a long time. And one of the things that was important to me was this spiritual search. And so I went on a six week, 900 mile pilgrimage in Japan. So I walked, visited 88 temples on this island of Shikoku, but some of the more meaningful events on that time off were nursing a parent to health, helping a cousin move, composing and performing my first song, a lot of just really small events that made me feel more human again. I sang in college, and so really returning to the roots of artistic creation and spiritual exploration, these things that take time, but I just wasn’t giving it that time and I think is pretty difficult to do as an entrepreneur or just as a regular person working in the world.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. They were parts of yourself that got squashed.

DJ DIDONNA: Absolutely.

CURT NICKISCH: Do you think changing your location is important in a sabbatical? I’ve heard some people like academics who stay at their institution that year and maybe just do different things. They call that a staybbatical. So for others it’s really important to get away. What does change of venue do to help you with your mental process?

DJ DIDONNA: I think that one of the most important things in a successful sabbatical is disconnection. And I think geographic disconnection can really help. You get away from that routine. Because if you’re on sabbatical and everyone else is working eight to five, and you have this time during the middle of the day, but then you’re essentially on the same schedule as everyone else, it’s just harder to really get into a different rhythm.

CURT NICKISCH: You’re still waking up in the same place.

DJ DIDONNA: Yeah. There’s a research paper at an Israeli university that studied academics taking sabbaticals and the impact of taking sabbaticals abroad versus staying in country. And they found that the ones who took them abroad actually returned with way more energy. Was a conservation of resources paper. Way more energy, creativity got more benefits in doing so. It took them more energy to get back into the regular routine, but that paper would suggest that there’s actual benefits underlying getting away. If only for a little bit, you don’t have to spend the whole time walking around Japan.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. So you had those great experiences. But a lot of people might be afraid to leave. You step back from a job, you worry that, oh, I’m just going to show my employer that they can do just fine without me, or jobs are going to open up and other people are going to get promoted while I’m out of the picture. There’s got to be a little bit of anxiety in there too, right?

DJ DIDONNA: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s about the stories we tell around this. So the stoics talk about how everything has two handles. You can pick it up with a scarcity mindset of as soon as I step away, they’re going to realize that someone else can do my job just as well as I could. What we often see is folks come back and they say, “Hey, listen, in order to re-up here, here’s what I need and here’s what I want.” And the employer’s like, “Great, we actually missed the stuff.” Everyone’s replaceable. So in some sense, you provided some junior employees a chance to step up, but they probably also got to see what they couldn’t replace when you were gone and see that they wanted to have you around. I think that’s the more often scenario that we see, and I think if you design it as a company ahead of time, instead of having it be an emergency shoot that you pull, I think that’s what you’re more likely to see.

CURT NICKISCH: There’s also the danger that companies only know you as the person you were, and so when you come back and you may have other interests or you may have had some new ideas and they’re ready to put you back where you were.

DJ DIDONNA: I think that what happens, and we can talk about the results of the research, is that folks come back with more confidence and self-affirmation around who they are and what they do because they endeavored on something that is perceived to be risky and it actually turned out to be great. And so I think they understand that they can provide value in a lot of different ways. I mean, some people use their sabbatical explicitly for retraining, upskilling. I remember Uber had a sabbatical policy and one of our interviewees used it to learn machine learning and was able to come back and say, “I want to be in another part of the business. And I also got some skills to give myself a headstart to get there.” So it really depends on how you use the time.

CURT NICKISCH: So it does raise the question, if you go on a sabbatical, how do you prepare it for it mentally? How do you prepare your family for it, your coworkers for it? But also it tends to be a financial hit for most people, unless you have an extremely generous employer.

DJ DIDONNA: Yeah. And I always say that it’s an extreme privilege to take a sabbatical in general, and we can get into that and why I created The Sabbatical Project to try to make it more equitable, but it’s difficult for almost anyone to take one right now, to pull the pull chute and take time off. But if it’s something important to you and you say, what are you doing in five to seven years, and you’re saving up money and you’re going to take time off, you’re letting your employers know that you’ve got a three-month block in January of 2026 or something, then it actually becomes something that is just a matter of savings.

I was actually speaking to someone from Australia who said that they have a policy where, as a teacher, you can set aside 20% of your salary. It’s like a tax-free account. So that you can take these leaves of absences and you’ve been paying into it for seven years prior. So I think companies can come up with solutions that don’t require just paying someone full salary while they’re off, that enable, help someone to save, keep people’s benefits so that they don’t have to worry about that, and then give people the ability and the freedom to take that time and then they can save for it themselves.

CURT NICKISCH: So we’ll talk more about the policy to support this and what employers can do. Even in these situations, it’s definitely… I mean, I don’t know. Where does the research come down for what income level most sabbatical takers are? Because, for some people, saving 20% is just not possible.

DJ DIDONNA: Absolutely. The majority of the folks that we had in our study are highly educated, relatively high earners, but there are folks across the socioeconomic spectrum and the outcomes of a sabbatical are the same no matter where you are on that spectrum. If you have a company where you have a sabbatical policy and it’s paid or there’s a stipend, then you’re not putting the financial pressure on anyone. It’s just part of working there and it’s part of the culture to take time off. There’s not some policy like unlimited vacation that no one actually can use.

And we have a lot of examples of this in the nonprofit world actually, where these funders, so the McGregor Fund in Detroit is one example. They actually fund nonprofit executive to take a year off. And what that allows folks to do is people who are very, very passionate about their work, been working at it for a decade or two, can step back. The funders can actually see how those organizations work when they’re not there. And it shows you that if you give people the benefits and the permission to do that, it’ll have a positive impact no matter what. But we’re at this place in our society around work where it’s just not the norm yet. But 100 years ago, we didn’t have the weekend yet. So this is something we’ve seen in the last few years, everything that’s up for debate around work.

CURT NICKISCH: I imagine sometimes when people take sabbaticals, the negative event is getting fired or being laid off. A lot of people, just start back into a new job or really get heavy on the search and don’t take time in between. You’re being given a sabbatical in a way. What’s your advice for people who find themselves in that position?

DJ DIDONNA: Again, if you’ve been saving up a little bit to be able to give yourself a cushion, which is a privileged position to be in, I think it’s one of the best times to step back and reevaluate what you’re doing. I liken it to shopping while you’re hungry at the grocery store. I mean, all of your connections are going to be in the same industry. You’re going to post on LinkedIn or whatnot and say that I’m looking for a new job, and your role that you are in is what people are going to think of you as and the sector that you’re working in. And so it’s very difficult to actually break free from that and even evaluate other options. So I think both from the personal energy, healing, being ready for the next, the leg of the marathon is super important to take that step back, but then also getting to that mountaintop or trough and saying, which mountain do I want to climb next? Am I on the wrong mountain? Am I heading the right way? David Brooks talks about it as wayfinding and first mountain, second mountain.

CURT NICKISCH: What can organizations do to set sabbaticals up in a better way?

DJ DIDONNA: I think the first thing that they need to do is offer some sort of compensation, whether it’s basic stipends, people retaining health insurance and allowing people to fully disconnect by shifting their responsibilities off to someone else on the team.

CURT NICKISCH: Is that a problem with the current situation that a lot of employers offer them but it’s basically unpaid leave? Or do you just want more people, more employers making that an option?

DJ DIDONNA: Yeah, most employer sabbatical policies are unpaid, which makes it difficult for everyone to participate in them. The Society of Human Resource Management has a study from six years ago that said 14%. I’d imagine that’s much larger now.

CURT NICKISCH: This is in the United States or…


CURT NICKISCH: Okay, yeah.

DJ DIDONNA: And I mean, this is the thing, culturally, in some other places, like Sweden for example, every citizen can take six months off to pursue something entrepreneurial funded by the government. In Australia, all civil servants have what they call long service leave, six months. And the legacy of that is that’s how long it took to sail from the UK, but no one’s going to get rid of that benefit because it’s awesome. And these countries, these organizations have found a way to be successful. So it’s all a matter of just designing it and putting into place.

CURT NICKISCH: So If most companies don’t even have them, have policies at all, what do you tell them?

DJ DIDONNA: The first thing I would think about is compensation, just making sure that folks can take it and that it’s equitable. The second thing is duration.

CURT NICKISCH: So you’re saying jump from having no sabbaticals to paid sabbaticals?

DJ DIDONNA: Yep, absolutely. I don’t think there’s a middle ground because if you have unpaid, uninsured sabbatical, it’s just really creating a hurdle of the haves and have nots who can take time off.

CURT NICKISCH: Then it’s only the senior executive or people who are independently wealthy who can do it.

DJ DIDONNA: Exactly. And I think there’s value to that as well because I do think that if you can get the managers understanding the value of extended leave, only the most cold-hearted folks will come back and say, that was amazing. And also, no one else gets it. So I do think this is about changing the story of you can be a good worker and also take time off every once in a while.

The other thing I would touch on is the duration. So make sure that it’s measured in months, not weeks. I get a lot of inbound from companies setting up policies that are month long or five weeks. I don’t want to discourage that because I think any time off is better than none, but that’s a European vacation. I think it needs to be longer, so work up to it perhaps.

And the third thing is disconnection. So truly allow and force the employee to disconnect by disconnecting their email, putting out their responsibilities onto other folks. And I think that’s a huge benefit for companies to do that because you’re actually seeing what happens when they’re gone. You’re practicing turnover and handing over responsibilities and figuring out what people are doing and redistributing them. Turnover is not something to be avoided, it’s the way things are. And so the more repetition you have of switching people in and out, the less surprised you’re going to be when someone quits or goes on parental leave and that sort of thing.

CURT NICKISCH: A lot of companies though, and I know this from reading your research, a lot of companies want people to take a break and other companies want people to be productive in different ways or maybe come in and work with some different teams, but you’re saying it really should be the break.

DJ DIDONNA: I think that’s better than nothing. I know Endeavor Global will have people, it’s more of like an externship. So they’re working from one of their international offices, they’re working with their portfolio companies, so it’s a different type of work, and they’re getting that travel experience. And so I think all those things are better than nothing, but there’s a reason that nothing else comes close to it. There’s some magic that happens around that amount of time.

CURT NICKISCH: I mean, if you’re talking about six months off every 10 years is what, like 5%, so it’s maybe not that much, but if an employer looks at their entire workforce and just thinks that every employee may just, over the course of their tenure, may just cost 5% more, that may just seem incredibly cost prohibitive.

DJ DIDONNA: Again, it’s like a short-term scarcity mindset approach where companies, especially in tech and Silicon Valley, the average tenure among folks in their 20s is less than three years. And so they’re not staying for 10 years anyway. So if you can get them to go from staying for three years to five years by giving them four months off or three months off, that’s a huge amount of time to keep your best employees versus thinking about it as, oh no, someone’s going to leave, or what’s the additional cost going to be? So thinking about the effects on recruiting, retention, folks coming back with that new creativity and rejuvenation and also demonstrating to other folks that the company takes it seriously, that people have a life outside of work.

CURT NICKISCH: A lot of companies are going to think this person’s going to start looking, they’re going to have the wandering eye, and just giving them a break means they’re going to leave. This is just a shortcut to equating.


CURT NICKISCH: And so why should we invest in somebody basically by building them an off-ramp?

DJ DIDONNA: I think that… I remember talking to a person at Zappos, and Zappos has this perspective, whether it’s new employee training, they give people a check on day one when they show up at training to leave. So if you want to leave, take this, don’t waste our time in training, just take the check and leave. And their perspective on things like sabbaticals are, do you want someone that’s trapped at work and the first time they get a breath of fresh air, they’re going to leave the company? It’s hard to imagine those people are doing their best work. And so I think it’s giving an opportunity. Again, the optimistic view is folks who stick their head above and look around and look inside and say what’s important to them and say, “You know what? I like this company. I appreciate that they gave me this time and value me as a whole person, and I want to continue to make this a part of my life and my career journey.”

CURT NICKISCH: What else do companies or organizations need to do besides what you’ve already outlined, which is basically allowing for them and also contributing somewhat to the financial impact for employees?

DJ DIDONNA: Yeah, it’s not that complicated. I think do not put constraints on what people can do. There’s these hidden work assignments, sabbaticals where you can take time off, but it has to be in service to growing your skillset or something like that. I mean, let people be people, let them be human and then help them return and help them come back. And I think that, again, because it’s a more equitable offering… I mean, even parental leave isn’t really available to everybody, even for companies that have parental leave. Some folks are not having families. And so let people have a life outside of work and celebrate that. And I think because everyone’s eligible for it, people will be more excited to pick up extra work for someone else knowing that someone else is going to pick up work for them in the future.

CURT NICKISCH: You said help them return. What does that entail? I mean, they probably shouldn’t come back wearing there like, I went on a sabbatical and all I got was this crappy from-

DJ DIDONNA: Yeah, exactly.

CURT NICKISCH: From Bermuda or something. You shouldn’t come in in flip-flops, but I mean, what are some good practices for re-entry into the workplace after? What can be a life-changing experience for people?

DJ DIDONNA: Create the space for an honest conversation about what folks experience, what they think about, what aspects of their job they want to pick up and which ones they don’t. I think there’s room for people to be surprised on both sides, to say, “I am confident in my work, what I bring to the company. These are the things I’d love to do more of. These are the things I’d love to do less of.” And actually have that be a conversation instead of everyone just pretending things are okay, no one’s burnt out, everything’s going fine, which clearly, as you can see over the past few years, has not been working. It’s just been bubbling under the surface.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What are some of the biggest challenges? I mean, I wonder if even at companies that offer sabbaticals, many people take them.

DJ DIDONNA: I think it’s just one of those company… I used to work in access to finance with banks, and I think banks act with this herd mentality. No one really wants to be the first person innovating, but once the water is safe, everyone will go towards that. And I think companies are the same way. This isn’t really that dramatic of a change that we’re proposing here. Folks regularly get pregnant and take parental leave and companies survive. Companies survived when everyone had to go remotely. I mean, most companies survived, right? Companies adjusted. And so all we’re talking about is taking a small percentage of your company at any given time, letting them be off, and then reincorporating letting someone else be off.

So again, I think we think about change because the last few generations we’ve worked in a certain way, and I think one of the silver linings of the pandemic is seeing that a lot of things are up for grabs. I think the biggest thing holding companies back is just not allowing that to happen at the organization, change the story around work and life outside of work. I think there’s a lot to gain.

CURT NICKISCH: What if some managers or senior leaders are listening to this and they think, “Well, that does sound great, sounds pretty awesome, kind of magical. I can’t really get everybody on board to go there, but I can expand our vacation policy. I can do more for people across the board rather than giving individuals a small subset like a big break all the time.” A nice motivation maybe, but how would you respond to them?

DJ DIDONNA: I mean, obviously I’m a bit of a sabbatical purist, and I think there’s something about that six to eight week, multi-month time off that’s just scratching a different itch. So I think more time off, especially if it’s enforced at the company and everyone’s taking it, that’s never a bad thing. That’s certainly not our problem as Americans. We leave half of our vacation days on the table every year.

But what I would encourage those folks to do is start by doing it themselves. It may seem a little bit, but if a leader can take an extended leave, A, the company, the board, the other leaders will learn a tremendous amount about the organization in their absence. B, they’ll be showing folks, managers, people below them that it’s an okay thing to do. And see, my sneaky sneaking suspicion is that they’re going to have a pretty transformational experience based on all the CEOs that I’ve interviewed, and it’s going to have major positive impacts for the business and for the people. So try it yourself.

CURT NICKISCH: DJ, thanks so much for sharing your sabbatical story and telling us more about the practice of it and how we can do it better.

DJ DIDONNA: Great speaking with you, Curt. Thanks.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s DJ DiDonna. He’s a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and founded The Sabbatical Project.

And we have more episodes and more podcasts. To help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at or search HBR in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get tech technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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