How to Take a Sabbatical (Without Risking Your Career)

How to Take a Sabbatical (Without Risking Your Career)

“My burnout robbed me of confidence. My sabbatical taught me that confidence is a renewable resource, and what renews our confidence is rest.”

Meghan McInerny didn’t think “hitting a wall” was a real thing, until it happened to her. “I had been pushing myself so hard, for so long, that my body and mind were just quitting,” says McInerny, chief operating officer for Clockwork, a Minneapolis-based digital agency. “I was still getting out of bed and going to work every day, but I wasn’t there. And I didn’t like how it felt. When it got to the point where I could not manage it, I met with our CEO and just said, ‘I am not OK. I need to take a break.’ ”

Here’s how she stepped away for four weeks and what happened when she did.

Warning signs. “A big red flag for me—the thing that illustrated for me that I needed to take a break and not just a vacation—was that I started to feel resentful. Why is Clockwork doing this to me? And then I remembered: I run the place. It’s not the organization that needs a reset, it’s me.”

Hazards of burnout. “Lack of rest leads to burnout. Burnout is physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Look at those symptoms. If you are burned out, or you let yourself get burned out, you will do more damage to your organization by not taking a break than you would by leaving for a while.”

Choose rest. “The Dory method (‘Just keep swimming, just keep swimming …’) will only get you so far. Choose when to rest, or the rest will choose for you.”

Parameters. “I did not check email, Slack, LinkedIn, or Facebook. I barely touched Instagram. Colleagues knew that they could text or call if there was an emergency or urgent issue, but no one did.”

Don't Publicize The Time Away. “Aside from clients and co-workers, no one in my life knew I was on a sabbatical. I didn’t want myself—or others—to be tempted to fill my calendar with lunches or coffees or obligations of any kind. I needed to truly do nothing (to the extent a divorced mom of two can actually do ‘nothing’). Once my kids were on the bus in the morning, I would often collapse back into bed for hours at a time. I slept so much at the beginning of my sabbatical that I thought there was something wrong with me. Then I realized, ‘Of course there’s something wrong with you. You’re exhausted.’ ”

Clients might surprise you. “Every client had the same reaction: admiration, envy, and total support.”

Life-changing downtime. “I walked my dog. I read books. I went running. I took naps. I hemmed curtains that had had straight pins in them for two years. I cleaned a closet. I had time to be present with my two children in a way that isn’t always possible. It was life-changing to have that amount of space to decide what I wanted to do.”

Brain reset. “My unscientific opinion is that it takes four weeks to truly reset your brain and your ego, in ways a vacation cannot accomplish. (And if you have kids, a vacation is just parenting in another location.)”

Ego reset. “When you think that you couldn’t possibly leave for whatever length of time you are considering, recognize that it is just your ego thinking that way. (And if it’s the truth, you need a better team.)”

Restoring confidence. “Leading a business requires confidence—a state of trust in ourselves, the people we hire, and the organization we’ve built. My burnout robbed me of confidence. My sabbatical taught me that confidence is a renewable resource, and what renews our confidence is rest.”

Get comfortable with discomfort. “The ego challenges were deep. So much of how we define ourselves comes from what we do and what we have accomplished—who we are at work. When you take that away for an extended period of time, it is deeply uncomfortable. And logically, while we know a healthy organization must be able to run without us, it’s a real ego hit when things are just fine without you.”

Benefits of delegating. “Being gone for an extended time means that someone has to take over the things you usually do. My absence created space for others at Clockwork to step up. It allowed me, and them, to question what I should be doing. It made visible to me, and everyone else, things that it was time for me to let go of and delegate. Ultimately, when I returned, I had a new job.”

Lasting effects. “It’s easy to talk about a transformative experience when it’s fresh. It’s harder to know the true impact until some time has passed. I wondered if I would slip back into all of my old pre-sabbatical habits. Would I find myself burned out again a year later? I’m happy to report that I am still feeling the positive effects. A year later, I have better sleep habits, better boundaries, stronger prioritization of my energy and efforts, and a much stronger sense of who I am outside of what I do.”