The Science of Sabbaticals

Take a Break to Take It to the Next Level

I used to take yearly sabbaticals. For three glorious months each summer my time was more or less my own. I did whatever took my fancy: running around the yard with my siblings, reading books, pestering my parents. You probably did, too. We were little, so the associated learning was not exactly productive. Luckily, sabbaticals don’t need to be productive to have benefits.

Sabbaticals were traditionally year-long, funded affairs reserved for scholars and professors. Today, most people consider any break from regular work lasting a month or more a sabbatical (though counting summer vacation is surely unconventional). A sabbatical might include long-term traveling vacations or goal-oriented career breaks. The trend is catching on: people are crafting their own sabbaticals and even companies are coming aboard. Nearly 17% of employers offered some form of sabbatical in 2017.

The goal of a sabbatical, even one that is goal-oriented, is to rejuvenate and reap the accompanying rewards. What does science have to say? Studies documenting the benefits of substantial breaks point to an increased sense of well-being, greater productivity, and a boost to creative thinking.

Sabbaticals enhance well-being and productivity

In a study of 129 faculty members who had completed a sabbatical, matched with 129 faculty members who had not, those who had taken time off reported a greater sense of well being. They indicated that their time spent away had not only been beneficial for their home lives and families but that their home institutions had also benefited. Scholars who had traveled overseas saw greater benefits.

A smaller, qualitative study of 70 medical school faculty members across seven universities echoed these findings. The study also identified tangible, institution-aiding accomplishments achieved by returning sabbatical participants. Three of four returnees accomplished something notable, such as writing books or reorganizing teaching programs, directly following their time away.

Though scientific study of sabbaticals, in particular, is limited, the benefits of its common components are well-documented. Viewing these components as a whole, we can begin to explain our professors’ experiences scientifically.

Variety of experience powers creativity

In 2012, a group of researchers set out to test whether novel experiences enhanced creativity. Their study was twofold. In the first experiment, participants walked through their school cafeteria in virtual reality, experiencing novel, physics-defying events. A control group used the same system but was fed a normal experience. In the second experiment, two groups of participants made a sandwich. One group made it as one usually would, the second switched up the order of ingredients.

In both experiments, participants who had been involved in novel experiences scored higher in a cognitive flexibility test. What is the biological relationship? Our understanding of neuroscience can illuminate the possible processes at work. When you have new experiences the neurons in your brain communicate in seldom used, or possibly even novel, ways. These new pathways increase connectivity, aiding in creative thinking and problem-solving.

Remember that of the 120 scholars included in our aforementioned sabbatical study, those who had gone overseas reported more benefits than those who stayed local. This ties into the idea that variety of experience powers creativity. After all, what’s more varied than an entirely different setting with novel social norms? Research further confirms the link between travel and creativity.

The organizational benefits of sabbatical

Beyond the personal and biological benefits of sabbaticals, social science provides further evidence of organizational benefits. In a study of 61 sabbatical-taking leaders of non-profit organizations, those taking sabbaticals reported the same innovative energy as we’ve seen from professors. They returned to work rejuvenated and ready to tackle problems with fresh eyes. In addition, the short-term absence of these high-level professionals opened opportunities for interim leaders. These newly appointed leaders excelled in their work, becoming more effective employees overall.

Planning your sabbatical

If you aren’t lucky enough to work for a company that provides employee sabbaticals for years of service, you still have options. The first is to bring this idea to your management team. As job-hopping millennials invade the workforce, companies are looking for ways to increase retention. Sabbaticals may be an effective solution.

If the retention argument doesn’t sway the big boss, you’re not out of luck. Your employer doesn’t need to have a sabbatical policy for you to enjoy one. Speak to your supervisor about the possibility of a month of unpaid leave. Alternatively, breaks in employment as you transition from one role or company to another can easily be arranged to allow time for a sabbatical. My advice? Start saving, start planning, and reap the benefits.

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