When I graduated from Smith in 1975 with a major in psychology, I had passion, determination and a bunch of women’s voices in my head saying, “There is nothing you can’t do.” As I built my career, I learned that, yes, you can do it all, but you can’t do it all at once. That’s why I became an advocate of “reboot breaks.”
I took my first break after seven years in sales, first in the photographic industry and then in office automation. I realized that while I had an interesting, fun, and challenging job, I needed time off. I convinced my boss to give me six months of unpaid leave while still keeping my medical benefits and my sales-manager role. I used the time to be with my young son and to volunteer in a local community organization. I returned to work refreshed, more creative, more innovative, more strategic, and happier.
Everything we use in life needs to be refreshed or recharged at some point. A house needs repainting, a car needs tune-ups, and your body needs physicals. So why should our spirit and our mental wellness be any different? A sabbatical is one of the best ways to start refreshing one’s life and well-being. You may want a break to seek better work/life balance, or you are burned out and want to try a different field, or you are looking ahead to retirement and what to do next, or you are coping with an emotional event like divorce or illness.
While universities and some private sector companies offer sabbaticals after a set length of employment, it may be difficult in today’s economy to find a boss willing to guarantee you a paycheck after you take a break. You will need to build the case to convince your employer that the time off will benefit the company, too. One key reward for the employer can be increased loyalty. According to a recent MetLife study, employee loyalty across industries is at a three-year low, and one in three workers hopes to find a new job in the next twelve months.
Sabbaticals rebuild our spirits and our outlook and often lead us to live our passions. A survey conducted in May by Harris/Decima on behalf of Gap Adventures revealed that the majority of people (89 percent) feel personal development is just as, or more important than, professional development. I have taken four sabbaticals and I, along with my colleagues, have interviewed over 300 individuals who have taken reboot breaks. Every person says they came back better off professionally and personally. They talk about using the time off to reconnect with friends and loved ones, to heal from traumatic events, to pursue new hobbies and career directions, to exercise more, and to travel to explore different cultures and gain new perspectives.
In my last full-time job, I loved my work as president of MeadWestvaco’s Consumer Packaging Group, but I was yearning to do volunteer work. I traveled over 50 percent of the time and simply couldn’t add another thing to my plate. In 2005 I took a reboot break and left my job. During my twelve months off, I became chair of the board of Pro Mujer, a microfinance and health services organization serving the poorest of women in Latin America. I traveled a lot to meet Pro Mujer clients, took an immersion Spanish class in Guatemala, and visited places I had always yearned to see but never had the time. When at home in Brooklyn, I rejoiced having more time to be with family and friends, rediscover my own city, and get myself back in shape with tennis, yoga, and salsa dancing. I found balance and meaning. Rather than returning to the corporate world full time, today I have a portfolio career: one third of my time is dedicated to sitting on not-for-profit boards, one third is serving on corporate boards (to be able to fund the nonprofit boards!), and one third is reserved for having fun, which includes traveling and writing a book on how everyone deserves and should take a reboot break.
Our publisher at Beaufort Books turned out to be Margot Atwell ’05. She was so moved by the concepts outlined in our book that she arranged with her boss to take two months off to visit New Zealand, where she traveled without a fixed itinerary or set goals. After she returned, Margot told us, “The sabbatical gave me the distance I needed to evaluate my career. I realized that in spite of burnout, I really did like my job. My time off helped me figure out how to restructure the daily workings of the company in a way that made sense, and gave me the renewed energy and enthusiasm to be able to make those changes upon my return.”
Alison Shaw ’75 told us how she loved her job as director of graphics and design for the Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard. For seven years she worked seventy-hour weeks and was totally immersed in her work. After her partner had taken six months off for maternity leave, Alison took four months off to care for their firstborn. One week into her sabbatical, Alison said, “I am never going back.” “It’s remarkable how quickly that clarity came. My sabbatical shifted my life. I had to remove myself from work to gain perspective.” Today Alison is a world-renowned photographer, a career and passion she might not have found without her reboot break.
Rita Foley ’75 is a co-author, along with Catherine Allen, Nancy Bearg, and Jaye Smith of Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break (Beaufort Books, 2011). She is a corporate director, retired Fortune 500 global president, and a committed leader in numerous organizations.