The Sabbatical Dream
Sabbatical. The romance of the very word is inescapable.You save a few bucks. You tell your boss you need a few months off. No problem, she says. You ship off on a banana freighter and spend the next half-year on a tropical island, drinking rum, painting with watercolors, and getting to know the indigenous wildlife. You develop a sunny disposition. For the first time in a long while, you relax. When you come back down to earth, your job is still there.That's the sabbatical dream. That's the wishful thinking. The truth about sabbaticals isn't quite so simple -- or so glamorous. But in the work world of the '90s, sabbaticals aren't just a pipe dream anymore either. Long a common practice in academia, sabbaticals -- or at least the concept of taking time off -- are slowly spreading into the workplace. In the marketplace, they're being accepted as a means of combating stress, burnout and boredom and a means of encouraging continued learning.Consider a few case histories: Tom Peters, management expert and co-author of six best-selling books (including 1982's In Search of Excellence), is taking an unstructured sabbatical this year. "If I end up trying to grow the world's best hybrid strawberries for the next 30 years, that will be fine," he told Working Woman last year. Eric Utne, founder and editor of the Utne Reader, a Minnesota-based alternative Reader's Digest, is taking off too. After 13 years at the helm of his magazine, Utne has decided that he needs to reconnect with his wife and four sons -- and to find himself again. If Utne's magazine creates a craze for sabbaticals like the craze it spawned for Utne Reader salons, we might as well start planning our trips now.Hope Dlugozima, one of three authors of Six Months Off, a sabbatical-planning guide, says that by the year 2000, a quarter of all American companies will be offering sabbaticals in one form or another. Several prominent companies -- Xerox, American Express, Hallmark Cards and Tandem Computers among them -- already have sabbatical programs that permit employees to take leave for non-medical reasons. These new work policies may be developing as a result of the fact that more people are working longer hours in the workplace. There's also the fact that downsizing companies can offer "unpaid leave" as a means of convincing some employees to stick around through the tough times.On their own, and for a variety of reasons, a number of people have embarked on various quests, sojourns and adventures that have required extended vacations. One company, based in Nashville -- Columbia/HCA -- doesn't offer sabbaticals, per se, but the mega-corporation does permit other types of leave, including educational leave and personal leave. Educational leave times are available to employees who have been with the company for at least a year. According to Perry Stahlman, Columbia/HCA director of human resources, an educational leave usually boils down to six months of unpaid time off. What's more, Stahlman cautions, there's no "iron-clad guarantee" that the same job will be waiting when the educational leave is over.One well-known Nashville firm, however, has been offering sabbaticals for a decade. Bass, Berry & Sims, one of the city's most powerful law firms, began its sabbatical program in the mid-1980s. The firm now offers six months paid leave to any attorney who has been with the firm at least 20 years. The problem is that not many attorneys take advantage of the plan. They say they're too busy.At Bass, Berry & Sims, sabbaticals are available to attorneys who are well-established in their careers; most often, they're already partners in the firm. The catch is that by the time a lawyer is eligible to take time off, he or she may have the sort of massive case load that makes an extended leave of absence impossible.Since 1990, in fact, nobody at Bass, Berry & Sims has taken a sabbatical. Only a handful of the firm's 90 or so lawyers have taken advantage of the program since its inception.David Evans, the firm's legal administrator, hypothesizes that, during the '90s, lawyers feel a greater pressure to stay in the office; it's harder for lawyers to feel comfortable about taking time away from their cases. "Your clients want you there," Evans says. "We sell time," he adds, and when people are not in the office billing clients, the firm doesn't earn money. He admits that, for a law firm, a sabbatical plan is "a very expensive program." That's why the firm typically allows only one sabbatical a year.In spite of the fact that few lawyers take advantage of it, the Bass, Berry & Sims sabbatical plan is still on the books. Interested parties must apply to the firm's executive committee six months to a year in advance. There are no restrictions or stipulations on how the sabbatical must be spent. In the past, attorneys have taken sabbaticals for travel, teaching or further education, Evans says.The word sabbatical comes from the Latin sabbaticus and the Greek Sabbaton. In ancient times, every seventh year was a time when farmers gave the land a rest from heavy tilling. It was a time when debtors were released from prison and slaves were set free. Today, most sabbaticals involve granting some form of leave, every seven years, to employees.While the notion of taking a long time off may sound like paradise, doing it right requires considerable planning. Before dropping everything, there are questions that need to be answered: Who will take care of the house? Who will water the plants? Who will balance the checkbook? Normal life doesn't stop; it has to go on, even if you are on a desert island.In addition, once they're on a sabbatical, busy people may find that having nothing to do is not, in and of itself, all that much fun. A specific project not only makes a sabbatical more enriching. It also helps keep a workaholic busy.For some workers, a headlong plunge into a six-month sabbatical may prove traumatic. Some veterans of sabbaticals suggest that it may be wise to test the waters by taking progressively longer amounts of time off.Even if some corporations are not pushing the idea of sabbaticals, a number of individuals here have taken the initiative and found ways to take time off for themselves. These are stories of people who have taken time off, sometimes by choice and sometimes under duress. These are people who found the courage, and the wherewithal, to walk away.A CHURCHWOMAN IN RUSSIAWhile Linda Parker was away on sabbatical, her two children received mail from her every day. She knew that international mail could be slow, so, before she left for Russia, she had written the letters and left them with her husband.Parker, a 43-year-old associate minister at Vine Street Christian Church in Nashville, took her first sabbatical last year. She had been at Vine Street for seven years, and she had been putting off her sabbatical for a while. She had made so many plans over the years, in fact, that she divided her three months off into three parts.Parker spent her first three weeks in Russia as part of a team organized by the National Organization of Churches to restore the 532-year-old Iversky monastery, located on an island in the middle of a lake in a remote part of the country."It was not a witness kind of thing," Parker says. "We went to work." For three weeks, she and the other 29 members of the group, along with a group of Russian youths, worked and lived alongside the monastery's regular inhabitants. They slept on floors, ate sparsely -- lentils were a staple -- and lived without plumbing.During Parker's stay, Iversky's 532nd anniversary was celebrated. The local archbishop blessed the monastery, and a special worship service was held, followed by a bell concert from the bell tower. Next came a procession around the monastery's outside walls. The archbishop blessed everything, including the lake and the building, Parker says. The luncheon that day included a rare treat of fish.During her time at Iversky, Parker made a few trips into the nearby village, and she made one visit to St. Petersburg. Her goal was to interact with the local people as much as possible. "They loved their country and wanted to rebuild it," she says. At the same time, she found that many young people "had no idea whether they could find a job." Her guide in St. Petersburg was a young woman who had been an art historian. After the government subsidy for her job had ceased, the woman had started giving tours of her native city to make ends meet. "She was ambitious, enterprising and trying to survive," Parker says.On her visit to St. Petersburg, Parker was unprepared for the number of people she saw living on the streets. She was surprised to find so many people looking for work. "It was difficult to walk down the streets because there were so many people who needed help," she says. "There were lots of peddlers, lots of beggars and lots of disabled people." Parker remembers walking down a flight of steps and seeing "someone on every step trying to make a buck."Back in the United States, Parker spent the remainder of her sabbatical attending two work-related seminars -- one in Pittsburgh and one in Atlanta. She also went on a week-long "silent" retreat to Loretto, a convent near Elizabethtown, Ky. There she spent most of her time alone, reading, reflecting and, she confesses, working on photographs of her trip to Russia. She also volunteered at a retirement center and nursing home run by the convent, spending time with the residents. "I offered to write letters," she says, "but mostly they just wanted to talk."Parker didn't have to make as many pre-sabbatical arrangements as some others do. Her husband, John, took care of 10-year-old Kennedy and 8-year-old Grant and managed the house and the bills during her absence. Parker admits that it was difficult to leave her family behind, but she says the whole family -- especially the children -- was excited about her plans.Parker was equally fortunate at work. Vine Street Christian has a special committee to handle sabbatical issues. Her job responsibilities, which involve education and church growth, were assumed by laypeople during her absence. Before she left for Russia, the 500-member congregation had even given her gifts that helped make the trip possible.THE UPSIDE OF THE DOWNSIZEIn many cases, when downsizing occurs, an entire department is laid off, leaving many people in the same field competing against each other for jobs. The same thing happens each June when colleges loose a new crop of graduates on the world. Hundreds of people, most of them with the same skills and experiences, send off resumes for the same few positions.There is another way to handle the situation: Some downsized employees have chosen to volunteer professional services at not-for-profit organizations. They keep their skills in shape, even while searching for a new job -- and they don't end up with yawning gaps on their resumes.The idea is to turn a basically negative event into a positive experience. "Here's the number-one secret of sabbatical takers: Take advantage of upheavals in your life -- everything from a divorce, to a 'forced sabbatical,' which is a layoff, to retrenchments, to finishing a big project and getting some time off," Dlugozima says.When Margo Coppinger learned that her job in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's public relations department would be ending, she took the news in stride. In fact, she was almost glad to hear it."The in-between stage when I didn't know what was going to happen was the hardest," she says. "Once I found out that it was certain, it was as if life had been made easier." Before she left her job, she even wrote to the president of TPAC, thanking him for laying her off. "I would never have done anything like this if I hadn't been shoved out of the door," she says.Coppinger continued planning a long-awaited vacation to Australia and even tacked on some extra time for a visit to New Zealand. She went down under alone, without an itinerary. She bought a rail pass, and an acquaintance put her in contact with a bed-and-breakfast organization.When Coppinger returned to the U.S., she considered a more extensive trip, this time to Europe. Even though she knew this was the time for her to do the traveling she'd always wanted to do, she was still hesitant. "I thought I had too many responsibilities," she says. Fortunately, she took the advice of a friend who makes travel films for a living. He urged her to pack her bags and go. She remembers his advice: "You need to look at your unemployment as an opportunity. A door has opened for you."Coppinger had a busy five months between travels. She did the things any sabbatical taker needs to do: She cut down on non-excursion-related expenses and made sure the responsibilities at home would be handled. She sold her car, thus eliminating worries about payments, insurance and repairs. She set up an account so that her bills would be paid, and she sublet her apartment to a friend. Subletting proved to be a brilliant stroke. She got to hang on to her lease, and she had someone to pay the rent and look after her bills and her cats.Subletting also allowed Coppinger to keep her address and phone number while she was away, making it easier for friends and family to stay in touch.Although she initially worried about traveling alone, Coppinger decided to go through with her trip. The arrangements had been made, so she off she went in October 1992 with a backpack and a return ticket that had to be used within the next 12 months.Landing first in Switzerland, she soon hooked up with two young women who were celebrating their college graduations with a tour of Europe. Coppinger says she learned the ropes of backpacking from them. "Here I was, a 34-year-old woman, and these two were telling me what to do," she says.After seeing several countries, Coppinger starting looking for a home base. She found what she was looking for in Ireland. "I knew as soon as I stepped off the boat," she says. "I felt a funny connection; it felt like I'd come home." In Cork, she once again headed to a hostel but soon met an actress who was looking for a new flatmate.Coppinger spent another two months in Cork, making friends, hanging out at pubs and "gaining a new perspective of the world." She worked at a small theater, learning to run lights for shows. She wrote short stories, and she wrote in her journal -- she wrote almost everything except press releases. "It was a blessing," she says. She began to think differently about her job and her career. "Here we believe the job is it," she says. "Over in Europe, family and friends are important." She says that she learned to make time for other things that add satisfaction to life.Coppinger also began researching her family's history and was surprised at what she learned. "I'd always heard about people returning to the country of their family's origins and feeling an immediate sense of kinship," she says. "I felt that in Ireland, and I'd also felt it in Denmark." What she discovered during her genealogical research was that her family had come to Ireland from Denmark during the Viking campaigns.Coppinger believes the six months she spent traveling were more intense because she traveled alone. "People think they'll be lonely, but alone you're able to observe more and to rely on your instincts," Coppinger says. She found that people were willing to help her, perhaps to a greater extent, because she was alone. People even gave her money when she needed it -- that was the case when she ran out of cash in Amsterdam. "I didn't know where I was going to sleep or what I was going to eat," she says.In the end, she had a great time, better than she would have had sitting at home worrying about finding a new job. Coppinger didn't have to wait long for a job when she returned from Europe. Before her trip to Australia, she'd stayed on at TPAC after many of her fellow workers were long gone. She ended up doing two jobs -- hers and that of the group sales manager, who was out on maternity leave. When Coppinger returned from her travels, the group sales manager was ready for another maternity leave. Coppinger agreed to fill in. When a former sales manager moved to Texas, Coppinger was offered the position full-time. She's still there.THE OLD CAREER SWITCHEROOSometimes a sabbatical can serve as a point of entry into a whole new career. Hope Dlugozima, one of the authors of Six Months Off, a guide to planning and taking a sabbatical, took a sabbatical after having been on the professional track for many years at Whittle Communications. Like anybody else, she had big plans for herself while she was growing up; she had always figured that she would see the world. Instead, at 33, Dlugozima found herself growing entrenched in the same job she'd had since college."I had a job I really liked and a husband I really liked and a mortgage and obligations," she says, "but there were all these things that I'd planned to do." Dlugozima thought about her situation for about a year before she finally went to her boss to tell him she was quitting. She told him that she didn't feel challenged anymore and she wanted to try other things. He suggested that, instead of resigning, she take a sabbatical.Dlugozima decided to become what she calls "a corporate exchange student." She wrote letters to several television companies, volunteering to work in their offices, learning the business without taking a salary. It wasn't easy, but she ended up working for the fledgling Fox network on the Jane show, a talk show for teens. The show was canceled after 13 weeks, but by that time Dlugozima had already gotten a taste of what it was like to be a TV show producer. She was ready to move on.Dlugozima hooked up with a friend of a friend and became the features editor of an English-language newspaper, The Prague Post, in the former Czechoslovakia. "I met a guy in Boston, who knew a guy -- it was that weird," she laughs. "And I wrote him a letter, and it was literally that easy."Meanwhile, her husband, who also worked for Whittle, had been transferred to London. "It was really a fantasy life," she says, recalling their European commuter marriage. As luck would have it, Whittle was going under at the time. Dlugozima was laid off and was given another six months' salary as severance pay. She stayed in Prague while her one-year sabbatical stretched to 18 months.In Prague, she began noticing how many other people were either on sabbaticals or considering the time-out option. Dlugozima began doing interviews, and by the time she returned to the States, she had the beginnings of her book. "I was surprised to come back to the States and find out there were people still at work," she laughs. She hooked up with James Scott and David Sharp, both of whom she knew from Whittle, and the ball was rolling.Meanwhile, Dlugozima was hired as creative director of Creative Multimedia, a Portland, Ore., company that creates CD-ROMs for magazines and other companies. When it came time for the tour to publicize her book, she didn't have to ask for a sabbatical; she got to use her vacation time.EXITING THE RAT RACEIn December 1995, Tom Peters told Working Woman that six weeks every few years is not enough time for a person to recharge and de-stress. "My new thinking is that you've really gotta break the mold in a big-league way every few years," he said. "In six weeks you can decompress and maybe put a dent in your burnout, but you need longer than that."In the summer of 1992, Beverly Bain gave away most of her belongings, "because that's what was keeping me tied to working," she says. She stored her remaining possessions in a 5-by-7-foot locker, packed her Honda Civic, and left Nashville.Bain, an art director specializing in television commercials and country music videos, had decided that she'd had enough. "I'd become the supervisor that, as an employee, I'd least like to work with," she says.Bain had no idea of where to go, but she ended up in Taos, N.M., where she rented an apartment. She spent two months there, taking courses in hands-on massage and "praying really hard," trying to get closer to "God, the universe or whatever." After a while, she realized that not even that was working; she still hadn't reached her inner self. A friend invited her to a meditation group, and there she found her answer.She met a retired schoolteacher who owned a small parcel of land in the middle of a 156,000-acre spread of land 27 miles outside Tres Piedras, N.M. The woman had a small trailer on her property, and she was looking for someone to stay there for three months while she was in Canada. Bain jumped at the chance. "I told her that's what I'd been waiting for," she says.All her life, Bain explains, she'd been looking for a place where she could feel safe and get away from everyone. "I felt like I was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon," she says, "running from some hunter. I wanted to jump into a hole in the ground and pull the hole in after me." In the trailer outside Tres Piedras, she was finally able to do that. There, she says, she'd found the isolation she craved.Bain wanted to find out what she was like on her own, away from "outside stimuli," away from "society, friends, work and [the media]." "Only three people in the world knew where I was," she says.The experiences were life-changing, Bain says. She camped in the desert on High Mountain, at an altitude of 7,800 feet. She could see for miles, since the surrounding vegetation consisted primarily of stumpy sage and mesquite bushes. By day the temperature reached 140 degrees, by night it cooled to 40 degrees. The only shade from the piercing noon sun was in an arroyo about a half a mile away. Bain hiked there before the hottest part of the day and returned to the trailer during the evening cool spell. "I walked between six to eight miles a day," she says.Bain had no running water, no electricity -- and no neighbors. People frequently ask her whether she had a gun for protection. "Why?" she asks. "I knew there would be no one there. It was the ultimate in down time."Every 10 days she went into town for more food and water. "I went through 26 gallons every 10 days," she says.Her supplies were basic: water, organic fruits and vegetables, and a plastic lawn chair that she dubbed her "meditation" chair. She also had two snakebite kits. One consisted of homeopathic remedies; the other was a Boy Scout kit. But she had no pain killers or insect repellent. She kept the bugs away by eating raw garlic.Bain stopped taking vitamins and gave up caffeine. She stored her water under the trailer; she kept her vegetables from wilting by storing them on a block of ice in a cooler. She had to burn all food scraps (to keep away the coyotes), and she dug her own latrine hole. All this from a woman who, in all her 39 years, had never even been camping before.One morning, Bain was headed to the latrine when she heard a rattling noise. She froze and stood perfectly still for almost four minutes. Six inches from her left foot was a 5-foot-long rattlesnake, thick as her forearm. The snake didn't bite her, but when it left, Bain jumped and cut her leg on a rock. That was her only injury. She treated it using only hands-on healing techniques that she learned from a Kiowa Indian medicine woman.The real test of Bain's experience, however, came when she returned to Middle Tennessee, to her "emotional hub" of Cross Plains. Her father was dying, and she moved back into her family home to live with her parents, her two sisters and their families. "I failed miserably during the first three months," she says. "And I was heartbroken."Bain was in debt, and she was worried about her future. She started smoking again, gained 30 pounds, and began consuming large quantities of Diet Coke. For a while, it looked as though she'd learned nothing from the New Mexico wilderness and her experience there.She pulled herself together, however, and discovered that she had retained more balance and calm than she realized. She became a licensed massage therapist and now incorporates tales of her desert experience into her massage sessions. "I want people to feel the peace that I had out there," she says.Apparently, they do. The son of one of her clients had been killed in a plane crash. During a massage session, the man confided to Bain that what had gotten him through his difficult time was the thought of her standing beside him, sharing her desert calm.Like many other people who experience sabbaticals, Bain came back feeling braver and better focused. Others even feel more secure in their jobs. By getting away from the rat race for a while, they learn that, if something happens, they can always fend for themselves and search for adventure. They know that once they've conquered the great unknown challenge of charting their own course, they can always do it again. A conference with the boss, finally, doesn't look like the most frightening thing in the world.