by Mimouna Mahdaoui
We are excited to introduce Mimouna Mahdaoui as a guest blogger for Sabbatical Homes! Mimouna has worked for travel and education companies since she moved to London over 4 years ago. She’s as passionate about infographics as she is about cheese and internet memes.
Have you ever considered taking a sabbatical?
Often, people see a career break as an unrealistic goal, or the first step to leaving a job and never coming back. However, it can be done, and a well-planned sabbatical will help you return to your day job freshly motivated. A sabbatical allows you to dedicate time to yourself, learn something new and maybe even see the world.
We spoke to three professionals based in the UK, the US and France to understand how they made their sabbaticals work. They shared practical tips on planning and budgeting, and explained how a sabbatical helped them to reconnect – with themselves and their careers.
Taking the leap
Stefan Sagmeister is a New York-based graphic designer and art director, originally from Austria. He has designed for an impressive list of clients in the arts, publishing and education, and has worked with big names in the music industry, from Jay Z to Lou Reed.
Stefan’s relationship with sabbaticals is unusual. Every 7 years, he closes his studio and takes a year-long break: “I was very scared when I decided to take the first sabbatical in 1999. Our design studio was 7 years old, the first internet boom was in full swing and everybody was in the business of making lots of money. It just seemed unprofessional to close the studio for a year to try things out. I thought we’d lose all of our clients. This did not happen. In fact, we received much more press for not working than we had ever gotten for working.”
He explains why he decided to take a break: “As with many big decisions in my life, there were several initial reasons: One was to fight routine and boredom, another, the insight that I could come up with different kinds of projects when given a different time-frame to spend on them.”
For Rob Sadler, Head of Content Strategy for an education company in London, the process was different for his sabbatical in 2014: “I first floated the idea to my line manager about six months before I ultimately went. She welcomed it with open arms, as she knew I was completely burnt out but didn’t want me to leave outright. So I took six months off after six years of continuous service at my employer. I spent the majority of this time in Brazil – studying Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro for the most part, and then travelling around the country.”
Pierre Demoux, a journalist for daily French financial newspaper Les Echos since 2010, had a much lengthier process, from the moment the idea sprang to his mind to when it became a reality: “I initiated informal conversations with my manager about 3 years before starting the administrative process with HR. We were getting along well, and I told him that at some point I’d like to take time off work to travel and do something different with my life. I finally went to Australia from January to September 2014.”
Requesting and planning
What happens when your plans become realistic and you need sign off from HR? Pierre and Rob explain that the processes for them were fairly similar on both sides of the Channel, but that what you really need is a clear idea of your project and to anticipate its impact on the rest of the business:
For Rob, the most difficult aspect was getting buy-in from superiors: “A lot of negotiation was required to agree on a sabbatical of six months, as senior-most management insisted for a long time that it should be only three months. But, with the help of my line manager and HR, I won that battle.”
He also recalls how his team took the news. “It was a department I had built up from scratch in the preceding 18 months, and I felt like I was abandoning them.
“They took it very well – they were hugely excited for me. I was also able to allay most of their fears by creating a reorganised responsibilities matrix so they could see how the department would work in my absence.”
In Paris, Pierre had a flawless experience, because it’s one of the perks of the job: “In my company, sabbaticals are fairly understood. For journalists in general, it’s common to leave work to carry on a specific investigation or write a book, so it’s well known within the industry, although there is no specific advertising of the benefit within the company.
“My HR department was quite experienced and dealt with my request easily. We met to actually look at the dates and conditions; how I would return and that I understood all the implications – mainly that I would not get paid during my sabbatical. But also that no matter what, I would have my job back upon my return, as per my contract.
“On their side, as I was leaving for less than a year, they could hire a fixed-term contractor or look for interns to cover for me, which gave them flexibility without disrupting the business and editorial team.”
What became fundamental for Stefan is planning. Indeed, for his first break in 1999, he did not come up with a plan as such, as he explains in his TED Talk about sabbaticals. But he learnt from that and took a different approach the second time around: “Now, about 18 months before my sabbatical, I start planning it carefully. I normally begin with a long list of things that I would like to explore, and then order this list into a hierarchy of importance: something very important might get five hours per week, something small only one hour.
“I end up with an hourly plan, like in grade school. Normally I can forget this plan after a few months because enough projects will be up and working.”
Budgeting and adapting to life away
Unless your company offers paid sabbaticals, you’ll have to work on your budget well in advance – even more so if you plan to travel. There’s no perfect way to do that, but you can prepare for the worst, in case anything unexpected comes up, and to be sure you do enjoy the time away. Because he had 3 years to mature his project, Pierre proved full of resources: “It was scary in terms of budgeting, as I did not know how much this trip would cost me.
My salary allowed me to save enough, and I did start saving early on without actually knowing what I’d use the money for. I live with my fiancée so in terms of everyday life costs, it was somehow easy to save.However, I wanted to lower the risks, so we sublet our flat, as Mathilde joined me during most of the trip, and I registered as self-employed before leaving so I could sell articles whilst I was away.
“Years ago, I also became certified as a French as a Foreign Language teacher, and that was another option for income. I was also prepared to look for the usual backpacker jobs like waiting tables, pickingfruit, etc. In the end, I spent much less than expected, and I only used the extra revenue from my articles.”
Of course, after all the planning comes the big day. You might land in another country, possibly one where you don’t know anyone, and where you might not speak the language… And then you have to settle and start a new life, if only for a few months.
For Pierre, that was not as easy as he thought it would be: “I was alone in Australia for 2 months. I thoughtit would be easy, fun, proper holiday time… But I was in a very different country, culturally, and English wasnever my strong suit. There was a clash between my expectations and reality.
“On top of that, the admin and formalities are very specific and it took me some time to grasp it. All that was a bit daunting, and even more because I was on the other side of the world, but it was good training as I learnt a lot on the spot and I had to find my own way.”
A caveat from Rob is that it’s best to travel with no preconceptions: “I didn’t necessarily set any expectations in advance. The main thing I would say is that Brazil, for all its attractions from a tourist’s perspective, isn’t quite so sugary sweet when you live and study there – in terms of infrastructure, finding your way around, getting things done, integrating into society even despite speaking the language, etc.”
Personal and professional benefits
As difficult as settling in a new country was for Pierre and Rob, they both found their sabbaticals to be beneficial for their own personal development, and they could also see benefits for their employers. And, in the case of Stefan Sagmeister, for his business as a whole: “I expected my sabbaticals to be joyful. What I did not expect was that these sabbaticals would change the trajectory of the studio, and I did not dare to imagine that they would be financially successful. But they were.
“I have no desire to switch off from designing during the sabbaticals; actually they are there to work and I normally work more hours in them than in a regular year. We don’t do any client work, but instead pursue little experiments that might also yield results for clients in the future.”
He continues: “If you have an unusually long time to come up with new directions, the chances that these directions are unusual are good. I found that we can charge more for things that are not readily inter-changeable, meaning other design companies cannot do them.”
For Pierre, the biggest benefit was also to reconnect with his passion and challenge himself: “I took a step back but I did not withdraw from work entirely during my time off. While away I did write a few articles about Australia for my employer, which is an area they were not covering back then. That allowed them to extend their scope.
“Personally and professionally, the break was worthwhile as I had to build a whole new network and do my job in a much different environment. Those 6 months of good, bad, weird and fun experiences were actually defining moments in my personal and working life. Also, I learnt how to surf and that adds to mycool factor in the office!”
Furthermore, Pierre came back with a different mind-set: “There were a few things that bugged me at work before going, and seeing the newspaper from an external point of view during my sabbatical was good. I came back with lots of enthusiasm, a desire to change things with new ideas and concepts I wanted to implement, even while knowing it takes time to change anything in a big organisation like Les Echos.”
Being a Portuguese student abroad turned out to be a great advantage for Rob, and his employer too: “Icould understand our target audience of international students much better, as I had gained valuable first-hand insight in that respect. The sabbatical also helped to broaden my horizons and understand the hugely complex country that is Brazil.”
But is a sabbatical a one-off opportunity? For Pierre, definitely not: “Long term, regular sabbaticals would be beneficial for improving personal and professional skills, to do your job in a different environment and tofind yourself as a person, and journalist, in my case.”
This is something Stefan also agrees on, and he thinks companies should encourage them more: “I have seen small, medium and large companies doing a version of a sabbatical, always with excellent results. My experience is that it is scary to organise and exhilarating to execute.”
Ready to take the leap? Already have? Let us know about your experience with sabbaticals in the comments.