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Sabbaticals: just how useful are they?

GG Blog

By Graeme Gordon

Can senior managers afford the luxury of a month-long sabbatical in today’s complex, fast-moving business environment? My answer may surprise you.

Taking a compulsory one-month long sabbatical is nothing unusual for Partners at some US accounting firms that participate in Praxity Global Alliance.

These extended breaks, commonly taken every five years after becoming a Partner, entail handing in all communication devices including mobiles/cell phones, laptops, iPads and tablets. Effectively, Partners cut themselves off from work.

The theory is that this month-long sabbatical has two very beneficial effects. Firstly, it allows partners to spend a month away from work with family and friends. Thus, to fully unwind and detox. Secondly, it allows for staff development by enabling other employees to accept additional responsibilities during the Partner’s absence, whilst ensuring clients’ needs can continue to be met regardless of what might happen to their relationship partner. 

So, when my son announced he was getting married in Perth, Australia, and simultaneously I had to address my large accrued (untaken) holiday, I agreed that I too should take one month’s sabbatical. I was in my 10th year of in my role of Executive Director of Praxity, so I was leaving it a little later than my US colleagues.

I readily admit I was somewhat sceptical of the advantages, but even more concerned about cutting myself off so completely from my office.

Whilst I have not been as isolated as perhaps I should have been, keeping my iPad so I can see emails if needed, and setting my phone to accept ‘notes from home’ if needed, I am now a complete convert.

Moreover, the theory is proving to be spot on, both for me and my team.

Despite the natural tension of trying to ensure the wedding went off without a hitch, the benefits of unwinding, not having to stay constantly on my email and phone, and having the confidence that the team at home could cope well with everything, was absolutely marvellous. My confidence was buoyed by the fact that if there was a really exceptional circumstance that the team wanted advice or guidance on they knew how to contact me.

I even managed to take a three-day open water scuba diving course with two of my kids. Apart from being an amazing mini adventure with the two of them, this is something I could not otherwise have done without an extended break.

I can thoroughly recommend to all those in senior management roles to take a full month’s sabbatical every five years. Not only will you be refreshed and much more able to fulfil your role once you return, but additionally your team will be much more capable of understanding their own abilities and limitations. They are also likely to be much more productive.

The other benefit is what I often call the “under a bus” scenario, but which my colleagues, with a less morbid sense, call the “win the lottery” scenario. What happens if an unforeseen sudden event means you are not in the office to manage a situation? If no one has had experience of working without you, then the sudden transition is bound to be a very difficult one. So, a sabbatical is also a sort of business continuation insurance project.

Finally, no one remains employed for ever. Thus, sabbaticals can often assist in transition or succession planning. You may be able to see more easily who is ready for the next step in management and who is not. This is something which is not always obvious.

I’m now convinced sabbaticals are beneficial for all concerned. And if I am still employed by Praxity in another 5 years, I will be taking another one for sure.