Unpaid sabbaticals are necessary to get ahead at work for some
Taking a break from a job could eventually boost your career.
An impromptu, unpaid sabbatical is necessary for some workers who feel stuck or want to work on a passion project and need to take time away to think about their next business move.
The Society for Human Resource Management surveyed 500 organizations and found that only 15% of them offered sabbaticals. So many employees are left grappling over whether the cost of taking an unpaid leave is worth it.
It took traveling through nearly 15 countries, five months of unemployment and a $5,000 pay cut to realize it doesn’t pay to settle on a job you don’t love, for 25-year-old New Jersey native Emmett McInerney.
In 2014, McInerney was working 14 hour days at a hedge fund doing accounting in New York City where he says “every day felt the same.” It was his first job out of college at 22-years-old and he was making decent money, so he stuck it out for a year.
“I wasn’t happy with the job,” McIerney tells Moneyish. “I just remember how miserable everyone in the office around me looked and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t be like that.’”
McInerney saved up $10,000 and bought a one-way ticket to Europe that fall before putting in his two week’s notice. He traveled solo through cities like Dublin, Belgium, Paris and Barcelona in a three month span. He was nervous about not knowing where his next paycheck would come from, but says it was all worth the risk.
“I was backpacking and trying to figure out where my passions lie. I realized I wanted to talk to more people. I couldn’t go back to just having a desk job,” he says.
Finding work back in the US after being unemployed for five months wasn’t easy for McInerney, who says his informal sabbatical actually worked against him in some interviews where hiring managers viewed his decision as being non-committal to a company. He took a job at a restaurant to make ends meet, and credits his gig as a waiter with giving him the right customers service skills to land his current job as a client service specialist at a boutique international bank.
“My quality of life changed significantly,” he says. “I’m working nine to five and my work doesn’t follow me home.”
Some companies are willing to give workers either paid or unpaid sabbaticals for a few weeks to three months because they believe the extended time off can boost an employee’s creativity and productivity. To qualify, the staffer typically needs to be a top performer who has been with the company for a number of years. Software company Adobe, for example, lets employees take an extended leave of four weeks for every five years of tenure. At the 10-year mark employees are entitled to five weeks’ sabbatical. McDonald’s full-time corporate employees get a two month sabbatical for every 10 years. Other companies, like outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, offer mission-based sabbaticals that let employees from across the company take up to two months paid time away from work to help support an environmental group of their choice. And footwear brand Timberland gives workers up to five months to do paid community service.
“Just because your company doesn’t have a sabbatical policy doesn’t mean you’re not eligible for one,” says Monster career coach Vicki Salemi. “You may have a leave of absence clause or maybe the company pays for a certain amount of personal days,” she adds, urging workers to read the fine print in their contracts.
NYU nutrition professor Dr. Lisa Young teaches classes part-time and doesn’t qualify for a paid sabbatical. So when she wanted to take time off to write her book “The Portion Teller,” she saved up her summer months to do it on her own.
“Sometimes to get a project off the ground you really need some time off from the other stuff,” Young says, of how she was able to think more creatively once she spent some time out of the office. “I also find that when I change locations in the summer it helps me think more clearly.”
Taking time off resulted in a lifestyle change for others, like Ben Kemper, 27, who got burnt out working in the fast-paced New York City dining scene as a food publicist.
“I was getting to the point in my professional trajectory where I was either going to give PR my all and move up in the company or I was going to make some type of crazy decision. I was really feeling unfulfilled,” he said, of quitting his job in 2014 and moving to Spain.
Kemper got a job teaching English in Madrid, with every intention on moving back to New York after one year.
“It was the climax of my credit card debt when I left New York. All of my friends were saying you don’t have enough money to make an international move. My attitude was this is going to work itself out.”
After getting out of school at 3 p.m. Kemper started pitching old editorial clients travel story ideas and began making a name for himself at prominent food publications. He met his partner in Madrid, where he still resides.
“It is living the dream,” Kemper admits. “But it was not easy.”
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