Dream Leave

Workplace experts agree that most American workers stand to benefit from an extended break from the job.

April 20, 2005|By Blanca Torres | Blanca Torres,SUN STAFF

Three months to write a novel. Four weeks to escape city life in a secluded cabin. Two weeks to study birds in Cuba.

Ah, the lovely, yet seemingly impossible dream of the American worker: taking time off.

Well, experts say, workers need to wake up, look up from their cubicles and make those dreams happen. An extended break is more realistic - and necessary - than most people think.

For many employees with heavy workloads or financial obligations, however, even the prescribed two or three weeks of vacation a year seem like a stretch.

Studies show that many "vacations" turn into time to catch up - allowing little time for reflection, rest and personal growth.

More than a third of Americans give up some of their paid vacation time and only 14 percent take vacations lasting longer than two weeks, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute.

Workplace experts recommend taking a sabbatical or extended break every few years, if not annually, as a way to truly refresh and maintain a balanced life. Doing that, however, requires careful planning and, for many, the ability to overcome the fear that an extended break is just not possible.

The excuses are plentiful: I can't afford it; my employer needs me; my boss would never let me do it; I'd lose my job; I have too many obligations.

The burden is on the employee, experts say, since most employers don't offer extended breaks and some might see them as too disruptive for the company. About 18 percent of employers offer unpaid sabbatical leave and 4 percent offer to pay for it, according to the 2004 Benefits Survey by the Society of Human Resource Management - in which 459 companies were surveyed.

After years in the workplace, many employees burn out and need time to reconnect with their passions, said Kevin Salwen, co-editor of Worthwhile magazine. The publication's motto is "Work with Purpose, Passion and Profit."

"For many people, they look at [an extended vacation] and say, `Maybe it's a luxury,' " Salwen said. "Your life and your happiness are too important to be dubbed a luxury."

He said more employers are recognizing that a worker's job satisfaction is an integral part of a company's long-term success.

According to Salwen, employers have two options: "Create a work environment that is so stimulating, so connected to people's core values that a sabbatical is not needed. Or, create a program that recognizes that every few years people need to put their brains somewhere else."

Jim Camp, author of Start With No and president of Coach2100, a global job coaching firm, said it is common for paid or unpaid sabbaticals to be negotiated when a person takes a new job.

For people who have not pre-negotiated a sabbatical, Camp recommends bargaining with an employer with caution because a person can "very well destroy a career" with a bad time-off request.

"You have to really know what you're doing," he said. "Don't run into the boss' office and make demands."

Employees have to prove that taking a sabbatical will help them improve the company. It can be as simple as saving the company unpaid wages or freeing office space for summer interns. Other benefits include learning new skills.

The main benefit of a sabbatical is to avoid or recover from job burnout.

"You reach a crossroad or a threshold when you ask, `What is it all about?' " said Kathleen Hall, a Clarksville, Ga., author, speaker and chief executive of Alter Your Life, a company that offers products and information about work-life balance. "You can call it a crisis or you can call it a rebirth. We have to quit couching it as something negative."

Hall found herself at a breaking point several years ago when she was working for an investment firm in New York. She decided to spend a month in a cabin in the woods.

"The thought of complete silence terrified me," she said. Her first week "was hell." She experienced insomnia, panic attacks and a lack of appetite.

The experience, she said, taught her to listen to herself and realize what she really wanted to do: start her own business. She also learned to shake off the mentality that only self-sacrifice and productivity bring success.

"We need to understand leisure; it is essential for our well-being," Hall said.

Going through life without adequate time for rest is like running a car without getting an oil change, said Marta Kagan a small-business and life coach based in New York.

She said many people believe taking a break indicates they are not dedicated or have their priorities in the wrong place.

Kagan, who runs her own firm, gives herself and her staff six weeks of vacation a year. The company has three workers besides Kagan who handle between 10 and 20 clients at a time.

"It comes down to planning and teamwork," Kagan said. "Most of the time people put in extra hours and don't get to take vacation anyway, so why not plan to work extra for more vacation time?"

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