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Burnt out? Take a sabbatical

Gail Johnson
Pay Day

Brenda Goehring admits that she’s a type-A personality. Over the course of her 25-year career, the Vancouver resident has worked her way up to several senior roles, most recently holding the position of manager of corporate safety, health and environment at B.C. Hydro. The mom of twin six-year-old boys loves her work, but she’s recently taken on a new challenge: a six-month sabbatical.

“I’ve been working for 25 years, and I really wanted time to do something for myself and for my family mid-career instead of waiting till retirement,” Goehring says. “I wanted to be able to go for a bike ride with my kids or just go and play with them. I wanted to reconnect with things I like to do, things I never have the chance to do, and spend time with my parents. I’m very blessed.”

Her company offers a program where, upon approval, employees can take a self-funded leave lasting from six months to one year. For 18 months before her May 1 start date, Goehring had a percentage of every pay cheque set aside that her company is now dispersing to her.

Goehring is proof that sabbaticals are no longer the domain of university professors needing time to do research or write a book. Although statistics related to the number of Canadians who’ve taken paid or unpaid leaves don’t exist, more organizations are offering such absences to their employees. In part, the trend is to lure and retain Gen-Y workers who value flexibility and who can’t even contemplate waiting till their so-called golden years to do the things they love.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2013 Employee Benefits Survey, 16 per cent of employers in the United States offer unpaid sabbaticals, up from 12 per cent in 2009. Another 4 per cent even offer paid sabbaticals. The numbers are even higher in Canada. According to a 2006 study by Hewitt Associates’ HR Consulting Services, 44 per cent of Canadian companies surveyed offer an unpaid sabbatical, and an additional 12 per cent offer paid sabbaticals.

YourSABBATICAL, an Atlanta-based company that helps organizations design sabbatical programs, defines a sabbatical as a “planned, strategic job pause” in which a person takes time to disconnect from what is “usual” for at least four weeks to travel, do research, volunteer, learn a new skill, or fulfill a lifelong dream before returning to regular work.

Some of the reasons companies establish sabbatical programs, the company’s website notes, are to attract talent, circumvent layoffs, nurture innovation, and increase loyalty and productivity. “Time is the new currency,” yourSABBATICAL.com states.

How to negotiate a sabbatical

Like most people who put forward a request for a sabbatical, Goehring had to explain the intent behind her leave to her company, offer suggestions on how her duties could be covered with as little disruption as possible during her absence, and help prep those around her for changes resulting from her being away.

She admits that at first, she found it hard to shed her go-go-go mindset, wanting to get projects done around the house with the same rigour as executing tasks at work. But she’s come around and is making the most of her time: Goehring has teamed up with a fitness coach and is dabbling in writing and photography, and her family spent a month in Italy.

“I wanted to be a mom, a wife, and a daughter, and not just an employee,” Goehring says. “I’ve been able to model to my kids that they’re important and that work is one aspect of our lives but not all of who we are.”

Another benefit? She’s positive that the break will result in her being a better employee when she heads back on Nov. 1. “I do feel that I’ll be refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to focus again,” she says. “I’m very grateful.”