Why You Should Take a Sabbatical

With all the concerns about “burnout” in physicians, allowing a colleague time to rediscover the excitement of his or her career may just be “just what the doctor ordered.”

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I’m ending up a month long “sabbatical” to work on a writing project.  I’ve become convinced that this is something most, if not all, physicians should include in their professional life.  I’m also sure that the data about sabbaticals are true – the “return on investment” for a practice or university is well worth developing a policy to encourage and support sabbaticals.

The concept of a sabbatical is traced to the Old Testament, but in recent times it has come to mean “any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something.” The corporate world has learned the benefit of these planned breaks and an impressive number of companies not only support the concept, but pay their employees to take sabbaticals.

Here are some concrete suggestions for taking a sabbatical, based on what I did (and some things I learned to do… and not to do).

Have a Mission.  A sabbatical isn’t a vacation.  It’s supposed to push you to learn something new, but it should be related to your work.  Think carefully about where/what/why you want to do, but don’t be afraid to choose something challenging.  Ideally this should be something that takes you out of your comfort zone into a new way of thinking.   It may be concrete, like learning a new skill in the laboratory, or a new procedure… but take advantage of the time to explore other fields and other ways of thinking.

Advance Planning is Key.  I picked a month that was the closest to “off peak” for my clinical and administrative responsibilities as possible.  I went to my associates six months before the sabbatical to make sure they were ok with the idea, and to give them time to work out any coverage plans that needed to be put into place.

Let People Know.  It’s not a good idea to just “disappear.”  It’s really ok to talk about what you are going to do and why.  I put an out of office message on my email 2 weeks before I left, explaining that I would be “out” for the month in order to avoid surprises for other people who were trying to find me.

Be prepared for pushback, but don’t be surprised if there is none.  Not only was everyone supportive of my plan, numerous people congratulated me on being a good role model for my colleagues.

Decide how to pay for the time away.  Many universities pay for some or all of your time away, so if you are in an academic setting, the first place to start is to learn about your institution’s sabbatical policy. Some non-academic practices also have policies to provide a part of your salary if you are on sabbatical.  If there is no policy, you may have to finance this another way.  You may have accrued enough vacation to cover the time away from work.  Another strategy is to put aside money specifically to support you for the time you are away.  A word of caution, if you take an unpaid leave, make sure your benefits are still in place. Finally, unlike other occupations, physicians have the option of locum tenens work to finance a sabbatical.

If at all possible, disconnect completely.  This is the one thing I would do differently next time.  My initial out of office message told everyone I would only read emails on Fridays, but was otherwise unavailable.  There were, however, a few events that happened during the month that I (and others) thought I needed to handle, and I let them take over some of my time away.  It didn’t detract from the overall goal of the month, but I think the experience would have been even more rejuvenating if I had been able to really leave work behind.

Coffeehouses (and tea houses) are great places to write.  I know that many of my students and residents routinely study in coffeehouses, but I never “got it”.  Now I do.  A good coffeehouse has just enough background activity that you have to focus to work… but not so much that it is distracting.  You are also protected from the day to day distractions of your office or home.  One of the great secondary gains of my month was learning about the great coffeehouses and teahouses in Houston!

4 thoughts on “Why You Should Take a Sabbatical

  1. I always do my writing in coffee houses. If I can’t find one, then I listen to my “Coffietivity” App on my I-Pad while I work. I get the atmosphere via my headphones, I make a fresh cup of coffee and I get my work done. It’s a good alternative plan when you can’t get away to the coffee house. Love the idea of a sabbatical and now that I am tenured, I am going to look into this.

  2. Dr Brandt should sabbatical leaves be made integral part of a) early phase of a consultants’ career b) latter part or just before retirement, or c) should be made integral part during every phase of a consultants’ career but time & duration be made variable depending upon the work responsibilities..which includes teaching, training, research, patient care & corporate activities. Eagerly waiting for your views and thanking you with great anticipation…

    • I don’t think there will ever be “one size fits all”. It will depend on the individual, the practice (how many people are in the practice, for example) and the goal of the sabbatical.

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