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We Need to Start Calling the ‘Great Resignation’ What It Is — the ‘Great Sabbatical’

It’s not so much that we’re quitting en masse. It’s that we’re taking a break to recharge. If only there were a word for that...

Recently, a friend told me that after five years working the same software engineering job, he pulled the trigger and quit, joining countless others in the Great Resignation. I could immediately tell that he was bracing himself for a judgmental response. Instead, I used a word I picked up during my own work hiatus. “So, you’re taking a little sabbatical?” I asked.

He immediately relaxed and opened up. It soon became clear my friend had more plans for what was next than he gave himself credit for. He wanted to travel, and he had saved up and created a budget; though his plans were open-ended, he had left his job on good terms so he could freelance or return when money got tight. As we talked more about it, referring to his massive life change as a sabbatical helped him see it in a different light.

Jerry Colonna, executive coach and CEO of the leadership development firm,  explains that referring to this break as something other than a vacation or unemployment really matters for some people. He would know, as a large part of his job involves helping executives in setting up their sabbaticals. It can be helpful to have “a word, that language to a friend pushed up against the notion of shame they were experiencing,” Colonna tells me, pointing out where this word comes from — “sabbath,” or a day set aside for rest and worship. “Seeing things as a sabbatical, as a pause, a break, could be really helpful for people.”

Biblically speaking, according to Leviticus 25, for every seven years of work, we should get a “jubilee year” in return. Over time, though, the definition of a sabbatical has evolved to loosely mean some type of leave from work that’s distinct from vacations in that they’re typically taken for a longer period of time, and usually involve a project, which could be research, volunteer work or some larger endeavor. In recent years, that larger project for a lot of people has simply been to rest and ready themselves for whatever comes next. 

Prior to the pandemic, sabbaticals were often associated with academics. Since the early years of their existence, colleges have offered professors varying periods of leave for the purposes of professional development. But a growing number of businesses — from Patagonia to McDonald’s to the Cheesecake Factory — have started offering some form of paid sabbatical leave to stave off burnout and retain employees. Other companies, like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, have moved to offer unpaid or partially paid sabbatical leave as well. 

Over the past decade, Colonna has personally taken six to eight weeks off every year, with the exception of the first year of the pandemic. Ironically, he saw a huge demand from clients who wanted to take their own sabbaticals at that time, which he attributes to a fundamental shift in how people view their work-life balance. At the same time, he recognizes that people like him — i.e., those who can take several weeks off at a time — are “speaking from a position of a shit ton of privilege.” 

Since his work has to date focused on the executives who can afford to hire a coach like him, Colonna didn’t fully realize the need for some form of a more attainable sabbatical for the rest of the workforce until a recent podcast interview on the Tim Ferriss Show, where Colonna discussed how to make sabbaticals more accessible. “The response to that was extraordinary. What that tells me is that people are really exhausted, and they’re needing permission in some capacity to think about their relationship to work differently,” Colonna tells me. 

That said, individuals who cannot take a full sabbatical may still have options. When Colonna encounters a client who legitimately cannot take time off, he goes through their calendar for the next month and talks through every meeting with them. From there, he asks them which meetings can be shorter and which ones don’t need to happen at all. Next, he looks for where they can carve out mini-sabbaticals throughout the week — akin to the recess you had as a kid. So while not a six-week break, these periods of extended relaxation and decreased stress should still help with productivity and focus.

For instance, when Colonna was working on his forthcoming book over a past weekend, he got stuck on a structural problem and went for a bike ride. In the middle of his ride, he had a breakthrough. “So when was I writing? Was it when my keys were touching the keyboard, or when I was on my bike?” he asks. “When you let go of productivity and efficiency as the goal, and you think about the larger aspect of the work, you create space throughout the entire day for a ‘sabbatical.’” 

“You always have a minute,” Colonna concludes. “It’s the fear that you don’t have a minute that stops people from taking a weekend, or a week, or a month, or heaven forbid, two months. “