Josephine Chong*, a former media professional, had been working at the same company for about five years when she realised that she needed a break.
“I haven’t had time to pursue any of my interests because of work, and I was feeling burnt out. I wanted a change of perspective to regain energy.”
“I was inspired by one of my professional mentors who had taken a sabbatical midway through her career to further her studies abroad and do volunteer work. She told me that money can be earned back, but not time,” Chong recalls.
“At that time, I was still single, without a child or a mortgage. It felt like the time to do some of the things I’d always wanted to do – like living abroad and and learning a new language – before I had greater life commitments.”
To do that meant that Chong had to put in a request to her company for a sabbatical – something that the company had previously not been too responsive to. “I was afraid that my request would be rejected, of course. But I was open about the reasons why I wanted the sabbatical, and fortunately, my company had the resources to ‘fill’ my position during my time off. After about 1.5 months, my request was approved.”
SO YOU WANT TO TAKE A SABBATICAL
A sabbatical is commonly defined as an extended period of leave of between two months to a year, and is usually unpaid. Float the idea of taking a sabbatical to any overworked, burnt out employee, and you’re more likely than not to earn a scoff in return for your efforts. “My company will never approve of it!” is a common refrain. The thought of being allowed by the company the luxury of time to pursue one’s interests seems inconceivable. Or so it may seem.
“Companies are becoming more and more open to the idea [of sabbaticals],” says Richa Sharma, manager at recruitment agency Page Personnel. According to a 2016 Conditions of Employment report by the Ministry of Manpower, 54 per cent of companies in Singapore “offered unpaid leave to their employees to pursue personal interest or to attend to family matters”. This is a jump from the 42 per cent in 2014.
In February this year, it was reported that F&B and hospitality company The Lo & Behold group allows all staff a month-long sabbatical every five years to pursue any interest on company time. Later in July, Maybank Singapore rolled out staff benefits that allowed employees to apply for sabbatical leave of between two and 24 months, a move, that according to the bank, stems from the recognition that its employees “may need to take some time out to recharge personally or professionally, or tend to family issues”.
“It is one way to avoid losing [their employees] completely,” explains Sharma. At Maybank, the policy has translated into staff retention that is “consistently above industry and national statistics”, with half of its 1,800 employees having served at least five years at the bank.
But despite growing acceptance, you still shouldn’t expect your immediate supervisors to embrace your going on sabbatical with open arms. According to Sharma, employers usually view it as a “disruption for business continuity”. Paul Heng, founder of Next Career Consulting Group, also points out that sabbaticals are usually only considered for senior and top-performing employees.
“It is important to have a solid plan indicating exactly how things will be covered during your time away,” says Sharma. This should include suggestions on who to cover you, what they will cover and for how long, and what would be the resources needed for the arrangements to be followed through. The accountability shows that you are professional and most importantly, committed to returning.
“Another way is to show your bosses how much money they would save by not paying your salary, without having to lose an employee and the training invested in them,” she says.
In Chong’s case, her company was able to hire a part-timer to fill her role. Sharma also suggests having frank discussions about reporting lines and responsibilities with the people (typically your colleagues of a lower rank) covering you. “Use this time to let them to take on more [responsibilities] – it can be a form of motivation in terms of career growth.”
SPEND YOUR TIME WISELY
As tempting as it may be to spend your entire break binging on Netflix, it’s hardly the point of taking a sabbatical. Once you’ve gotten your sabbatical approved, start making plans. For starters, ensure that you have sufficient funds to tide you through the period of not having a salary.
For Chong, her regular savings went into the fund she set aside for her year-long sabbatical, but she was also more prudent with her finances in the lead-up to it, choosing to patronise more affordable eating options and avoiding after-work drinks.
Next, a proper handover is imperative.
“You need to go on mental sabbatical as well, or else the entire plan is redundant – do not take extended long leave and call it a sabbatical,” reminds Sharma. “By allowing yourself to be available via emails, calls or the occasional visit to the office, you’re sending mixed messages to the company about why you needed the break in the first place. A proper handover should be done so you will not need to be bothered when you’re away.”
After all, a sabbatical is best spent improving your competencies, “like trying something new, going abroad, learning a new language, or volunteering,” Sharma explains.
Chong suggests having a couple of core goals to tick off your checklist to give your time-off focus and structure, but also leaving a bit of room for “random stuff”. For her, the main aim was to improve her language capabilities, which she did by enrolling herself into a structured language course abroad. “Being in a native-speaking environment helped as I had plenty of opportunities to practice my newfound language skills.”
Although it wasn’t in her original plan, she also travelled extensively around the country, and joined a women’s organisation, where she volunteered to help organise events for undergraduates from across different cities.
“It was fulfilling because I’ve always been passionate about women’s issues. Plus, it was a great way to make local friends and understand their attitudes and world views,” she says. “Traveling around the country also meant I had to be independent and really rely on my newfound language skills to get around – it complemented my learning a lot.”
If you spend your time wisely, the rewards are often two-fold. Chong says the friendships she made with both local and international students in her language course were the best part of her time off.
“[These friends] came from a broad range of cultural and professional backgrounds,” she says. “Leaving Singapore offered me the chance to ‘meet the world’. I don’t think I’d have met such an interesting range of people had I not ventured out.”
Even if you don’t end up traveling the world or picking up a new skill, at the very least, you’ll feel recharged and rejuvenated. A 2010 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed that those who take sabbaticals of six months or more experience lowered levels of stress, both during and after their sabbatical.
Chong recalls: “My job had required me to be mentally sharp all the time, and after five years, I’d been completely drained. The sabbatical allowed me to clear my mind, and return to work feeling refreshed, and ready to jump right back into creative work again.”
And really, there’s nothing more you can ask for.
This article first appeared in the September issue of ELLE Singapore. To purchase the digital issue, head to Magzter.
For more work advice, don't miss these useful pointers on how you can really be happy at work, and how to protect yourself from being gaslighted in the workplace. Otherwise, head here for more stories on living.