My spouse has been on sabbatical for 6 months. He’s a software developer and most recently worked at a biotech company. He worked on blood testing strategies for COVID, among other things and had gotten burned out after working long hours for more than two years.
So I encouraged him to take some time off. Since I took my sabbatical back in 2015 and now teach others how to take extended time off from work without compromising their financial goals, he knew it was possible. However, it still took some convincing. We spoke often about it for more than 10 months prior to putting in his notice.
What’s a sabbatical? As a culture, in America, we have a problem with taking breaks. In Europe it’s common to take a month off in summer, but here, it’s hard enough to take a full two weeks off for vacation. So the idea of taking a multi-month sabbatical can seem completely unrealistic for the majority of working professionals. I’m trying to change that by normalizing working for a while and then taking a break. My preferred word for this extended work break is “sabbatical,” borrowed from the academic profession, which already allows extended paid work breaks for tenured professors. In the corporate world, it’s not yet the norm to be given a long work break as part of your benefits package and be be able to go back to your old job when you’re ready to return. Thus, most non-professors taking a sabbatical today take them unpaid and with the expectation that they will be looking for a new job when they return to work, unfortunately.
I realized that even though I’m completely comfortable with sabbaticals, it still takes different skills and care to support a spouse going through one, so I decided to explore my key learnings. The purpose of a sabbatical is rest, renewal and exploration. However, because of career/corporate/familial/societal norms around money and self-worth there are bound to be anxieties and uncertainties that come up. These could be anxiety and uncertainty around what you’re achieving (or not achieving) during the time, how you will afford it, and eventually how you will emerge from the time away. Be prepared to have ongoing discussions together to address these fears and uncertainties.
Encourage a Healthy Amount of Time Off
It can be tempting to accept a new job, but set the new start date in a way which gives you 4-6 weeks off between jobs. While this can be recharging, I don’t believe it’s enough time to really unwind from “work life,” explore creatively how you like spending your non working hours, and/or investigate what domain or role you’d like to do next.
In my husband’s case, it wasn’t until about 3 month’s in to his sabbatical that he finally felt ready to explore some of these things with an open mind. It’s takes time to forget the sting of burnout. It takes time to feel ready to take on something new. I’m convinced that everyone’s “normal” work/life effort is 40-50% too much. Instead of constantly adding more, it’s a huge culture shock to take away a BIG part of life: work for pay.
That’s why, during our 10+ months discussing this plan to take time off from work, I continuously encouraged him to take at least 6 months off. In practice the time away could be a little bit longer or a little bit less, but it’s a good idea to anchor with a nice amount of months (not weeks!) off.
Whether you’re a spouse or the person taking a sabbatical, it’s really important to give the person on sabbatical the gift of unstructured time. Don’t start every day with “What’s my to-do list?” It’s ok to take things day by day without planning ahead. “What do you *feel* like doing today?” is a good way to start the day.
I struggled with this, in the spouse support role. My husband had been unavailable often because of overwork for a long period of time. So I was tempted to encourage him to “fix the backlog,” whether it was “honey do” items around the house or helping plan a vacation. Luckily my spouse let me know that was putting undo pressure on him, so we reset and I let go of expectations. This sabbatical is time for the spouse to “do,” or “not do” as much as they please. Try to to find ways to support them in this process, whatever it looks like.
You may find these expectations come from other places too, like old coworkers, business colleagues, family members, or friends. It’s important to come up with what you will say when some asks, “What are you doing these days?” or “What is your spouse doing these days?” It can feel very uncomfortable or even start to reinforce career norms that there’s something “wrong” with not working. I recommend practicing what you’ll say. Something like, “My spouse is taking some time to do a reset and explore what’s next. It’s been fun so far!” is a good place to start.
>>Lesson Learned. Encourage your spouse to take very healthy amount of time off, read: months, not weeks. Encourage them to spend part of the sabbatical being creative and relaxing with no structured to do list or activities. Fight back when you feel the pull back to typical “career norms.”
Monthly Money Check-ins
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve probably been wondering — how did you afford to take that much time off from work? If you’re saving 20% of your take home pay, as I’ve often recommended, after a 4 months of saving, you basically pre-paid a 1-month sabbatical. After a year of saving, you pre-paid a 3 month sabbatical. After two years, you bought yourself a 6 month sabbatical.
If you can save more than this as a percentage of income, then you can take your sabbatical faster. Many people find that when they have a goal, like a big vacation or extended time off from work, it’s easier to stick to saving.
My husband was able to give himself this gift of taking a sabbatical by saving up in advance for it. He had a nice cash cushion that he could stretch for as long as 9 or 10 months without work. It’s tough to believe it’s possible if you’re starting from scratch today with $0 in savings. But with a plan, you start to see results pretty quickly.
Even though he has a financial advisor for a spouse, my husband still found himself in disbelief that he had the money available to do this. So, I suggested we do a monthly finance check in. At a high level we would review 1) how much cash savings he had 2) how much the balance declined during the month (or increased via savings before he started taking the sabbatical) 3) if he continued the same spending pattern month-to-month how many months the cash would last. These three simple metrics (requiring some simple addition, subtraction and division) helped him slowly understand that, yes, he could take a sabbatical, with some wiggle room to spare.
One spouse is bound to be more money-anxious than another, so you may either take the role of encouraging and reminding your spouse that the numbers look good and the sabbatical can continue. Or, if you’re the anxious one, perhaps the monthly check-in can quell your concerns and fears. At least at the end of it, everyone is on the same page.
>Lesson Learned. I would recommend having at least the length of time you plan to take a sabbatical covered in cash. Monthly money checkins are a great way to quell anxiety of “do I have enough?” or “will I run out of money?” and get you to believe, “money is not the reason I can’t take a sabbatical.”
Date Nights (or Days)
To some degree, when your spouse is on sabbatical, you are too, whether you’re naming it or not. It can be both a blessing and a curse that your spouse suddenly has a lot of time on their hands. Why not take advantage of your spouse’s freedom too?
When else will you have the opportunity to take a spontaneous dinner without feeling the need to unwind from work first? This should be a fun and carefree time for both of you even though you’re still working. Try to plan weekly date nights, or even dates during the day.
Explore hobbies you’re curious about, get out in nature, take a trip, or eat a good meal. These moments can feel really freeing and fun for you both. Anything that breaks up a normal routine is fair game for date nights (or days).
>Lesson Learned. Just because your spouse isn’t working doesn’t mean you need to take up the slack and work more for the both of you. Try to find time to enjoy the sabbatical, too, through date nights or spontaneous trips. Find ways to create and unwind yourself and as a team.
Eventually the sabbatical has to end — what’s the plan?
Depending on how long of a financial runway your spouse has, you can be flexible on the end date for the sabbatical. But it will have to end, eventually. It’s a good idea to have some plan for easing back into what’s next. If your spouse took the time to be creative, curious, and let time work, I’m sure they will emerge with lots of options and ideas for what’s next. It takes time to find the next thing and put a plan of action in place.
If your spouse has a job that allows for a set leave of absence or sabbatical, it will still take time to get back into the swing of things when returning to to work. If they end up choosing to change jobs or careers, the recruiting process could take time. If they end up wanting to set up a side consulting business, it may take time to get initial clients. If they start a full-fledged business, it takes time to break even. Don’t forget to encourage your spouse to think about funding the transition period between the end of their sabbatical and the “what’s next.”
That’s why sometimes it’s nice to have a few months of your personal expenses covered after the sabbatical technically ends because it can take time to ramp back up to whatever is next.
>Lesson Learned: Explore and play during this time away. Together, set set the expectation now that it’s going to take some time to transition back to real life once the sabbatical is over. Burning through funds without plans for this transition period, may create financial tensions or cause your spouse to make decisions that aren’t aligned with the things they discovered on sabbatical.
I believe that sabbaticals will be become the norm during our working careers. Sometimes they will be intentional sometimes not, but it’s worth having the conversation with your spouse. What do you think? Are you more likely to encourage your spouse to take a sabbatical?