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Productively unproductive: The surprising benefits of sabbaticals

David Burkus shares the research on why sabbaticals are an option more people -- and companies -- should consider.

6 min read



Despite the temptation to be “always on,” the best leaders have discovered — and a growing amount of research is backing this up — that the best way to stay productive all the time is to spend a good portion of it being deliberately unproductive.

Since sabbaticals originated in the academic world, the majority of the research done on them has been conducted in that context. One of the more rigorous studies of sabbaticals came from a large group of researchers from the United States, Israel, and New Zealand. Twelve professors recently collaborated to study the effect of sabbaticals on co-workers at their 10 universities.

James Campbell Quick, one of the authors of the study and a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington, joined the research study after he took a sabbatical of sorts. Quick served three months in the Air Force Reserve. I found that my time in the Air Force provided much-needed rejuvenation as well as complementary real-world experience to bring back to the classroom,” Quick said, and resolved to study the effects of sabbatical on the very aspects of it he had experienced.

Quick and the team surveyed 129 professors who qualified for sabbaticals in the upcoming academic semester. They then matched those 129 to a control set of 129 other faculty members with similar qualifications, tenure, and demographic information. The sabbatees and the control group were surveyed several times — one month before the sabbatical semester began, during the middle of the semester, and at the end of the semester. These surveys were designed to measure myriad factors, including perceived stress levels, psychological resources, and even life satisfaction.

After all the sabbatees had returned and the controls had finished the semester, the research team found that those who took sabbaticals did indeed experience a decline in stress and an increase in psychological resources and overall well-being. In short, sabbaticals really did provide the respite and recharge that business leaders found their people experiencing.

Moreover, those positive changes often remained after they returned to work, suggesting that the sabbatees and their organizations both gained significantly from the leave itself. We discovered that a sabbatical affords the opportunity to acquire interpersonal and professional skills that you wouldn’t have a chance to build otherwise,” Quick explained.

The research team also studied the differences, if any, between types of sabbaticals. They found that those who fully detached themselves from their regular campus — skipping meetings, neglecting their offices, barely communicating with their university — gained the most from the experience. In addition, those who spent their sabbatical in another country enjoyed bigger gains in well-being than did those who merely worked on different projects but from the same location.

Overall, the team’s results suggest that sabbaticals really do provide a strong return on investment, not only for those leaving but for the company sending them away. Sabbatical leave promotes well-being, decreases stress, and provides opportunities to acquire new knowledge and skills. This is exactly what the business leaders who offer corporate sabbaticals have found.

What about the effects of sabbatical leave on leadership development and succession? It turns out that question has been studied as well, and the results suggest that sabbaticals are good not just for future leaders but also for existing leaders.

Two researchers, Deborah Linnell and Tim Wolfred, studied the effect of sabbaticals on leaders of nonprofit organizations. The duo surveyed 61 leaders at five foundations with sabbatical programs. Although the different organizations had different programs with different requirements such as length of tenure or position required for sabbatical, all five programs had several characteristics in common. All required their sabbatees to take three to four months off and discouraged them from visiting the office. All required some postsabbatical reflection, and all were created as a means to alleviate stress and the demands of the leadership role.

Although their results showed that the sabbaticals were a stress reliever, there were also notable findings about the effect of time away on the leadership role itself. The researchers found that the majority of leaders surveyed had greater confidence in their role upon return and felt that the sabbatical allowed them to think outside the box,” generating new ideas for effecting change and raising funds for their organization. In addition, the majority found that they were better able to crystallize the existing vision for the organization and to create a new, more powerful one. They also reported being better able to work with their board of directors, as the planning and learning stages of the sabbatical process made directors more effective.

Most intriguingly, the researchers found that, for the majority of leaders, the interim leaders who filled in for them during their leave were more effective and responsible when their boss returned. Many interim leaders even continued in a more collaborative role with the senior leaders post-sabbatical. The leave actually provided the opportunity for second-tier leaders to develop their skills and abilities.

In some cases the sabbatical helped make clear to the organization that the person who acted as the interim executive director was the right choice,” Linnell and Wolfred wrote in the study. One group did a national search, but hired the deputy director who had acted as the interim because they had seen her leadership in action. Another organization had the opposite experience, where both the awardee and the interim mutually decided that the interim was not the right fit to succeed. The sabbatical process, in essence, allowed this organization to bench test a candidate for a new role.”

The results of these studies show that a sabbatical is a small investment that yields a big return. By giving employees structured time to rest and rejuvenate, new potential for creativity and high performance is unlocked. In addition, sabbaticals are a surprisingly positive addition to leadership development and succession planning. Put simply, time away from work makes work better.


David Burkus is the author of “Under New Management,” published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Burkus is host of the Radio Free Leader podcast and associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University.

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