Kennedy: New books say sabbaticals should become part of American work culture

Kennedy: New books say sabbaticals should become part of American work culture

May 1st, 2011 by Mark Kennedy in Life Entertainment

Interviewing job candidates at points in the last 10 years, I noticed a trend. Time off from work is just as important to many of today's young workers as pay.

To people of my generation, baby boomers, vacation was always several rungs down on the list of crucial workplace benefits - somewhere between dental insurance and free parking. Most of the baby boomers I know have trouble relaxing on vacation, in part because they can't unplug from their BlackBerries and iPhones long enough to stir a drink.

According to expert estimates, Americans give back - Give back! - about $21 billion a year in unused vacation days every year. As a result, there's the dreary statistic that 86 percent of workers feel job stress, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. (Don't you wonder where the unstressed 14 percent work?)

Finally, though, cracks are appearing in this American all-work, no-play ethos.

Last week, I spoke to Catherine A. Allen, co-author of a new book called "Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break" ($15, Beaufort Books). Allen is a former senior executive at Citibank and director of corporate planning for Dun and Bradstreet, who now works as a strategic planning consultant.

Allen and her three "Reboot" co-authors have been called the "sabbatical sisters." Besides Allen, they include a former national security adviser, a retired Fortune 500 company president and a career counselor.

Together the four women have taken 12 sabbaticals, and they are trying to build a corporate consensus toward building in career breaks for workers.

Allen said sabbaticals - a word derived from the biblical Sabbath - serve an ancient human need to build periods of rest and rejuvenation into a lifetime. She said more big companies are offering sabbaticals to their employees. Intel Corp., for example, gives two-month paid breaks to employees after seven years on the job, she said, which has helped it attract and retain top talent.

"One of the mistakes we [Americans] make is taking a week here or a week there," she said. "People in Europe seem to understand that sometimes you need to take a month or two."

She said the authors of "Reboot" interviewed 300 people for the book and determined that there are three life stages at which workers most often need a break: just after college, between ages 45 and 50 and pre-retirees ages 55-plus.

Allen said young adults today are not as single-minded about career success as their parents, which actually might help them balance work and personal pursuits.

"They may have watched their parents work so hard, yet they still don't have a lot of extra money," Allen said.

Middle-age workers are often caring for children and parents simultaneously and suffering from career burnout after several decades on the job, she said. Meanwhile, older baby-boomer workers (55-plus) are looking for new, lower-stress jobs to round out their working years.

"Baby boomers are saying I'm not going to retire the way my parents did," Allen said.

Allen said people often don't realized how stressed they are until they stop working. Retirees often get sick in the first 30 days off the job because their adrenaline drops and their immune systems become compromised.

Rested workers are more creative and productive, the authors say.

Need proof? Just look at Intel, a company that has granted 64,000 sabbaticals since 1979 and has yearly revenues of about $43 billion, the authors point out. Not too shabby.

Two things will have to happen for sabbaticals to become commonplace. First, people will have to save for midlife sabbaticals the way they now save for retirement; and, second, employers will have to ensure job security and benefits while they are away.

It may take a generation, but I think today's young adults will see sabbaticals become a normal part of the career cycle.

I suspect they will demand it.