Making Sabbaticals Restful, Not Stressful

Sabbath begins in Genesis 1 with God resting on the seventh day and ends in Revelation 22 with Jesus declaring all things have been and are being made new.   Sabbaticals follow a design which God imprinted on all of creation, humans included, from the beginning of time until the end of time.

A well-designed sabbatical policy and consistent sabbatical practices are restorative to both individual and organization. Part 1 of this blog focused on why and how a sabbatical should be planned rather than occasional.  In this post, let’s dig further into how to maximize the value of a sabbatical for everyone, and then to capture as much of that rested energy as possible upon re-entry.

How Do We Help Our Teammate Rest?

Sabbaticals are the moment at which we can demonstrate what it means to be rather than do.  To allow a person to be on sabbatical, we’ll need to lead the way in making it easier for our team to free themselves from all of the things that tether us to work:  technology, access, education, and financial worries. 

Freedom from Technology

A sabbatical without access to technology may feel more like a Lenten fast than like a sabbatical.  However, technology allows work and obligation to chase us wherever we go.  A strong sabbatical policy will include what technology an employee is allowed to keep during the sabbatical.  This may include a policy to delete email apps from smart phones, turn off mobile notifications, forward all work-related calls to other team members, and turn in any office-owned laptops or tablets before leaving.  It may even mean abstaining from social media (gasp!). 

Freedom from Easy Access to Others

Under no circumstances should an employee contact someone on sabbatical.  Period.  Tragic circumstances or family emergencies are the only reasons I can think of that would be worthy of breaking the sabbatical.  Any clients or donors or other constituents who would normally interact with the employee on sabbatical should be informed well in advance of the team member’s scheduled absence.

Freedom from Work-Related Education

Many sabbatical policies insist that the person on sabbatical take a course that benefits the organization.  I’d like to push back on that assumption.  There is a time to learn new skills relevant to our work; that time is not while on sabbatical.  Both the organization and the employee will be tempted to frame a conference or a university course as a sabbatical.  Don’t fall victim to that, even and especially if the employee on sabbatical finds education to be restorative.

There is a place for education while on sabbatical, though.  Learn a new skill completely unrelated to work.  Learn how to cook or build something or to play a new instrument.  Learn how to better relate to a spouse or family member.  This is generative learning, and it has good psychology and neurology behind it—a Sabbath free from work development forces us to grow new synaptic connections rather than reinforcing well-established habits.

Freedom from Financial Strain

Of course, pay regular salary and benefits during the sabbatical.  It should also go without saying that an employee should not be removed from their position while on sabbatical, but it doesn’t.  It happens.   Further, an employee should NEVER be reassigned or removed or even promoted while s/he is on sabbatical. 

A goal for every organization that prioritizes sabbaticals is that the employee on sabbatical incurs no out-of-pocket expense for any expectation written into the policy.  None.  

Poorly budgeted sabbaticals strain the resources of the person on sabbatical.  Poorly communicated expectations about costs incurred while on sabbatical can lead to disappointment at best. Many sabbatical budgets include the cost of a guided retreat and perhaps some of the travel expenses required of a trip.  The more generous sabbatical budgets may also include money towards a family trip of some kind.  However, there are hidden costs that are often absorbed by the person on sabbatical.  These can include:

  • Travel costs, including mileage for travel to and from retreat centers.
  • Food while traveling for sabbatical-related trips.
  • Therapy / Counseling occurring during the sabbatical where costs are not covered through medical insurance.
  • Childcare

How Do We Help Our Teammate Return?

Re-entry can be as jolting as leaving on a sabbatical.  An employee overwhelmed by work will lose some of the value of a sabbatical almost immediately.  The best prevention for this common problem is for the employee’s work to be completed by those who are not on sabbatical. As we mentioned in the previous post, sabbatical is healthy in part because it leads other employees to ask different questions about the work of their teammate. Carrying the load of the person on sabbatical is a sacrifice that maximizes the positive return on the team’s investment in a sabbatical.

Consider this strategy: announce to your constituents that the employee is gone one week longer than s/he actually is; you’ll give more time for your employee to re-acclimate to the pace of work.  During that week, don’t ask them to jump back into a regular routine. Instead, consider coming back at half time for a week.  Finally, let them pace themselves by doing what gives them energy first, rather than immediately plunging into the parts of work that drain them. 

Upon returning, encourage the employee to make a written or oral report to the Board recapping their experience, offering any insights s/he gained, and any other stories or reflections.  Generative experiences while on sabbatical will benefit not only the individual but the organization, your donors, and your recipients.  Shared sabbatical experiences build community.  Shared experiences increase buy-in from our own organization as well as among our constituents. 

Burnout is the inevitable result of pushing back against God’s designed rhythm of work and rest. Sabbath is at the heart of God’s design for creation.  Every faith-based organization—especially churches—should place a sabbatical policy at the heart of its organization’s employee policy.

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