“You’re back! It hasn’t been a year already has it?!”
I smile politely and eject one more worn-out expression about the flight of time when one’s having fun. The comment is literally dripping in sarcasm, because as everyone knows it’s psychologically and chemically impossible to have fun in your workplace, regardless of whether or not the coffee machines now play music while you wait for your order.
Yes, I am back from my sabbatical *high five!* but for me the last year is stretched taught to the horizon of my memory.
From 50°C deserts, scorched by the ruthless monsoon sun, to the -25°C nights spent huddled and restless with hypoxia above 5000m elevation. From battling half a tonne of motorcycle through the knee deep jungle quagmires to abandoning my Mongolian motorbike in the steppes and setting off on a death march. It certainly doesn’t feel like “just yesterday”.
So - aside from this value-for-money timewarp - do sabbaticals actually offer any tangible advantages to an employee or a business?
Here’s my top tips for taking time off work.
A sabbatical was not something I took on a whim. I had been saving for a number of years, knowing full well that when the time comes I’ll need to “Run with the Wolves” as Vicky used to call it. To put it in context, I lived with my parents for three years prior to my sabbatical - and used what was essentially a house deposit to go on an adventure for a year. That’s not for everybody. It depends what value you put on your own aspirations, well being and development. You don't only need the resources, but the mindset and willingness to throw yourself into it. India, the first and longest stop on my travels, is perhaps the classic career break/spiritual enlightenment destination, with it's contingent of generally late twenties travellers all either:
Looking for something - a la the abhorrent cliché that is ‘finding yourself’, or...
Running away from something
It was never my intention to do either - I just wanted to ride around somewhere with enough danger to make it exciting. Nonetheless, the introspective interrogations seeped into me in the end and I joined the streams of broken toys in looking for meaning.
Did I find any? No idea - but what I did observe was rafts of travellers, tired of depressingly limping away on the hamster wheel of life, their blissful ignorance somehow shattered, undertaking long, arduous journeys of self-discovery. So just a heads up, you're sabbatical could be a bumpy, not necessarily comfortable road... a flawless segway into our next section!
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
In many ways, it’s extremely difficult to generalise the benefits of sabbaticals considering that they could apply to all the diverse roles and characters throughout your business. What you do get is distance from your everyday grind, freeing up some vital energy and time to reflect productively on your work, interests, relationships and ambitions.
For me this transpired into recognising and drilling to the roots of my frustrations back at work. I was the proverbial frog in warm water, heated up so slowly I didn’t realise I had to jump out. The reason for this frustration? Simple. I was personally invested in the social cause of the business. I cared about what I was doing.
Now I’m not suggesting that the solution is to stop caring what you do, despite how welcoming that cool blanket of apathy might seem. Far from it. Instead, I had to adapt.
Businesses, even not-for-profits and charities, don’t run solely on socialism. They run on bureaucracy, balance sheets, board meetings and a pinch of seemingly mindless decisions you can never hope to fully understand. So play along - embrace the mayhem - and don’t sweat the small stuff (but keep that passion on the back boil until there comes a time to use it, it is flammable!).
Specifically for innovation, I threw together a handful of considerations to ease my journey through the mental fog of big businesses:
Stop making unnecessary documentation - challenge every piece of paper!
Link clearly with transformation programmes and the longer term business strategy, using both to prioritize the workflow.
Keep it in the family - exhaust the work lab designers and concept teams can achieve before getting anyone else involved (more people = more stalling)
Motivate through motility - track the work packages that underpin design (many sequential tests/research activities can go into designing something appropriate!) rather than just the whole, bloated concepts
If a concept is in danger of stagnating, assemble a seven day sprint to unblock and drive to the next phase
Digital dashboards - we’re not going to get any help here, so let’s mock something up on PowerBi like we did before. It saves Katie collating information from 15 less-than-eager updaters on a weekly basis.
Reading list Fridays - you've gotta keep up to date!
Play more video games - why is this at the bottom of the list??
Ain't no Holiday
Along with being a big fat mirror of self reflection, my sabbatical also taught me that if you do just about anything, back to back to back, with little to no distractions it’ll get old - no matter how fun it is. Honestly - even dicking around on a motorbike, which is probably more second nature to me than walking, gets old. It's that classic ‘grass is greener’ conundrum. For all the days I daydreamed about my upcoming adventure, I had a day on the road contemplating my return to normality - to the extent I designed my dream flat layout in my head, ignoring some of the most beautiful Himalayan scenery you could imagine. I imagine the burnout (‘Honestly, ‘how many temples have we seen now?!’) is probably why drinking is so prolific on the travelling scene. Everything in balance is the key.
Now, I’ve always felt some sense of pride working with my hands, but I failed to appreciate there’s also a satisfaction (albeit small) from simply ticking off your jobs in the office, or hosting a good, high energy session. These little wins actually add up pretty fast and without them I concluded maybe I was dependent on them - and sought to bring some personal goals and ambitions to the table - to achieve that balance. You need your own projects, that’s what makes you interesting.. And honestly, I needed more respectable interests than crashing motorbikes and breaking bones - I don’t bounce back quite so quickly any more!
I’ll touch on one more point, thinking of holidays. Considering most of my revelations were simply the result of creating headspace, isn’t there another (faster) way of achieving the same result? For some people, I don’t doubt it. But these are the people that wake up one morning and, probably after a ten kilometer run and a breakfast of quinoa and kale (whatever they are...), decides to take up meditation and manages to continue practising long enough to reap the rewards. Annoying. And let’s face it, that’s not us. So can't we just go on holiday?
Unless you’re going away for more than a couple of weeks, it's likely your brain will remain engaged in its workplace rhythms and relentless pace, so your actual ‘rest’ is a lot less than you’d imagine. It took me months to fully detach. So, in the metaphor of a dirty room: holiday’s are your equivalent of throwing your t-shirts back in the drawers, whereas a sabbatical is the ‘get everything you own on the floor and start filling charity bags’ clean. The hoover UNDER the bed clean. There's a system in place and an outright ban on clutter. As a result I’ve come back with a renewed commitment to my role and the business with an envisaged trajectory into the near-future and a political charge, instead of simply being disenfranchised by a government that seems to tie its shoelaces together on a daily basis. But this isn’t the time/place for that Pringles(tm) can to pop!
So - in summary - can a sabbatical help you?
I have no idea. There’s every chance you’re beyond help. But if you’re even thinking about it, the answer is probably yes. I read recently that a survey of people who’d taken a career break revealed that they would all, without exception, recommend it to others. Irrespective of it’s unknown origins, I’m not going to buck this trend. I would also wholeheartedly recommend it.
Get out there - no more excuses.
About the Author
Tom Hartland joined Bromford in 2014 as the designer for the brand new Innovation Lab, using his background in product design to develop an innovation pipeline, accelerating new ideas through testing and piloting.
He likes drinking too much coffee, third person narratives and trying to impress people with scars.
You can follow his adventure travel blog at Badventuring.com