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With publisher permission, this article was adapted from a more extensive journal article, “Recover, Explore, Practice: The Transformative Potential of Sabbaticals,” published in December 2023 by the Academy of Management Discoveries.

Our research explored…the questions, “How do people spend their sabbaticals?” and “How do sabbaticals impact individuals after their return?”

The earliest sabbaticals were intended for rest and recovery. Termed שמיטה (shmita, literally “release”) in the Torah, Jewish law mandated that every seven years, all agricultural activity cease: “The land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God” (Leviticus 25: 1–7).

Today, sabbaticals have spread broadly. Sabbaticals were offered by 4 percent of organizations in 2011, 17 percent in 2017 (Society for Human Resource Management 2017), and have tripled since the “Great Resignation”. Proliferation, however, has not meant standardization, and policies vary widely. Sabbaticals may be paid (Adobe, REI), unpaid (American Express, National Public Radio), or a combination of the two. Policies also vary in length and accessibility. Most strikingly, sabbaticals continue to reflect the historic ambivalence about what purpose they should serve. Some organizations dictate rest, while others prioritize work.


Our research explored the “black box” that constitutes sabbaticals, guided by the questions “How do people spend their sabbaticals?” and “How do sabbaticals impact individuals after their return?”

Through interviews with professionals, we mapped their sabbaticals from pre-departure catalyst to post-return, which led us to identify distinct periods dedicated to recovery, exploration, and practice. For our sample, we sought out people who had sabbaticals of at least three months in length, although we later loosened that minimum to include a few individuals who had shorter sabbaticals (three out of the 50 included in the study had sabbaticals as short as eight weeks; the remaining 47 had sabbaticals of 10 weeks or longer). We also found that sabbaticals fall into three unique trajectories: (a) working holidays, (b) free dives, and (c) quests. Some summary statistics from the 50 interviews we conducted are below:

Race and Gender
White male                          16
White female                      14
East Asian male                  5

East Asian female               6
South Asian female            2
Asian female                        1
Black, female                       2
White Latino                        1
Black Latina                         1
Native American, female   1
Female, other                       1

Private, for-profit                32
Private, nonprofit                10
Public                                      7
N/A (student)                       1

Age (by decile)
Twenties                               10
Thirties                                 29
Forties                                   11

It should be noted that while there was diversity in some respects, participants were homogeneous in one important aspect: all were successful professionals—the majority held graduate degrees and all occupied advanced or leadership positions.

Our semi-structured interviews covered five topics. We asked participants to share their stories about their orientation to work across their lives, the experiences that precipitated the sabbatical, the events and experiences of the sabbatical, their return from the sabbatical, and how the sabbatical impacted them. We ended the interview by asking participants how they would define “sabbaticals” and why. All interviews were conducted via video conference or in person and audio recorded. Interviews lasted between 49 and 124 minutes.

Initial Findings

While participants consistently defined their sabbatical as one respondent put it, “an extended period of time intentionally spent on something that’s not your routine job,” their specific experiences seemed at first a combination of idiosyncratic details (length of sabbatical, entry mechanism), choices (rest, write a novel, travel the world), and constraints (budgets, the need to travel with children). We found, however, that sabbaticals typically have distinct aspects involving recovery, exploration, and practice.

  • Recovery

During recovery periods, individuals, as one interviewee put it, “rest, recover, heal.” Another respondent talked about “nursing themselves” back to health. Recovery also involved restoring that which was lost, foremost relationships that had been neglected either from years of prioritizing work (or by moving far away to pursue career opportunities).

Travel was not a priority during this phase. Instead, many interviewees stayed home or moved back to their hometowns. When they did travel, it involved comfortable accommodation, such as luxury hotels. Regardless of their physical location in the world, it was crucial for participants to be completely “disconnected. I didn’t think for a second about [work] at all,” one participant noted. Others stressed the importance of being “untethered” and “deprogrammed.”

Participants’ emotional states during recovery were mixed. One interviewee noted that they relished feeling “relieved, relaxed,” but there was also trepidation. This interviewee also noted too that they were still processing lingering anger at having been passed on a promotion at their company.

  • Exploration

The second building block comprised exploration, broadly conceived. One interviewee put this as seeking the “opportunity to also explore who I am as a person and try new things and travel and experience new people and places.”

Exploration involved detachment in several important ways. Another interviewee talked about buying “literally, a one-way plane ticket and having a rough sense of the direction I wanted to go.”

Through exploration, individuals found themselves in more difficult situations than they expected, including being snowed in and sleeping in the elements, suffering from malaria, and, in a couple of cases, facing the danger of violence. But, as one interviewee noted, through such hardship, “you learn a lot about yourself, too. What your limits are. What you like. What you don’t like.”

  • Practice

The third building block, practice, refers to periods of the sabbatical dedicated to nonroutine work. This can take many forms, from engaging in special projects to applying what one had learned during exploration to new endeavors (such as writing a book) to trying on new types and locations of work.

Practice periods could follow the “end of the exploration, and that was the beginning of maybe that very basic ‘How do you get back in the world?’” as one interviewee shared. In some cases, this might involve experimentation to see if skills acquired during exploration—such as scuba diving certification, training as a yoga instructor, or photography classes—might become a viable career.

All sabbatical trajectories made people feel more affirmed upon their return.

Sabbatical Trajectories

We discovered three typical sabbatical trajectories: working holiday, free dive, and quest. Here, we outline each trajectory, describing how individuals entered and moved through each trajectory, and the personal and work outcomes that followed from each of them.

  • Working Holidays That Affirm

Thirteen participants spent their sabbatical on a working holiday, which combined alternating periods of recovery and practice, but no time for exploration.

These individuals had no initial plans beyond recovering what was lost. Over time, however, feeling recovered (or even restless) and serendipitous opportunities also pulled them into practice-oriented activities, such as volunteering as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a think tank, teaching abroad, or dedicating time to networking and exploring new opportunities.

One of our most robust insights is that all sabbatical trajectories made people feel more affirmed upon their return. This was the central transformation reported by those engaged in working holidays. After their sabbatical, they described themselves as more present and assured in their work: “I feel more sure-footed,” one interviewee noted. Another said, “I think I’m a better leader now, not asking permission…and much less deferential to others’ views.”

Self-affirmation came with greater comfort in drawing boundaries between work and life, a willingness to “jump off the treadmill,” as one interviewee put it. Another said, “It’s opened up a lot of conversations with my partner about how to live life, to have two careers, start a family.”

In short, participants stressed that sabbaticals led to more balance in their lives and more confidence in themselves. However, affirmation usually did not translate into tangible career changes. Most returned from the working holiday to their former positions, with exceptions predicated on the success of their sabbatical project.

  • Free Dives into Authenticity

For another 14 participants, the sabbatical catalyst was the dream of travel and adventure. Like those on working holidays, participants engaged in “free dives” often referenced encouragement from others, such as a therapist, executive coach, or “group counseling” to help them come to, as one interviewee put it, an “understanding that…I wanted to change my life.”

Many also had inspirational role models. As one interviewee said, “There’s one friend that I had who took a two-year trip around the world, and he’d done this many years ago, but he’s someone I respect and admire, so I just asked him for advice on how to go about it….It was inspiring.” For most, a combination of supportive others and timing led to them taking the sabbatical.

Exploration was interspersed with necessary periods of recovery. While free divers returned more affirmed (like those on working holidays), they also described a more significant transformation. Exploration allowed them to make, as one interviewee put it, “space to really reflect on my life thus far and what it was about it that I liked and what it was about that that was contributing to me not feeling happy.” Another interviewee said, “Having the time off made me feel good in my skin again.”

Upon their return, free divers commonly maintained their career path but often sought a more suitable position or employer, which sometimes meant becoming self-employed. Even those who returned to the same position were comfortable requesting adjustments because, as one interviewee put it, “I can’t overstate the shift from feeling like I was just a cog in the wheel to like feeling like I was a grown-up with power, with skills that were in demand, that, like, people wanted to actually pay for.”

  • Questing for Autonomy

The final 23 participants spent their sabbatical on a quest, a term we directly adapted from several references interviewees themselves made to writer Joseph Campbell. The quest is the only sabbatical element encompassing all three building blocks (often in shorter, sporadic sections), unfolding one after the other.

In contrast to those on working holidays and free dives, questers did not plan their sabbaticals but often left unexpectedly when they were “pushed” over the edge by toxic workplaces. Burnout symptoms were common. Compounding these experiences further was a sense of having plateaued at work: “I definitely wasn’t inspired by the work that I was doing,” one interviewee said. “I wasn’t really growing. And I felt a little bit trapped in that role,” said another.

Questers initially craved only recovery. Some decompressed at home, slept in, and watched TV. Others made cross-country road trips to move back in with parents, siblings, or long-lost friends. Once they felt better, they expressed a desire to get more out of the sabbatical, transitioning their time into challenging periods of exploration.

Only those on a quest followed recovery and exploration with dedicated periods of nonroutine work during the sabbatical to practice what they had learned. This nonroutine work ranged from starting a new business to interviewing with an eye on a different career to building a new life with new work in a new place.

In other words, questers not only recovered and explored but also then, as various interviewees put it, “prototyped,” “crafted,” or “hypothesis-tested” their new career ideas. Of the three trajectories, participants on quests seemed least aware of what was in store for them initially and were most likely to be fundamentally changed by their sabbatical.

Breaks and Recovery

Sabbaticals have often been equated with other breaks from work, such as evenings off, weekends, and vacations. An important assumption in the literature is that underlying psychological mechanisms “seem to be similar across different temporal recovery settings”. We believe that the unique features of sabbaticals we uncovered can offer fresh but generalizable insights into the breaks in at least four areas.

First, the stories of transformation that dominated our discoveries urge a shift in how we think about work breaks and their potential impact. Second, our study challenges current understandings of the activities undertaken during breaks; our research suggests that exploration activities are crucial for individuals to gain perspective and reflect on what is missing in their routine life. Third, our work underscores the importance of agency during breaks; our interviews confirm that agency was centrally important to participants’ choice of sabbatical activities and, thus, their post-sabbatical transformation.

To harness their full potential, organizations must consider the most equitable ways to allocate sabbaticals.

Finally, research has commonly stressed that detachment from work matters. Our study suggests that this may be, in part, because detachment is more idiosyncratic than previously considered. At various times, participants craved different degrees of social detachment from established relationships, physical detachment from home, and detachment from their work and professional lives. For instance, while detachment from work was of paramount importance during recovery, it was not important during practice periods when individuals readily threw themselves into projects and work. This suggests a far more complex picture of what individuals mean when they indicate the need to detach and how this varies over time and by activity.

Practical Implications

Our discoveries may offer clarity to both employees and employers interested in sabbaticals. For those preparing to leave on a sabbatical, we hope to have offered insights into the potential experiences (and their consequences) associated with each type of sabbatical. For instance, we stress that while all sabbaticals were described as positive and affirming, the more participants seemed to plan for or constrain the scope of their sabbaticals, the less the potential for transformation.

For employers, we highlight two key issues. First, sabbaticals beget sabbaticals. Participants were encouraged by others to take one and, in turn, now encourage others after they return. Organizations need to be prepared for such absences.

Conversely, we are concerned that sabbaticals may function as one more organizational mechanism to perpetuate inequality. Participants honestly described their sabbaticals as a privilege afforded by career and financial success and knew them to be unavailable to most of their subordinates. Though unpaid sabbaticals were the norm, they had savings to take time off or earn money while away. The average employee may not have such means, especially among public and nonprofit employees. Thus, to harness their full potential, organizations must consider the most equitable ways to allocate sabbaticals and provide resources to enable a diverse range of employees to take advantage.

Second, in our sample, the best scenario for organizations was that employees returned refreshed, affirmed, and with greater clarity about how to be successful in the position they had temporarily left. Such returning employees can offer organizations important insights into, for example, developmental experiences to offer valued employees, ways to rearrange or change jobs or work processes to facilitate better teamwork, or new kinds of work practices to help attract and retain employees.

Among top leadership, sabbaticals also represented an important opportunity to reconsider organizational strategy; two CEOs in our sample cited their sabbatical as essential for them to embrace their own succession planning and to provide their organization with trial periods to function without them.

These are the best-case scenarios, however, and organizations must understand that losing good employees is a possible consequence of granting sabbaticals. As a silver lining, we suggest that such departures may have happened anyway; that is, providing sabbaticals may not cause but, rather, create a shortcut to an inevitable outcome.



  1. Society for Human Resource Management. 2017. Employee Benefits Report, Alexandria, VA: SHRM.