Sabbaticals in the Real World: How Help Scouters Are Using Their Time Away
Last year a record number of people voluntarily quit their jobs — over 47 million in the United States alone. Atop the list of grievances was a lack of flexibility with work schedules, poor benefits, and working too many hours. If there’s one thing that’s very clear from the Great Resignation, it’s this: For many, work isn’t working.
It should come as no surprise. Almost 25% of workers in the U.S. don’t get any paid time off (PTO). The ones who do average just 10 days a year. Being able to get space away from work to reset and refresh is paramount for people at every level of an organization to be healthy and to do their best work.
As our chief people officer LaToya Lyn put it, “People need to feel a sense of comfort and connectivity and be treated really well if you expect them to show up as their best selves.”
In fact, people working full time who take more than 10 days of paid time off a year are nearly twice as likely to get promoted or receive a bonus when compared to those who take fewer than 10 paid days off a year.
At Help Scout, there’s been a long-standing focus on work-life balance. One major component of that focus is a number of benefits focused on giving people time to rest and recharge. “We want to emphasize the human experience,” said LaToya. It’s why we offer things like flexible work schedules, unlimited PTO, and the ability for team members to choose which public holidays they take off each year.
Though some of the benefits above may sound fairly routine, there’s one other benefit Help Scout staff get that’s fairly unique: a sabbatical.
What is a sabbatical?
If you’re not familiar, a sabbatical is an extended period of leave from work. Sabbaticals are usually at least a month long and are generally paid. Most people associate sabbaticals with college professors, but they’re starting to be more common outside of higher education.
The sabbatical program at Help Scout started about three years ago after our CEO, Nick, took a sabbatical himself (you can read more about his experience here). He found it so beneficial – both personally and for the business – that we decided to add it as a benefit for all employees.
“Sabbatical is our way of letting people know it’s OK to take a rest and to hold space for that,” said LaToya. Since we launched the program at the end of 2019, over 30 Help Scouters have taken a sabbatical, with more becoming eligible each month.
Team members become eligible for a sabbatical after working at Help Scout for four years — and every four years after that. Sabbaticals are a month long and are paid. Further, to encourage people to use the benefit, the sabbatical has to be taken within 12 months of a team member hitting their four years. They also get a $2500 bonus to make the most of their time away.
Taking time off seems like it should be a simple thing to do, especially for those who have paid time, but it’s actually something many workers struggle with, especially in the U.S. According to the BBC, in 2018 alone there were over 768 million days of unused PTO for U.S. workers. That’s why we’ve tried to make it as easy and as rewarding as possible for those working at Help Scout.
Sabbaticals in practice
There’s no one “right way” to take a sabbatical, just the way that’s best for the person taking it. It seems there’s usually a mix of pleasure and pragmatism: Checking things off on the honey-do list and sleeping in late. In the end, the biggest goal is to give people time away from the typical routine and hit the reset button.
“I have a good work ethic, but I’m not good at relaxing,” admitted Ben Kuhl, a PHP engineer here at Help Scout. When he became eligible for a sabbatical he wanted to make the most of it while not over-planning. “I wanted to be able to just wake up and decide, ‘What do I want to do today?’” said Ben.
To strike the right balance, he decided to set aside two weeks to be less structured and to have time to handle some household tasks that had been on the back burner. “I did some things around the house, moved some furniture around, and redid my mulch beds,” said Ben.
The other two weeks he dedicated to a family beach vacation, something they’d been wanting to do for a while. “When I took one week off we’d always try to go to the beach for four or five days, but we would come home and feel like it wasn’t quite enough time,” said Ben.
Our director of product support, Elyse Mankin, took a similar approach when planning her sabbatical. She’d recently relocated and left a couple of weeks open to spend getting settled and exploring her new town. The other weeks she dedicated to a long road trip with a close friend.
“We went from here [San Luis Obispo] to Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Zion National Park, and then back home.…it was an amazing trip, “ said Elyse. She acknowledged that although taking time away hasn’t generally been problematic for her when it came time for her sabbatical, there were some concerns.
“We had just hired a new team member, and she was only a month or so in and I had some anxiety about how things would go with me out for so long,” said Elyse. Upon returning, those worries were quickly quelled. “What I found coming back was that people felt empowered to make the decisions they needed to make while I was away and everything went super smoothly,” said Elyse.
Research done by CompassPoint confirms what Elyse experienced firsthand. They did a study of non-profit leaders taking sabbaticals and found that, in their absence, people didn’t simply survive — they thrived. With those leaders away, it gave more junior employees opportunities to take on new responsibilities that may not have otherwise existed. In almost every case, people were ready and willing to step up and fill in the gaps.
The experience also gave Elyse a new perspective about taking time off in general. “Having the firsthand experience of taking four weeks off and coming back to find things were still ok and in a good place makes it easier to take time off in the future,” said Elyse. “It was a huge ah-ha moment of ‘I don’t need to be in the weeds every day.’”
Many may also worry that being away for that long will mean a pretty difficult reentry into work, but with the right support, it doesn’t have to be. “[My coach] Abigail created a ‘Here’s what you missed’ document to help me get settled back into things,” said Elyse. “It took about a week to catch up, but I was really excited to be back.”
Though Elyse and Ben elected to split their time between travel and being at home, we’ve seen some people go all in and spend their whole time discovering somewhere new. It’s exactly what our CFO, Shawna Fisher, did on her sabbatical.
“I chose to spend my sabbatical on a kind of bucket list trip,” said Shawna. She spent 23 days traveling throughout Italy with her husband and two of her kids. “We went to Lake Como, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, and down to the Amalfi Coast.”
Fisher knows how rare these types of opportunities are. “I had taken vacations, of course, but work was always in the back of my mind.” The sabbatical was different. “I was able to really disconnect from work in a way I’ve never been able to before.” She didn’t even bring her laptop along for the trip.
The sabbatical wasn’t only good for her but for the rest of her family, too. “It was a wonderful opportunity to show my kids how big the world is.…I wanted to give them a little bigger perspective.” At each new destination, they had memorable experiences. They went boating, hiked mountain villages, went horseback riding, rode bikes through sunflower fields, and learned how to make pasta from scratch.
Taking that amount of time away, especially for someone in Shawna’s position, takes some planning ahead. She worked with her team to set them up for success in her absence and things worked wonderfully. “The beautiful thing about me stepping away was it elevated so many folks on my team to try new things, work with new people, and be involved in different conversations,” said Shawna. “I had confidence everyone was going to be okay and they were.”
After having the experience, Shawna is totally sold on sabbaticals. “I’ve been doing this work thing for a long time, and back in the day we didn’t talk about self-care or work-life balance.” Much of her early work life was focused on being the first person in the building and the last one out, but she knows that way of working is something that should be left in the past.
“Disconnection is critical as a human being and I don’t think I ever valued it as much until I had the experience of seeing who I was when I actually was able to allow myself to disconnect.”
Embracing the everyday
According to research published by the American Psychological Association (APA), those who took more paid time off experienced a number of benefits such as lower overall stress, higher levels of life satisfaction, increased productivity, and even lower risk of heart disease.
Those lower levels of stress and higher levels of life satisfaction tend to stay with people long after they return. When reflecting on her sabbatical, Zainab Allawala, Help Scout’s manager of SMB sales, said, “It’s an experience I’ll always look back on fondly.” Remembering the positive experience is actually part of what causes the positive feelings to last.
Zainab’s sabbatical came on the heels of arguably one of the biggest life changes someone can have. “My sabbatical came at a time in my life when I had just had a baby,” said Zainab. The timing worked out where she was able to use her sabbatical at the end of her maternity leave, giving her more meaningful time to spend with her newest addition.
“My daughter was five months old, and I was finally in a routine as a mom where I could take a rest.…I got to really enjoy this new role in my life and soak it in with no pressure,” said Zainab. Knowing she had that extended period away made some of the challenges of early parenthood a little easier to take on. “When there were sleepless nights, I had my sabbatical,” said Zainab.
Most of all, she took it as an opportunity to simply take a step back and unwind. In a world where work burnout is now being recognized as a medical condition, it’s as good a use of time as any. “You don’t have to have goals, you don’t have to have a list of 20 books to read. You can just use it as a time to slow down,” said Zainab.
A more balanced future
The stories above are just a fraction of all the wonderful ways people have spent their sabbaticals here at Help Scout. As more and more teammates get to take them, we’re excited to see how they use their time for themselves.
Though much of the modern world serves to make us feel guilty for taking time away, it’s a necessity. Having a strong work-life balance creates happier employees and, by extension, better businesses. It’s why it’s a core value at Help Scout.
There are many tactics that may help achieve that balance. If you’re a leader or someone in a position of influence, make sure you’re considering all the possibilities. And if you’re someone in search of a little more balance in your work life, feel free to check out our careers page. We’d be happy to have you.