What Is Life Like When We Subtract Work From It?

Sabbaticals can give people an invaluable opportunity to rest and reflect on their identity beyond their job.

An illustration with a sun, a plane, a notebook, and an "Out of Office" sign
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

If you’ve ever wondered whether a life without work would be blissful, well, Lorie Kloda can confirm that it pretty much is.

Kloda really likes her job as a university librarian in Montreal, but she still really liked not doing it for a year. During a paid sabbatical that ended this spring, she deleted the work-communication apps from her phone and regularly forgot what day of the week it was; she read, went to museums, picked up tennis. She stopped getting the Sunday scaries.

It took a few months for Kloda to feel completely untethered from work. But in the U.S., a paid, voluntary break from a job that lasts longer than two weeks is generally considered unusual. Vacation days are nice—and Americans should get more of them—but truly helping people to be more than just their job would mean thinking on a bigger timescale. It would mean giving people a regular opportunity to subtract work from their life and see what remains—in other words, granting sabbaticals to everyone who wants them.

Employers’ sabbatical programs can be paid or unpaid, and sometimes, between jobs, workers carve out (and fund) their own extended stretches of time off. Whatever the arrangement, months away from work can unlock a deeper level of rest than shorter periods allow. One sabbatical-taker I spoke with, a 25-year-old named Hannah Frankman, said that the difference between a vacation and a sabbatical is like “the difference between taking a power nap and getting a full night’s sleep.” Another told me that his time on sabbatical helped restore his attention span and his capacity to read for pleasure.

On top of giving people a respite from work, extended time off also allows them to detach from its value system. Vicky Fang, a 46-year-old in Silicon Valley, found that she was less “snippy” toward her kids a few months into her six-month sabbatical from a job at Google. “It’s very hard to context-switch from being very productive and very on point at work and then coming home to a 4-year-old who’s, like, trying to pick up his fork with a suction cup on a string,” she told me. “Being able to let go of that urgency and productivity mindset … was really huge for me.”

Sabbaticals seem to help people heal from burnout, but they aren’t a comprehensive cure. “You can’t rest your way out of burnout, because burnout is about the relationship between your ideals for work and the reality of your job,” Jonathan Malesic, the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, told me. If you don’t change anything about the way you work, he said, “you’re going to end up in the same miserable condition again.” (Fang, for her part, didn’t return to the tech job she was burned out from, and is now a children’s-book author.)

Still, if sabbaticals can’t fix your job, they can nurture your life outside it. They let you tend to the wilting plots of your life’s garden, the parts that struggle to get enough sunlight in the shadow of work. The extra time might be channeled into simple but essential activities—cooking, exercising, calling friends and family—or new projects that spring from old passions. During a self-funded sabbatical she took after leaving her job, Demetria Giles, an education consultant in Las Vegas, started an online group for educators and parents like herself to discuss homeschooling methods. She also got into cryptocurrency and joined ConstitutionDAO, the organization that tried, unsuccessfully, to buy a copy of the Constitution at auction. Giles is grateful to have had the time to follow her curiosities—especially, she told me, because she is not often made to feel, as a single Black mother, that she is entitled to take a break.

DJ DiDonna, the founder of the Sabbatical Project, an advocacy organization, told me that he thinks sabbaticals can be a sort of “regret insurance”—a chance to try out another way of living that you’ve always thought might make you happy. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh man, it’d be awesome, when I retire, to run an eco-lodge,’ [you could] actually spend time, like, cutting mangoes at an eco-lodge for a month,” he said. (DiDonna’s own sabbatical, five years ago, included a six-week, 900-mile Buddhist pilgrimage through rural Japan.)

Nearly all of the sabbatical-takers I spoke with raved about their time off—they recalled being happier, less exhausted, less stressed. Several thought that they’d benefit from having a sabbatical every three to five years, with each ideally lasting about six months. Laura Giurge, a behavioral-science professor at the London School of Economics, suggested that the optimal duration might vary based on someone’s goals, with shorter ones for personal projects and longer ones for recovering from burnout. Unfortunately, though, she said that there isn’t much academic research on how often people should get sabbaticals or how long their benefits last. One 2010 study on academic sabbaticals (which generally come with expectations that faculty will work on their research) found that professors’ uptick in well-being and decline in stress faded about 10 weeks after they resumed their full duties.

But there is reason to think that sabbaticals are more than just a temporary joy; they seem to enable self-reflection that can prompt more enduring shifts. Getting real distance from work can be an “identity-shifting, ego-shattering” experience, as DiDonna puts it. Lorie Kloda said that, for 20 years, being a librarian was core to her sense of self—but that’s no longer the case. “In the past, I thought I had to talk about my career and work in a way that made me sound interesting,” she said. “Now, I talk about other things instead.”

Sabbaticals seem perfectly tailored to today’s climate of work weariness, but they’re a very old idea. Evyatar Marienberg, a religious-studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me that they are conceptually linked to the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest. But they likely initially derived from the Old Testament notion of a “sabbatical year,” one year in every seven in which farmland is left to regenerate and debts are forgiven. (You may not have been able to tell, given the current state of the world, but technically we are in the middle of a sabbatical year right now.) American colleges started adopting the concept in the late 19th century; in 1880, Harvard started what is thought to be the first academic sabbatical program, giving faculty a break every seven years. The idea didn’t make the jump to the business world until nearly 100 years later.

In the intervening half century, many more companies have started offering paid sabbaticals—though overall they remain a niche perk. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional association, only 5 percent of employers offered paid sabbaticals and 11 percent offered unpaid sabbaticals in 2019—roughly the same shares as a decade earlier. Their rarity is on some level understandable. Executives tend to be skeptical of the idea of paying people not to work, and may fear that employees won’t end up coming back. Sabbaticals really can disrupt workflows, too, and require significant planning.

But the business case against sabbaticals is not so clear-cut. They may be costly, but people who take them seem likely to come back more engaged and more efficient. And many companies find sabbaticals to be a powerful tool for attracting, and then keeping, talented employees—certainly something worth paying for. (According to a 2006 Businessweek article, some companies have reported that it’s “almost impossible” for other firms to poach a worker of theirs who’s even a few years away from taking a sabbatical.) Further, they can give ambitious younger employees the chance to try out sabbatical-takers’ responsibilities, showing companies who might be ready for a more advanced role.

Of course, the real argument for sabbaticals is based not in business but in creating a more humane society. And that case is much clearer. The sabbatical-takers I spoke with mentioned very few drawbacks. Some had worried about money or the arc of their career—but, really, these are problems with how sabbaticals are supported, not with sabbaticals themselves.

One of the other rare complaints: Kloda told me she felt pressure to be somehow productive during her break; her friends would ask her what projects she was working on, and she worried that she wasn’t using her precious time in “the best way possible.” But here again, the issue is not sabbaticals, but rather a culture that can’t just let people freely enjoy them.

Breaks from work may have one inherently painful aspect. Kloda said that the week before she returned to work, she was filled with dread, “like 52 Sunday scaries all piled in one.” The hardest part of sabbaticals, in other words, is when they end. But hopefully, by then, you’ll be better equipped to face the work ahead—and to prioritize your life outside it.