First some definitions. A "sabbatical," derived from the Jewish word for the Sabbath day of rest and available mostly in academia, is a period of time taken off from regular work responsibilities. Sabbaticals are customarily taken every seven years and usually with pay. Leaves of absence, which are available across a wider range of professions, refer to any period of time off from work with the permission of an employer. Unlike sabbaticals, leaves are generally taken without pay, but often they allow for the preservation of certain benefits.
If you're itching to explore something new, see if your employer has a policy for people who want to take time off for educational purposes. Policies vary widely about when employees are eligible, how pay and benefits are affected, how much time can be taken, and what employees can do with the time. Whatever the particulars of your employer's program, taking some time off from work without leaving your job is a great way to delve deeper into something and figure out where it's going to fit in with the rest of your life.
At the age when many young professionals are getting settled in their chosen fields, Joel Zighelboim, a thirty-seven-year-old lawyer, took a "time out" to explore other areas that had long been interesting to him. Directly out of law school Zighelboim clerked for a judge, and after that he went to work for Simpson Thacher, a prestigious law firm in Manhattan. He was on the very path to which many young lawyers from elite schools aspire. Financial security was within his reach. To attain it, he knew just what he'd have to do: log grueling hours and continue to be a star performer.
But the promise of a future with that game plan did anything but relax Zighelboim. It showed him that everything was wrong. So after less than a year at the firm, he negotiated a three-month unpaid leave of absence, which he used to take an intensive course in digital filmmaking. The course culminated in a thirty-minute film, a comic documentary he made about bourgeois New York parents' obsession with the newest must-have accessory, the Bugaboo stroller. He set the film to a musical score he wrote himself, and he and his wife aired their pre-parental anxiety as he roamed the city interviewing cliques of parents in different neighborhoods on the stroller choices they had made and what that said about them as parents and consumers.
Once the class was over, it was time to return to the law firm but Zighelboim just couldn't bring himself to go back. Instead, he took a job that ranked lower on prestige but higher on lifestyle, a permanent clerkship for the judge he'd worked for previously. He's been honest with his boss about his goal to transition to film; so honest that he understands he may lose his position one day if she finds someone who's a better long-term fit. But, with evenings and weekends free, he is ready to get to work on his next project and develop contacts. Ironically, his best lead yet in the film world has come from the judge. He is far from settled. With an infant at home, he and his wife (an actress/writer) are now figuring out how being parents fits in among their collective bundle of slashes.
Robert Sudaley, the teacher/real estate investor, juggled his two occupations for about seven years before he decided that he needed to take a leave of absence from school to get his business where he wanted it to be. After nineteen years as a teacher, he was able to stop the clock on his retirement earnings while he spent a year focusing exclusively on his business. After that year off, which was unpaid, he went back to teaching. He will likely quit teaching long before he's eligible to collect retirement at fifty-five, but he'll have access to the financial benefits accrued during all those years as a teacher.
Finding Flexible Employers
Various entities put out annual "best employer,” best company," or "most-family-friendly" lists highlighting companies with the most progressive policies. Each organization judges companies by different criteria, and all of them publish those criteria along with the winners for the year. Generally, the lists will include Web sites for the companies so that you can see where they have offices and other details. These are good places to start, even though on the surface some may have a different focus than what you're after.
- Catalyst (www.catalyst.org) gives an annual award "honoring innovative approaches with proven results taken by companies to address the recruitment, development, and advancement of all managerial women, including women of color." Catalyst is focused on women, but companies that have good track records on the advancement of women often have good policies on flexible work schedules, as well as a record of people actually being able to use such schedules without jeopardizing their careers.
- Fortune (www.fortune.com) publishes a "100 Best Companies to Work For" list. The magazine tracks a wide range of criteria, much of it having nothing to do with slash-friendly policies, but if you poke around, occasionally you stumble onto useful tidbits like the fact that Starbucks offers health insurance to all employees who work at least twenty hours. Fortune's Web site has archives that go back to 1998.
- Working Mother Media (www.workingmother.com), publisher of Working Mother magazine, has been putting out an annual "100 Best Companies" list since 1986. They consider companies large and small, public and private that complete an application with questions about "all areas of work/life including a company's culture, family-friendly policies and compensation." In a collection of articles, the magazine dices and slices the data in all kinds of ways. As you study the information, be on the lookout for mentions of companies that interpret "flexible" to mean more than "family friendly" (e.g., a company that allows employee time off to train for athletic competitions or pursue artistic talents).