Photo credit: Natasha Chetty

Sabbaticals for the Self-Employed

Many firms now offer sabbatical programs as a workplace benefit. As long as employees meet defined criteria and plan carefully, they’re able to take a few months off without much risk. But are sabbaticals really feasible for self-employed professionals?

Given that I’m self-employed and that I work alone most of the time, I didn’t think that an extended absence was really an option. A carefully cultivated – or lucky – opportunity could arise at any moment. If I wasn’t around to respond, I could lose the work to another consultant. Not to mention, being self-employed means saving money for vacations and losing productivity time while taking those vacations (with limited amounts of human resources to delegate to while away).

Last year, however, presented a chance to spend almost four months away from the office. On the personal front, my husband retired and wanted to travel. We also planned a renovation that required me to give up my home office. On the work front, I had hit my stride with the right mix of clients and projects. The timing seemed right.

Being a project management aficionado, I made a checklist to ensure I was taking the right steps.

Planning: 4 months prior to departure
A few reality checks were necessary before getting carried away

  • Photo credit: Natasha Chetty

    This mountain gorilla really knows how to take a break!

    Financial feasibility: Conversations with my financial planner and accountant confirmed that a long break was viable

  • Client relationships: I was lucky in this regard. Several of my clients had taken sabbaticals themselves, and all of them encouraged me the idea. They promised to monitor ongoing projects and waited for me to return before starting new projects. I also arranged breaks from volunteer activities.
  • Administrative responsibilities. I automated as many tasks and made my system as paperless as possible. The frustration of changing some of my work habits wasn’t pleasant, but I hoped the changes would be cost-effective and worthwhile.

Doing: four months away from work 

I thrive on routine and predictability, so while the opportunity to travel for four months was a once-in-a-lifetime, one-percenter adventure, it also tested my nerves.

  • Wi-fi was available everywhere I went, from the middle of the Serengeti to a Rwandan mountaintop. I monitored communications regularly, but kept it light.
  • The only goal I had was to have fun. Some people take sabbaticals for a specific purpose: research, volunteerism, learning a new language. I didn’t. Any conclusions drawn or observations made along the way would be a bonus.

Recovering: one month getting back up to speed.
I thought it would take much longer to get back into work after I returned, but I was wrong.

  • I followed up with clients the week after I returned. Projects that we put on hold before the sabbatical are up and running now.
  • I’ve kept some of the automated tasks and systems put in place before the sabbatical. They were a step in the right direction anyway.

Although I returned to work with lots of energy, the biggest benefit of taking four months off was a change in perspective.

I feel like my mindset is less myopic now, and I also feel more creative. Instead of relentlessly focusing on processes and tasks, I had four months to let ideas percolate, look at issues through a different lens, meet new people and be open to new experiences.

I have no regrets about the sabbatical, either personally or professionally. If you’re interested in planning a long break, here are a few resources I found helpful:

Some professional associations and regulatory bodies also have guides on how professionals in private practice can plan a long-term break while minimizing regulatory risk.