Health and wellness

Press pause: why an extended break to recharge, reboot and refocus might be just what you need

The benefits of a sabbatical can’t be ignored – and you don’t have to travel for a year. Sometimes a few days away can make all the difference. Whatever you do, include a digital detox and time for relationships and reflection

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2018, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2018, 7:38pm

In 2015, after a few years at the same job, Jeanne Tai felt that she needed a break. She had been writing and editing for a magazine – work that involved long hours and demanded plenty of creativity – and she felt like she was in a rut.

“I was required to bring my best ideas to the table, but my creative juices were running dry and I thought I had hit a wall in terms of what I could contribute,” says Tai, who turns 31 later this year.

Everyday stress can harm health like death of a loved one: research

“At the time I was single, and financially comfortable with no debts or big-ticket items to pay off, so I figured, why not go on a sabbatical? I felt that taking time off to recharge would make me a better storyteller and give me more life experiences that I could bring to my job after I came back.”

So take time off she did – her sabbatical lasted a whole year. During this time, Tai took Mandarin classes in Beijing and travelled through China (including Tibet) and Mongolia.

She was all the better for it, feeling that the 12 months away from work gave her the physical, mental and emotional reboot she desperately needed.

“I was always thinking about work, the next project, or the next item on my To-do list, so to suddenly be free from deadlines and work obligations was quite liberating,” says Tai, who works for a non-profit organisation in Singapore.

“I had time to read more and simply reflect on things. I also had more energy to dedicate to my relationships and my own growth. When the sabbatical was over, I felt mentally and emotionally refreshed. It was truly an enriching experience.”

Recent research supports the benefits of taking a sabbatical. One study compared 129 university professors who took a sabbatical in a given semester to 129 equally qualified professors who didn’t.

Both groups were surveyed before, during and after the semester to determine a range of factors, including perceived stress levels, psychological resources and overall life satisfaction. Upon their return after the end of the semester, the professors who took sabbaticals were found to have experienced a decline in stress levels, an increase in psychological resources and an improvement in overall well-being.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, these positive effects remained long after the sabbatical-taking academics returned to work. The study, “Sabbatical Leave: Who Gains and How Much?”, was published in 2010 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Meet the Hong Kong-Aussie comic with no shortage of material

On top of helping you disconnect from the pressures of work and giving you the chance to pursue your passions and find your life’s purpose, taking a sabbatical can help your career.

“It’s a good opportunity for self-reflection and personal learning, so you return to work with new attitudes and skills that can help you be a better employee or leader,” says Angela Spaxman, a Hong Kong-based career and executive coach.

It can help you reassess your priorities, too, believes Tai, who has enjoyed the benefits.

“Before my sabbatical, work took up a lot of my time and my job was a huge part of my identity. When I went back to work, the job was still important, of course, but I also understood the importance of other things, like self-care,” Tai says. “I made it a point to set boundaries and take better care of myself, emotionally and physically. For instance, I paid more attention to my eating and exercise habits.”

Trust that life will go on without your labour and you will find the balance that you’re looking for
Jeanne Tai

The duration of your sabbatical is up to you, but Spaxman says that anywhere from three months to a year is ideal. Just remember to make the most – and the best – of the time you have.

“Set specific goals so that you don’t later regret having wasted time on distracting activities. I suggest starting with a proper break to help you move into a relaxed state as quickly as possible,” Spaxman says. “A spa retreat, meditation class, personal development seminar or creative arts workshop are all good ideas.

“Then, you may wish to change certain habits or adopt new ones to help you move closer to your goals. These may include adopting better eating and exercise habits, making time for meditation or journaling, and spending time away from computers, devices and social media.”

However, Spaxman advises against planning too many activities or travelling too much during your sabbatical. “Stay in one place so that you can go more deeply into yourself rather than just take in superficial experiences,” she says.

And prepare to feel bored, she adds, as from boredom comes the space for new ideas and inspiration. But what if taking a sabbatical is out of the question and all you’ve got is your annual leave? Chan Cudennec, a holistic health coach at Hong Kong’s Sol Wellness, says to regard this short break as a mini sabbatical.

Why stressed Hongkongers should take a hike, not a pill

“Try to switch off from work and do a Wi-fi detox,” she says. “If you’re exhausted then you’ll need plenty of sleep and rest … use this period to reflect on what work-life balance means to you and to find ways to achieve this balance.

“Maybe you need to not take work so seriously and have a bit more fun, maybe you need to connect with people who make you feel happy and grounded, or maybe you just need to look after yourself a little better.”

She says work stress can be dangerous when it builds up over time, because it can lead to burnout.

Tai also has some words of wisdom for those who don’t have the luxury of taking several months off work, emphasising that rather than waiting for your annual leave, it might be helpful to take regular breaks throughout the year instead.

“These pauses may last a mere few days or a weekend, but that is enough, so long as you put your needs first and allow yourself to recharge. This means setting boundaries and consciously switching off,” she says.

Digital detox tips and how to avoid digital dementia: expert advice

“Let those work-related emails and phone calls go unanswered, quit stressing about not being able to check every item off your to-do list, and don’t be so hung up on being the perfect boss or employee. Trust that life will go on without your labour and you will find the balance that you’re looking for.”