top of page
  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

Burned Out? Consider Taking A Sabbatical

Nov. 30 2023

Woman walking through forest on stone path.
More women may be taking a “radical sabbatical,” or a career break to focus on one’s personal well being and to seek greater clarity about which career choices are best aligned with one’s values. GETTY

More than 40% of workers are burned out, with women being more likely to experience burnout than their male counterparts, according to research from Future Forum. The reasons are varied, but may include the gender and racial pay gap, the “broken rung” and unequal representation in leadership, the fact women are more likely to work in the lowest-paid jobs, women continuing to shoulder the majority of unpaid household labor, and a lack of affordable childcare. While women’s labor force participation has now exceeded pre-pandemic levels, a cultural shift may be happening where more women may be taking a “radical sabbatical,” or a career break to focus on one’s personal well being and to seek greater clarity about which career choices are best aligned with one’s values.

“I knew that I needed an intentional pause; a break from everything that I had been living with and working through for the past three and a half years,” says Daisy Auger-Dominguez, a C-suite executive, workplace strategist, speaker and author who is chronicling her radical sabbatical on her LinkedIn page. “It came out of a period of being so deeply exhausted and experiencing a complete nervous system shutdown. I was craving serenity and freedom. I needed to also get to a place where I was going to be okay with taking a break. I'm the child of immigrants, and have been conditioned to just get the job done. Yet my mind and my heart were in such overdrive that I knew the only way to heal was to completely pause. That's what a radical sabbatical is for me.”

In the post-pandemic world, Americans are still reckoning with the ideal worker norm, or the notion that we should be always available to our jobs and that our value is tied to only what we produce. Sometimes it takes stepping away to gain clarity on what’s working and what isn’t. The research shows that sabbaticals are healing, such as by enabling people to disentangle their identity from their job title and gaining a greater understanding of what matters most.

Robyn Moreno, a mother of two and author of Get Rooted: Reclaim Your Soul, Serenity, and Sisterhood Through the Healing Medicine of the Grandmothers, recounts how, as a media executive, she constantly felt pulled in opposite directions, and ultimately burned out after feeling like she was failing at both work and home. Moreno says she was struggling with her mental health so much that she was forced to take a break in order to reevaluate her life.

“I was commuting four hours a day, had to pay a lot for daycare, and was often forced to choose between my work and my kids. It just wasn’t working for me. At the same time, Latinas get paid less than everybody else, so far too many of us have to work twice as hard to make the same amount of money. There is also the issue of the glass cliff, where women and people of color are offered executive positions in times of crisis, so instead of getting to lead we are forced to save. We’re sold this hustle culture, or the idea of the #MomBoss, which sounds great because you’re taking ownership and being a leader. But at what cost? If you're not getting the support to do that, then you're just set up to fail.”

The average person will spend more than 40 years in the workforce. Most people will experience a life event over those four decades that will prompt them to take a career break, such as a health issue, caring for a family member, or a career transition. While career breaks and sabbaticals are neither new nor uncommon, the ability to take one largely remains a privilege and oftentimes there is still shame and stigma surrounding it.

“Part of the shame [I had to work through when announcing my radical sabbatical] was the privilege that I have,” says Auger-Dominguez. “I know so many other women, men, people of color who have to suffer every day the indignity and pain and exhaustion because they aren’t in the financial position to do this. It feels like a luxury, and it is a luxury. But I'd love to normalize it; making it feel like less of a luxury. Sabbaticals don’t have to be six months or a year; they can be as short as six weeks or even two weeks. Companies offer sabbaticals as a reward for service and as an understanding that people need breaks in their lives. So these aren't new things. I believe there has been a collective pandemic-induced need to redesign our lives for better balance.”

The trend of the Great Resignation may be over, but it was a tipping point suggesting that employees were shifting from a “live to work” to a “work to live” mindset. I spoke to some women who took a ‘radical sabbatical’ to share their insights and lessons learned.

Understand What You Need To Be Sustainable

Moreno says taking a pause helped her realize that she was working to the point of overwhelm, and that it was okay to pull back, reflect, and set boundaries.

“As women and women of color, we don't always get the luxury to pause and ask ourselves what we really want,” says Moreno. “I watched my own mother struggle as a single mom of four kids who worked two jobs. I felt like I always had to be in survival mode. I learned how to survive, but I never learned how to sustain myself. Once I got burnt out, I started to think, ‘How can I begin to thrive? How can I begin to forge my own path? How can I redefine success for myself?’ We also need systemic changes for people to be able to ask these questions, because if you are a single mom with three kids, you're going to do what you have to do as long as you have to do it.”

Policy changes can enable more people to create the space to care for one’s well being, as well as to ask these questions for greater clarity to help prevent burnout (which is to companies’ benefit because burnout costs companies big time). For example, paying people a living wage could mean a person has to work only one job instead of two, and requiring employees to use their vacation days—even though America mandates no paid vacation or paid holidays—would give more people the opportunity and permission to take time off.

Manage Your Energy To Prevent Burnout

Dr. Whitney Casares, pediatrician, mother of two, and author of the upcoming book Doing It All: Stop Over-Functioning, and Become the Mom and Person You’re Meant to Be, took a six-week sabbatical her workplace offered to employees who had been with the company for at least eight years. Upon returning, her discovery was that she needed to find a way to feel more aligned in her purpose so she didn't feel like she needed these long stretches to recover.

Dr. Whitney says the key is creating a life that you don’t want to escape from. “Like almost every other woman I know in my generation, I was conditioned to reach for the stars to be anything I wanted to be and told that I should lean in fully at work,” says Dr. Whitney. “But then also I was also conditioned that I was still supposed to be the person who did everything at home, who made sure my man didn't leave me, who took good care of my kids. I wasn’t successful. So many women who I work alongside didn't see that all of that wasn't possible in the exact same moment. That is not a reflection on the person, but it’s a system failure.”

Dr. Whitney believes helping women build more awareness about the things that give them purpose and joy is vital to combating burnout, and that giving women back their energy is healing.

“What are the things that actually put you into your flow state? What are the things that you feel energized from versus drained?” says Dr. Whitney. “That's different for every single person. Once you have those answers, prioritize your time with those key things you want to hone in on. Set time on your physical schedule for them before you fill it in with all the other to-dos on your list.”

Dr. Whitney says it might be carving out two hours to think about the writing you want to do for your book, or having a one-on-one session with a client where you get to really encourage them, and it lifts you both up. “Once you’ve prioritized time for the things that energize you, you can fill in all the other things you have to get done,” says Dr. Whitney. “And if you don't get those other little things done, you won't care as much because you spent all this time on things that actually gave you purpose.”

Eve Rodsky, the author of Find Your Unicorn Space, echoed this idea in a previous Forbes story, saying, “Society has sold women a bill of goods in the form of milestones to pursue, whether it's a diamond ring or having children or getting to the C-suite, in order to be happy. Yet there is often a loss of identity and a lack of happiness in the externally-focused milestones that they were pursuing. There was a definite feeling that it's selfish to focus on creativity or that you should wait until later in life, such as in retirement. I think the most important thing to tell you from the research is that creativity is not optional. The way I'm describing unicorn space [or the permission for women to be unavailable from their roles as partner, parent or professional and take uninterrupted time for creative pursuits] is literally linked to your mental health, your longevity and your redemptive narrative for how you heal. It's a very important skill to cultivate. It's a practice.”

Honor Yourself Above All Else

Caregiving remains a word strongly associated with women, so many may have learned to prioritize others’ needs above their own and try to do it all themselves. “My new frontier was actually slowing down and asking for help,” says Moreno. “That might look like delegating work, or signing up for a writing class, or taking time off for self-care. It sounds so basic because self-care is this word that has become so common it’s lost its value, but my spiritual teacher summed it up when she said, ‘You have to declare yourself self-important.’ And to me that meant honoring and prioritizing my own mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing, even—and especially— in an environment that doesn’t.”

Setting boundaries is a practice for honoring yourself and your needs. Dr. Whitney says one of the most important boundaries to set is what she calls a self boundary.

“This is the one that moms are notoriously kind of terrible at, given our conditioning as girls to be people pleasing and to be ‘yes’ people,” she says. “It's not our fault, it's just the way that we were raised. It’s meeting other people's needs first, and making sure everybody is taken care of all the time. When you have a self boundary that's broken, it means you basically abandoned your own needs and who you are. Self boundaries are paramount to taking good care of yourself and to having the rest and the restorative healing practices you need. It is the ultimate in saying, ‘I actually matter the most in my life, and I deserve the same level of respect for time to rest as everybody else.”

It’s not easy to declare that your priorities are taking care of your mental health or pursuing unpaid creative pursuits in a culture that values work above all else, and so intentionally taking a career break is indeed a radical act. “Our nervous systems are shot, and it's going to take time to replenish,” says Auger-Dominguez. “Imagine the world that we'd have if we were all just able to channel joy, hope and optimism in a space where we didn't feel depleted. A world where we can show up as our best self, because that's what we all want.”

*Article originally published in Forbes


bottom of page