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Burned Out? You Might Just Need a Sabbatical

It probably won’t come as a shock to you to learn that a lot of people working in the financial services industry aren’t happy and that they’re not feeling particularly loyal to their institutions. The financial crisis took its toll on the people who were let go as well as those left working. Wage freezes, slashed bonuses and overextended workers have led to a morale nose dive and soaring stress levels. It doesn’t help that bankers now rank lower than lawyers in public opinion polls.

According to the recent MetLife 9th Annual Study of Employee Benefit Trends, employee loyalty across industries is at a three-year low, and one in three workers hopes to find a new job in the next twelve months. More alarming for financial services organizations, a recent Gallup survey found that 17% of employees interviewed were actively disengaged and trying to subvert their organization. Over 54% were passively disengaged – their bodies were still in the office, but they had essentially left.

It goes without saying that no organization can flourish when half (or more) of its workers have a foot out the door. These employees cost companies money and seriously impede productivity. And with financial institutions, employees that are frustrated, hostile, or subversive present serious risks. Stressed out customer service personnel can be rude to customers. Worse, we’re seeing upticks in fraud perpetrated by employees.

While many of these problems can be attributed to layoffs and increased stress, I believe there’s something else at work here: a severe and chronic lack of downtime. According to a survey from Expedia.com, 63% of Americans work more than 40 hours a week and hand back more than $21 billion in unused vacation dollars each year. (Financial services workers are among the worst offenders here.) Worse, we feel guilty about the little time we do take off even though Americans put in two to three times more in total hours on the job each year than Europeans and two and a half more weeks than the Japanese. Here in the U.S., younger workers are leaving the fast track in droves to take less stressful jobs. Why? Because work demands keep rising while satisfaction and payoffs continue to decline.

But before you jump ship or your employees do, there is a way you may be able to address the morale, stress and burnout problems through a simple and age-old practice: a sabbatical. What is a sabbatical, exactly? It’s a set period of time away from work. A sabbatical can last from one month to a year, and it allows workers to take a break to renew and refresh their lives and better balance their priorities. Corporate sabbatical programs vary from paid time off (usually for a period of one to three months) to unpaid time off with benefits intact and a guaranteed job on return.

A number of financial institutions are offering, or are beginning to offer, corporate sabbaticals, in part as a way to attract and retain talent. These include: American Century Investments, Capital One Financial Corp., Charles Schwab, Citicorp, Citizens Financial Group, Commonfund, Credit Suisse First Boston, Deutsche Bank, Edward Jones, Goldman Sachs, Johnson Financial, Russell Investments and Seattle-Northwest Securities. Some very large financial services firms are in planning stages now.

Sabbaticals can benefit organizations at all levels. Take Larry Fish, who, as chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group, took almost a year off to perform community service work. When he came back, he was so convinced of the value of the time in boosting his creativity, productivity and well-being, that he encouraged others in his institution to do the same.

Intel is a leader in offering sabbaticals, and provides a good example for other corporations. The company’s program has been in existence for over 15 years and more than 69,000 employees have taken a sabbatical. All levels of employees, from the CEO to assistants, are eligible after seven years to take two months off at full pay.  People come back raving about their renewed energy, creativity and perspective. Management likes the program because it helps Intel attract and retain good people and broadens the knowledge and skill sets of employees who cover for the sabbatical taker.

If this sounds appealing, there are some things you can do, regardless of whether or not your organization has a formal sabbatical program:

Do Your Homework. Find out through Human Resources if your company has a program or might entertain a proposal. Ask about requirements. Research companies in your industry and your community for examples and ideas.

Make Your Case. Create a plan for what you want to do, when you want to do it and how much time you need. Plan how you will fund your time off and how your responsibilities will be covered while you are gone. Identify ways the organization could benefit, such as increased innovation, retention and attraction and improvement of morale.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Talk to your spouse, partner, family and colleagues about what you want to do and how it might affect them. Get their support. Talk to your boss about how you will make a smooth transition.

Unplug. As part of your break, unplug from the office and clients. Tell them ahead of time when you are going and returning, but don’t stay tied into the office. (AARP actually requires their employees to unplug during their one-month paid sabbaticals.)

Plan. Make the most of your time off by planning for travel and exploration of new interests, and make sure to allocate time to downtime, too.

Taking a sabbatical will do many things for you, from renewing and reinvigorating your life and career, to reprioritizing what is important to you, to helping you better balance your life. Don’t be surprised if, as the burnout fades, your perspective changes about your employer and your work. You may decide staying right where you are is the best thing for you and all it took was a break.

Ms. Allen is the chairman and chief executive officer of The Santa Fe Group, a strategic consulting firm based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the co-author of Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break (Beaufort Books, 2011) with Nancy Bearg, Rita Foley and Jaye Smith. She can be reached at [email protected].