Sabbaticals are a great opportunity to think deeply about things that either you never get the time too think about OR are too immersed in a specific context to see clearly (or at least relatively unobstructed). By having an exclusive, isolated time to think honestly about your vocation is priceless. It is even made more productive by having a firm end-date set so that there is some pressure for it to be a productive and practical time as well. You can’t just sit around playing video games and eating Twinkies all day…but you can do that a few times if that’s what you need.
I think is natural that two (of many) questions should emerge during any employees sabbatical. These questions do not necessarily have to elicit negative reactions or anxious moments but they do need to be treated with respect and significance. The two questions are: Do I want to come back? and Do they want me to come back?
Part of the perspective time is the chance to revisit so much of “why do we what we do?” Not just the nuts and bolts stuff of daily responsibilities but also, “Do I enjoy my vocation?”, “Does it still fill me with energy and vitality?” The daily challenges, annoyances and joys will be there with any job, regardless of pay scale and job description. Your desire to continue working, contributing at a high level and identifying with a particular profession are really what’s being explored here. Sabbaticals can give you the emotional distance to ask existential questions about your own purpose, source of value and worth, as well as what ways in which you can best add to the world (people, ideas, etc) around you.
The second question is good to ask but can be detrimental if dwelled on too much because it’s ultimately out of your control. It is a question though that any good employer should be asking during your sabbatical. See, it’s their opportunity to ask themselves organizational questions about what they want and need. They are given the opportunity to learn new ways of functioning that may not have been possible without the removal of a staff person for an extended period. The organization learns what its internal capacity for change really is. This becomes even more pronounced when offering a sabbatical to an upper-management employee – Have they trained their staff to run the office? Are they as indispensable as we thought? What holes was he/she filling that we weren’t aware of?
As the employee on leave – it is good to keep in mind that your organization may be thinking through the same stuff you are – I’d go so far to say that they “should” be doing this. It can be unnerving and a source of insecurity but it really is quite fair. The hope and idea of sabbaticals is that both parties renew themselves and open themselves up to more creative ways to work together to meet the goals of your organization and vocation. You are together for a reason. There is some degree of shared commitment and value attribution to your mandate that you share…sabbaticals are a restart and a re-visioning for both parties.
Through the relationship between these two questions you can begin to set priorities for returning. With new energy and/or focus you can address any strengths and deficiencies that you feel you have and hopefully your organization can point to new strengths and weaknesses that were revealed in your absence. If they didn’t miss you at all – you can work through what that means: maybe you’re an excellent trainer and they need you doing more of that, maybe you’re the capacity of other staff is greater than they anticipated and will be relocating staff to other areas, maybe you’re position is redundant and they need to think of changing terms of reference. These are healthy steps in the life of an organization and hopefully are positive steps for the person on leave as well.
I was given this chance to grow and develop. Growth implies change and change shouldn’t be seen as a negative. I’ve reclaimed some priorities lost and I shouldn’t be afraid if my organization has done so too. I’ll just trust and explore the intersection of my growth and my communities fresher understand of our relationship.