Sabbaticals Help Fight Employee Burnout

By Rita Pyrillis

Mar. 20, 2019

PwC’s Beata Zagona on sabbatical in South Africa alongside a rhinoceros.

When executive recruiter Beata Zagona, a self-described city girl, decided to take a fully paid sabbatical from her job, her choice of destination came as a surprise to some. Last summer, she spent a month scooping rhinoceros poop, among other chores, at a rhino sanctuary in South Africa.

I had worked for the firm for two weeks in South Africa and fell in love with the country,” said Zagona, a manager at PwC in New York. “I had gone on safari in Kenya and became more aware of wildlife poaching and saw the atrocities being committed against these animals. I thought the sabbatical was a great opportunity to do something adventurous and meaningful.”

Many employers would agree that a rested and recharged employee is more engaged and productive and that sabbaticals are a good idea, but PwC requires it for all newly promoted senior managers. The firm offers four weeks off — it pays for three — to give employees a chance to pursue a lifelong goal, volunteer or do nothing at all.

“They can sit and read movie star magazines for all we care, but we do require that they take time off,” said Anne Donovan, U.S. people experience leader at PwC. “We’re adamant. It’s not just a wink and a nod.”

The firm has always allowed individual employees to request a sabbatical but few employees did, according to Donovan. So in 2011, PwC established a formal program that requires senior managers with five years or more of service to take some time off.

About 17 percent of companies offered a sabbatical — either paid or unpaid — in 2017, according to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management. But the need for time off among senior level employees is supported by a number of recent studies showing that job burnout is a costly problem for both workers and employers.

Job burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in health care spending each year and has been attributed to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol and even death for those under the age of 45, according to 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review.

And the number of employees reporting burnout is on the rise, according to a recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees. The study found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.

For Zagona, spending weeks waking up at dawn to feed rhinos, clean their enclosures and dig ditches made her feel more resilient. She said that she came back to work more focused.

“The attitude and innovation that comes back to us and to our clients is huge,” said Donovan. “You get an employee that has an appreciation for life and for the firm that’s unmatched.”

Also read: The Disconnected Vacation 

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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