I’m going on sabbatical in January. Hooray!
As I’ve been preparing for this adventure I’ve been thinking about what a privilege it is to have this opportunity. While I won’t be on vacation for a semester, I will be free from teaching and service responsibilities and (important point!) I will be paid. I’ll be away from the day-to-day whirl so I can turn my routine upside down, explore new ideas, and consider my work from different perspectives – perhaps while standing on my head since renewing my yoga practice is one of the personal goals I have set myself for this time.
Being who I am, I have spent a fair amount of time reading about sabbatical and learning from the experience of others. Most of the advice is pretty obvious – set goals, create some structure, find a balance between work and life stuff. My favorite, however, was to not be deluded into thinking that I will get tons done. More important than quantity is quality and getting out of your comfort zone. Well, okay – I’ll be taking one-on-one Finnish lessons via Skype through the University of Helsinki. Does that count?
On a more serious note, sabbatical is a type of work-respite. It’s different from other forms of respite (such as vacation and weekends off) because it’s typically longer and there is work involved, but it provides an opportunity for renewal by focusing on a different kind of work, often in a different location. And renewal can be important for combating burnout.
Burnout is a serious issue in social work and other helping professions. Unlike academics like myself, social work practitioners tend to see people at their worst. It takes a great deal of emotional resilience to work with people in difficult circumstances and maintain empathy, appropriate boundaries, and a strong sense of professional identity. Emotional resilience is important for the well-being of workers and clients. A resilient social worker will be more effective at her job. A stressed social worker can inadvertently have a negative impact on the very people she is trying to help. And stress leads to burnout which leads to turnover which disrupts the continuity of services and costs money.
Emotional resilience can be fostered in our students and maintained at some level with good reflective supervision and self-care. However, while individual coping skills are important, emotional resilience needs to be supported at the structural level as well.
Which brings me back to work-respite.
Whether it’s weekends, vacations, or sabbatical, psychological detachment from work is a key factor in renewing our inner resources and improving overall well-being. And yet how many of us check email or answer phone calls from the office on our day off or on vacation? How many of us even take all of our allotted vacation days? How many of us even have paid vacation days to use? Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey found that the number of vacations days used in the U.S. has dropped precipitously since 2000 from 20.3 days a year on average to 16 days in 2013.
Despite evidence to the contrary from a variety of sources, we seem to think more work days and less vacation leads to more productivity. We feel like we can’t detach from the office, even for a day or two, or [insert your chosen disaster here] will happen. Sometimes this may actually be true and there are many people, of course, for whom not working means not getting paid. That’s a topic for another day.
Here’s a radical idea – what if social workers actually got paid sabbaticals? What if social work practitioners could take two weeks, a month, maybe even longer, paid leave (separate from vacation days) to learn a new skill, work internationally, conduct some research that will improve services? What if a social worker could take a semester and come work with me, paid through her job, but free from her usual day-to-day responsibilities, on a research project that’s directly related and relevant to what’s happening on the ground and know that at the end of the semester her job would still be there for her? That would be a great benefit to me and my work, to the social worker and her work, and to the field in general.
Of course, I’m writing this having not yet taken my sabbatical. Ask me in August if I feel renewed.