A change for the better

Research reveals that sabbaticals boost productivity – but be sure not to take work phone calls or check the email

April 16, 2015

Did you have a good Easter break? Did you find time to draw a breath? To replenish your reserves of academic spirit (the kind that gets you out of bed in the morning, not the bottle in a desk drawer)?

It’s easy at work to become “a little too focused on just putting one foot in front of the other”, as Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, puts it in our cover story this week. And when staleness sets in, a week or two off isn’t really going to reinvigorate, or open up new avenues and ways of thinking and doing.

But for academics, that’s exactly what a sabbatical can do.

“It basically changed everything,” says one of those we interviewed, who spent his sabbatical not in an exotic location studying the sunbathing habits of the locals, but between labs in Nottingham, Cambridge and Germany.

The study suggests that those who benefit most spend their sabbatical abroad and minimise contact with their workplace

Alan McNally, reader in microbial genomics at Nottingham Trent University, acknowledges that he sounds “evangelical”, but is adamant that this period of intensive focus has changed his career – building his confidence, research network, publishing record and enthusiasm for his subject.

There are many ways in which sabbaticals can ignite or reboot academic careers: from the value of “depressurising” from daily working life, to immersing yourself in your subject, to spending time in industrial settings, foreign cultures or universities with different ways of doing things. And then there are the unpredictable moments of serendipity and inspiration.

What’s also clear is that sabbaticals are hard work, not only in terms of the research that’s expected (and some universities risk undermining the exercise by placing overly prescriptive demands on the “outputs” required) but also the effort of moving your life elsewhere.

One of the questions that our feature poses is about the lasting value of a sabbatical. The anecdotal evidence is strong, but there have been attempts to quantify the benefits as well. One such study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (“Sabbatical Leave: Who Gains and How Much?”) compares the experience of 129 academics on sabbatical with 129 controls, measuring their “psychological resources” over a period of time.

It confirms that sabbaticals promote well-being, reducing “stress and burnout” and building up the internal “resources” that academia values.

It also found that these benefits are sufficiently enduring to nullify the “conservation of resources” theory, which has it that such gains are more than offset by the negative effect of returning to “normal life” after a break. Interestingly for anyone considering a sabbatical, the study suggests that those who benefit most spend their sabbatical abroad and minimise contact with their workplace.

The paper ends with advice that’s likely to be music to the ears of academics: “Employers and colleagues should let [sabbatees] detach by not using ‘electronic tethers’, such as cell phones and email, for the sake of their well-being.”

And it throws a bone to universities, too: “Greater well-being”, the paper says, “holds promises of higher future productivity.” Academics believe their performance improves after sabbatical, and this can be a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, meaning that their “performance is likely to increase once [they are] back on the job”. That sounds like a win-win.


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