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Sabbatical for doctors: the how, what, and why

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On a regular basis, I hear about doctors who want to “quit” medicine. Just as we were taught as kids, though, quitting is never the answer. (Almost never, anyway.) I believe this extends to our careers in medicine. Many cases of physician burnout or frustration require a combination of a few approaches, such as transitioning to a new job or adjusting your work schedule. A sabbatical for doctors can be an awesome way to rejuvenate your medical career, fend off burnout, and help you cultivate a fulfilling professional life.

Let’s start by clearing up two misconceptions.

Myth #1: Sabbaticals are just for professors

Having spent a whole lot of years in school, you’ve probably come across professors or who were “on sabbatical” from another university or away on a sabbatical to conduct research. Lucky for those of us who aren’t in academia, you don’t need to be a professor to take a sabbatical. Moreover, a sabbatical doesn’t need to be traditional teaching or research.

Myth #2: A sabbatical is just “time off”

Time off means leaving your professional life for your personal life. It’s taking vacation, depleting your PTO bank, or negotiating an extra few weeks before your start date when beginning a new job. Time off is important, for sure. Time off can even combat burnout. But it’s not a sabbatical.

Sabbaticals are intentional, goal-driven, and are accompanied by a professional objective.

With that said, if you’re early in your career, not yet burned out, and/or perfectly happy with your job – keep reading! Start thinking about a sabbatical now so that you don’t miss out on a great opportunity down the road or end up with a sub-par sabbatical experience due to time or resource constraints from poor planning.

A leave of absence, a furlough, or even a fellowship program, are terms that are sometimes used interchangeability. In some cases, these can accomplish the same thing as a sabbatical.

Types and goals of sabbaticals for doctors

Generally speaking, sabbaticals can be a formal program or an informal endeavor. Finding the best arrangement for you depends on how much time you have, how much effort you want to put into planning, what your budget is, and – most importantly – your rationale for wanting a sabbatical in the first place.

There are various reasons why a physician might want to take a sabbatical:

  • To learn a new professional skill or knowledge base
  • To explore their industry in a different setting, culture, or environment
  • To impede oncoming burnout
  • To gain experience that can’t be acquired through one’s usual work

Your reason might be a combination of these, or something else entirely. Regardless, your rationale and goals will help guide what you do.

For those physicians aiming to prevent or recover from burnout or career fatigue, your goals for a sabbatical might look like one of these:

  • Reflect and rejuvenate
  • Figure out what you want the next steps of your career to look like
  • Determine what’s important to you in your career
  • Reconnect with why you went into medicine
  • Decide how you’d like to remain professionally involved following retirement or semi-retirement

Employer- vs self-sponsored sabbaticals

Some organizations offer sabbaticals to employees who have been with the company for a certain length of time. This is especially popular in academia (hence myth #1 above), but exists in other employment settings, as well.

The logistics of this sabbatical type vary from employer to employer; however, the one thing they all have in common is that you still have your job when you return from the sabbatical. In most cases, you won’t have a lapse in your fringe benefits. Less commonly, employees receive sabbatical pay.

That said, though, some company sabbatical offerings are meager – i.e. a 10-day sabbatical for every 7 years of service to the company. This may be adequate to clear your head a bit or accomplish a very specific objective, but it’s really not substantial.

Assuming your employer doesn’t have a sabbatical program or they do but you’re not eligible for it, there are still plenty of options:

  • Negotiate an arrangement with your employer
  • Take a sabbatical in between full-time jobs
  • If you work for yourself, stop taking clients/patients/customers for a while

Regardless of whether you have an arrangement through your company or not, you’ll need to spend some time planning for how you’ll spend the time away from work. Very few companies have a formal program in which they actual provide the logistics or activity that you do during your sabbatical. That part is up to you. This means the options are basically limitless, but it also means you’ll need to put in some serious leg work to make the most of it.

The ideal time for a physician to take a sabbatical

Misleading heading. There is no ideal time.

Planning for a sabbatical is like planning for having kids. There’s no “perfect” time, and some elements may be somewhat out of your control for both work-related and personal reasons.

With that in mind, a sabbatical very early on in your career might result in not getting the most out of it. Waiting too long could mean that you miss a window before growing weary of medicine. Or your might not have enough of your career left to truly reap the long-term benefits of your sabbatical experience or use the new skills you gained. So, mid-career is a great time.

Mid-career physicians have a deep amount of experience to pull from, and boundless possibilities ahead of them.

A timeline for planning your sabbatical

Everyone’s situation is unique, but here’s a rough guide for planning to make sure you reap the full benefits of a well-planned sabbatical and don’t end up scrambling as it gets close.

Six months to a year prior:

  • Identify goals for your sabbatical
  • Apply to sabbatical programs, if applicable
  • Decide on tentative dates
  • Have a discussion with your employer or develop a plan for job transitions surrounding your sabbatical
  • If planning to travel internationally, get a passport and obtain necessary visas
  • Start saving money, if needed, for expenses during your sabbatical

Three to six months prior:

  • Set aside a bit of time each week to plan your travel, potential projects, etc

One to three months prior:

  • Work with your company to determine and train coverage for your time away
  • Prepare your family for your time away or that you’ll be on a different schedule than usual
  • Try not to start anything new that will be tough to take a break from

A week or two prior:

  • Consider logistics for time away from work and/or home such as emergency contacts, getting bills paid, and email and phone correspondence
  • If relevant, let customers/clients know you’ll be away
  • If taking your sabbatical from home, make physical changes to your work space to make sure you aren’t distracted by your “regular” work or usual habits
  • Stop feeling guilty

Funding your sabbatical

Most sabbaticals come with expense, whether it’s due to travel, launching an initiative of your own, or combination of costs. You probably won’t have your usual income coming in, so these expense may seem augmented. It’s worth having a plan for expenses before your sabbatical begins. Set money aside in the months prior to avoid worrying about finances during your sabbatical or having to miss out certain experiences.

Don’t let the issue of money prevent you from taking a sabbatical. There are certainly low cost options. You don’t need to travel extensively or pay tuition for a course. A self-designed undertaking from home can be a perfectly reasonable way to meet the goals of a sabbatical.

Ready to get started with planning? Tune in next week to read about a number of sabbatical options that are fitting for physicians.

6 thoughts on “Sabbatical for doctors: the how, what, and why”

  1. Great article! I know the sabbatical I took after medical practice before I started my coaching business was incredibly helpful. It was self-funded, but it gave me the time and headspace I needed to carve a new path. And the interesting thing is that just giving myself time enabled me to find plan B. I’ll never know how long it would have taken me to figure it out without the sabbatical, but I’m really glad I took the time. Thank you LFZ for the excellent resources in all of your posts.

  2. Just a caution…depending on the specialty, there is sometimes a certain number of cases that have to be done to maintain privileges, or to get privileges again.

    I ran into that…came close to not being able to re-enter.

    Otherwise….I strongly recommend periodic “time away from medicine”. It keeps you mentally fresh, and prolongs (if you want) your ability to keep working…happily.

    • Great point that it’s important to think about your needs / wants for AFTER the sabbatical is over, too, and plan accordingly. Thanks!

  3. I recently returned from a 6 month “sabbatical” that essentially transformed my marriage, brought our family together, and reestablished what I want in this next phase of life. It was a leap of faith, self-financed, and I use air quotes because I ended up resigning as my group wasn’t too keen on extended time away. I was absolutely worth it. It was the first time in my decade post residency/fellowship that work wasn’t hanging over my head, and the first time I felt like I was actually living life. I was enrolled in a low-residency MFA in writing for young people, so I spent time writing, relaxing, and enjoying our new surfing community.

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