The Pause That Refreshes

Time away from your career, on a paid or unpaid sabbatical, can help to renew your creativity and productivity

In 1998, after 23 years on the fast track, Mary Lou Quinlan hit a wall. "I had burned out after years and years of overdelivering [on the job], and I needed to recharge my batteries," says Quinlan, 47, who was then chief executive of New York ad agency N.W. Ayer & Partners. At the suggestion of a friend, Quinlan asked the company's chairman for a paid, five-week sabbatical. "I will always be grateful he gave me the time," she says, although Ayer had no formal policy.

During her leave, Quinlan, who is married with no children, did nothing work-related. Rather, she caught up on her life and kept her mind free of day-to-day clutter by exercising, touring museums, and visiting friends and family. By the time she returned to Ayer, Quinlan had come up with an idea for a new marketing company that would help clients better understand female customers. Today she runs that business, Just Ask a Woman, a $2.5 million unit of Ayer's parent, BCom3.

As Quinlan's experience shows, time away from your career may be the best way to advance it. And the good news is, you don't have to be a CEO to get a break. Many companies have sabbatical policies separate from their rules for maternity and family leaves. A 2001 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 19% of the 754 companies polled offered sabbaticals. Within that 19%, 5% provided them with pay. The average size of the company surveyed was 1,600 employees.

Company policies vary from quite liberal to restricted. Mutual-fund researcher Morningstar allows all employees a six-week, paid sabbatical every four years to do whatever they choose. In 1998, Martha Moss, a public-relations manager, fulfilled a dream to travel in Europe and sing with the Austrian Chorale Society. "I returned refreshed and ready to work," says Moss.

Xerox (XRX ) lets U.S. employees who've been with the company at least three years take off for 12 months with pay--but they must work for a nonprofit organization with which they are already affiliated. Some 100 of its 47,500 employees apply each year, and 10 to 15 are accepted--although this year the program is temporarily suspended. In 1999, Susan Goldberg, a Xerox executive in Denver, helped create press materials for the new Brent Ely Foundation, which provides temporary housing and services for families of critically ill children receiving treatment at Denver Children's Hospital. "It was the most wonderful year of my life," says Goldberg, who returned to Xerox.

If your company doesn't have a stated policy, you still can make a case for getting time off. Now may be a good time to ask as companies look for ways to cut costs to weather the downturn. First, discuss your idea with the human-resources manager or with a co-worker who has taken a sabbatical. Ultimately, you must show your superiors how your leave can benefit the organization--say, by helping to renew your creativity.

If you can't get a paid leave, you may be able to work out the finances by borrowing future vacation and personal time and using allowances you're entitled to for conferences and workshops. "You're not just asking for a handout. You're planning an exchange," says Quinlan. Make sure you're guaranteed your same job back, and find out what happens if your department is reorganized before you return.

HELP WANTED. While many people work out their own agendas, you might strengthen your case by joining an organized program. Many worthwhile groups help you sharpen your professional skills and contribute to a good cause. Among them is Habitat for Humanity International (www.habitat.org, 800 422-4825), where you volunteer to build housing in poor areas. For a list of such organizations, check with VolunteerMatch (www.volunteermatch.org, 415 241-6868). White House Fellowships (www.whitehousefellows.gov, 202 395-4522) offers a paid, year-long program that lets you work alongside federal government leaders to develop public policy.

One such fellow this year is Kimberly Connors, 38, a Santa Clara (Calif.) deputy district attorney who is working with Housing & Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez. "I am gathering tools and leadership skills to bring back to my community," she says. Undoubtedly, she will bring them back to her job as well.

To join a discussion in our forum, see hers.online at businessweek.com/investor/

By Toddi Gutner

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