Travel Gap Years for Grown-Ups

Employees are tired. We’re burned out and desperate to find that elusive work-life balance everyone keeps talking about. Could a prolonged vacation be the answer?

By Brienne Walsh Illustration by Jenny Kroik
PUBLISHED 01/06/2023 | 12 MINUTES

Rachel*, 38, is an executive at a Fortune 500 company—and she has four children. While she was ostensibly succeeding in her career, her home life was a failure.

“I hired and fired 18 babysitters in a single year,” she says. “I was constantly distressed, and it was wearing on everyone.” She negotiated with her employer to take two sabbaticals—the first one for five weeks in 2019 and the second, during the height of the pandemic, for six months. “I was at my breaking point, and it was clear I needed to make a change.”

Roshida Dowe, 43, was so stressed out from her job as a lawyer in the Bay Area that she was regularly going to the doctor to manage pain in her body. When her student loans were finally paid off, she decided to quit her job and planned to return to work after a year of travel. “I put all of my stuff in storage thinking that I would come back to the same life,” she says. But after six months, she realized she could never return to her old profession. “As a Black woman, I knew, statistically, that I was giving more and getting paid less. I just couldn’t imagine putting myself back in that position.”

Jessica*, 41, was working as a lawyer in Boston. Along with feeling immense anxiety at work, she struggled with dating. “I basically reached a point where I had no idea what I was working toward anymore,” she says. She quit her job, bought a car and drove to Alaska. “I wanted to expand my world. I wanted a different challenge than simply sitting in a chair in front of my computer all day.”

These women are just three of the millions of American workers who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, burnout in their careers.

The Burnout Epidemic

Burnout, which is described by the World Health Organization as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has been unsuccessfully managed, was already a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic began. A 2015 study released by researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Business found that workplace stress in the United States accounts for 120,000 deaths per year and is responsible for approximately 5% to 8% of annual health care costs.

The pandemic, which brought school closures, layoffs, salary reductions and remote work, has made the problem exponentially worse. A 2021 survey by Indeed found that more than half (52%) of respondents were experiencing burnout, compared with 43% of respondents pre-COVID, with the largest increase in workplace-related stress experienced by Gen X and Gen Z.

It’s no wonder, given these statistics, that 47.8 million people quit their jobs in 2021 in what has been dubbed The Great Resignation.

Admitting you are burned out can feel like abandoning the American dream. “These feelings of fear and inadequacy are direct impacts of the capitalistic society we live in,” says Annie Wright, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Evergreen Counseling in Berkeley, California. “For many of us, from the time we’re little, we’re told implicitly and explicitly that our worth is correlated to our productivity and achievement and that rest and taking time off will undermine success.”

Not taking time off when you know you’re burned out, however, can lead some people to experience long-term damage like depression, anxiety, insomnia, physical pain and increased conflict in our relationships, Wright adds.

The Sabbatical Cure

Generally described as a “break from work”—and first established by Harvard University in 1880—sabbaticals were historically spent pursuing interests that involved travel, writing and research— things that would bolster future career prospects in academia. Increasingly, however, sabbaticals, which can either be paid or unpaid depending on whether you stay employed and whether your company offers that benefit, are spent recovering from the stress and unrelenting demands of modern work.

A growing body of evidence supports the idea that taking time off can not only help us become more mentally and physically balanced, but also more successful in our careers. And sabbaticals can have long-term benefits for employers as well.

For example, a 2010 study found that professors who took time off, as opposed to their peers who did not, reported much higher levels of well-being and efficacy. A more recent study by the Sabbatical Project, which aims to normalize extended time off, found that taking sabbaticals changed people’s identities and allowed them to return to work with refreshed energy, ideas and loyalty to their employers.

This was certainly the case for Rachel, who returned to her role at the Fortune 500 company after her two sabbaticals feeling grateful. “I felt like the company had done me such a solid,” she says.

Amber J. Adams, 37, notes that taking a sabbatical from her career in media to travel around South America and Europe made her realize she wouldn’t work for a company that held the gap year on her resume against her. “If they judge me, they’re not the right fit for me,” she says. An openness to an employee who has prioritized her mental health or personal growth speaks volumes about a company’s culture, Adams says.

“Paid sabbaticals are an amazing employee benefit and can be a smart way for companies to attract talent,” says Annie Rosencrans, the U.S. people and culture director at Hibob, a global human resources platform. “But each company needs to weigh the pros and cons.”

Given the choice between losing an employee—and spending the $4,000 on average that it takes to train a new one—or allowing one to take significant time off, many companies are choosing the latter. As of 2017, 12% of companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management offered unpaid sabbatical leave, with another 5% offering a paid sabbatical program. More recently, companies including Synchrony and PricewaterhouseCoopers have begun offering sabbaticals with partial pay (the latter, for example, began letting employees take off between one and six months at 20% of their pay with full benefits in 2020).

How to Spend Your Time Off

There is no prescription for how a sabbatical should be spent. For some people, it may mean merely resting.

“Once you’re mentally and physically recharged, you can start thinking about what other needs you have—like adventure (to help you feel more alive), intense psychotherapy (to address issues contributing to your burnout) or play (to feel lighter and less burdened in your adult life),” suggests Wright.

For others, taking time off might mean traveling. For budget-friendly options, check out sites like Workaway, which allows users to trade daily work for lodging and food, and TrustedHousesitters, which sets up pet sitters with pet owners.

Ask for What You Need

“The right time to take a sabbatical is when you need it, but also when you just really want it,” says Sarah Greenberg, the director of clinical designs and partnerships at BetterUp, an AI-driven professional coaching and mental fitness platform. “A sabbatical doesn’t have to be a response to a problem. When viable, it can be a proactive investment in yourself.” If you don’t have a sabbatical program built into your benefits, Greenberg suggests talking to a manager in your office with whom you have a good relationship to explore what’s possible.

Arrive at the meeting armed with a cost-benefit analysis (for example, how much more productive you could be if you had more energy), as well as ideas for who could handle your workload while you’re away.

If you’re not ready to ask for time off directly, try explaining your needs and asking for advice. “Bring your manager in as a partner to collaborate,” Greenberg says.

Diane*, 35, is a human resources professional who took a sabbatical at the end of 2021 to travel to London and Tuscany, Italy, among other places. Before she left, she talked to her manager, who helped her decide that returning to her job wouldn’t be beneficial to her or the company. She has since started a new position where she is much happier.

“Being honest and transparent with your manager or human resources representative can be a gateway to opportunity,” she says.

The Return to Work

Just as there is no right way to take a sabbatical, there is no right way to return to work. Rachel returned to the exact same position she had left, at the same salary, and realized that nothing had changed except her perspective. “Work doesn’t have to be what you do all of the time, every waking hour,” she says.

Roshida never returned to her profession as a lawyer. Instead, she moved to Mexico City and began Shida’s on the Loose, a business that mentors other women who want to take sabbaticals. “I do enough work to pay my bills, and I try not to stress about the future,” she says.

Jessica, after two and a half years of traveling, began to get bored. “I missed the intellectual stimulation of work,” she says. She ended up accepting a job at the law firm where she had gotten her first job out of law school. Since then, she has made partner. “Taking those years off gave me better life perspective,” she says. Despite her successes, she recognizes that work, ultimately, is not the only thing that will define her life. “It’s just not that important.”

*These sources have asked to use a pseudonym. 

Millie content is licensed from Meredith Operations Corporation, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle and more.

Brienne Walsh is a writer based in Savannah, Georgia. She contributes to Forbes, Rangefinder and MarketWatch, among other publications.


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