With the business’s success its demands grew, and I couldn’t imagine taking time away. I was the CEO, and yet I was enjoying work less and less with each passing day, and everything in my life was suffering as a result.
I tried throwing money at the problem by seeing a therapist to help me manage the stress, an executive coach to help me better manage my team, and a marriage counselor to soften the impact my anxiety was having on my family life. Ultimately, on a weeklong vacation to Mexico, it hit me: The problem wasn’t that I needed to work harder on solving these challenges; it was that I needed to work less. No matter how many professionals I paid, what I really needed was a break. A big one.
I came back from that trip and told Allison that I wanted to take a three-month sabbatical. She started to cry. I had touched a chord somewhere deep inside her. She was exhausted as well, but had never given herself permission to think about taking that kind of time away from work. The more people I have spoken to about this, the more I’ve found that her reaction is not unique. So many of us love what we do so much that it consumes us to the point where we feel like it’s strangling us. We can’t breathe. We need an oxygen mask.
Allison and I talked it through some more and soon agreed that I’d take a break first and then she’d take one after me. My team and I spent the next few months developing a set of incredibly thorough plans and tracking mechanisms for each key leader and department. The goal was to keep everyone proactive and on track, and have an easy way for me to see everyone’s progress and hop back in when I returned in a few months.
Despite our best efforts, an unanticipated legal change arose right before it was time for me to depart, requiring us to rapidly rework a lot of our systems in order to comply. I worried about leaving the team, and felt guilty going off to recharge while they were left to pick up the pieces. Despite numerous sleepless nights and my first full-blown panic attack, I went anyway.
In my first week away, I suffered from bouts of insomnia and would let unfinished business haunt me somewhere between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning. I began to grow concerned that I would spend the next three months in an uncomfortable abyss somewhere between being at work and being away — reaping the full benefits of neither. Then one day I was walking down the sidewalk in Oakland when an employee spotted me from across the street. She ran over and gave me a huge bear hug. The first words out of her mouth were, “Erin, I am so proud of you!” She told me how much she admired me as a leader, and thought it was so inspirational that I was taking this kind of time for myself. In all my fear that my employees would view my sabbatical as a form of abandonment, I had never contemplated that they might actually view it as inspirational or as the mark of a true leader, one who is willing to trust her team. I was showing that I was willing to live the values of a company dedicated to the wellbeing of all the people who work there.
After that conversation on the sidewalk, I felt a weight lift and finally gave myself permission to fully embrace this opportunity. I pledged not to check my email and set it to a three-month away message. It felt freeing to not be connected to my phone or computer. I split my time between travel and staycation — making time for all the activities that my busy life usually doesn’t allow. For the first time in years, I was sleeping like a baby every night. I rekindled friendships and made new ones. I devoured books. I surfed in the middle of the week. I felt like a new person.
The only problem was, I didn’t want to go back to work. I felt like I could keep going like this for a year before feeling truly recharged. In the week leading up to my return, I felt a rising sense of panic, and my insomnia returned. I was so distraught that the night before I was set to go back, I went out on a bender with a friend and did not return home until 2:00 in the morning. I am a mother of two young children who averages one drink a week and is often in bed by 9:00 p.m. This was not exactly what I would call normal behavior. Exhausted and slightly hung over, I dragged myself out of bed the next morning and stumbled into the office.
What I found when I got back surprised and energized me in a way that I had never imagined. My team was working in a way that was profoundly better than it had been at any other time in the company’s history. The first meeting I had was with my right-hand team member, and one of the first things she told me was that she had patently ignored one of the things I’d told her to do before I left — however, she’d ultimately accomplished the same objective using a completely different approach. I was elated. It became clear in that moment that my absence had empowered her to become an even better leader — one capable of accomplishing clear objectives we shared, but on her own terms. As I walked around the office, I saw this theme play out not only in her work, but in that of many others. With me taking a step back and putting my trust in my team members, they were finally able to shine and show what they were capable of. I returned to a well-oiled machine that was able to do a lot more operationally without my input, freeing me to do more of the big-picture growth work that I thrive on and that is of greatest value to the company, but which I had previously found minimal time for.
It’s funny that I carried so much guilt over leaving everyone alone for so long, because it turned out to be one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done as a leader.
It strengthened my team, and it sent a strong message about important leadership attributes — the value of self-care, balance, and how to retain long-term commitment to a job that you love.
Not only was work a different place, but I made the conscious decision to change my relationship with the time I spent there. I found that the thing that brought me the greatest joy on sabbatical was surfing multiple times a week. I brought this practice back with me and blocked off my schedule three mornings a week to hit the ocean before work. This means that I work less, but I’m more productive and happy during the hours I’m there.
In a matter of weeks, I was feeling energized by work in a way that I hadn’t in years. I stopped attending a lot of the meetings that had eaten up my time because I realized they could be handled without me. I stopped being involved in a lot of the details that had consumed me before so that I could focus more on the big-picture growth work that I love. In less than a month I secured a new location for a future restaurant — throwing myself fully into something that only a few weeks earlier I hadn’t even been sure I wanted to return to.
Even though while I was on sabbatical I didn’t feel like I was getting clarity on anything, when I returned to work it was like everything in my life just clicked. I wish that I had realized earlier in my career how life-changing taking a few months off could be. But all I can do now is make it a permanent part of my life moving forward and try to make it something available to those in my company as well.
I am now a full-fledged sabbatical zealot, preaching the gospel to everyone I meet. As a positive side-effect, now every time I’m on a plane and see the flight attendant going through the motions about the importance of putting on an oxygen mask, I’m the one person on the plane nodding in full agreement.
WADE’S TOP TIPS FOR TAKING A SABBATICAL
1. Treat personal wellness as your business’s most valuable renewable resource.
We often view sabbaticals or vacations as time that we aren’t working, without considering that when we don’t recharge we lose our energy, creativity, and ability to give our best to our business.
2. Don’t wait for the right time — there will never be one.
As with having children, there is never a great time to take a sabbatical from work. Do it anyway.
3. You are not as important as you think you are.
If you have built a company of lasting value, it should involve a robust team of people who can operate for an extended period in your absence. If you haven’t developed that team, planning for a sabbatical is a great excuse to start. If you do have this team, taking one is a great way to empower them.
4. Push yourself.
When my kids were born, I only took one month off work. For my sabbatical, I took three. Use this opportunity to challenge yourself to better define what a truly meaningful break would look like.
Erin Wade is the co-founder and CEO of Homeroom, a restaurant dedicated to the best food on earth: macaroni and cheese. Homeroom has been featured on the Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel and in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and more. Erin co-authored the best-seller “The Mac and Cheese Cookbook.” Her tips on people-centered leadership appeared in CONSCIOUS COMPANY Issue 10. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.