06 Mar 2019
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Making Sabbaticals Mainstream

Entrepreneur DJ DiDonna (MBA 2010) says sabbaticals brought critical perspective to his personal and professional life. Now he’s working with researchers to show how extended time away from the daily grind can pay off for workers and employers

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After HBS, DJ DiDonna (MBA 2010) immediately launched a startup: The Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, a credit-testing firm for small businesses in emerging markets. But after seven years of hard-charging, he started to feel burned out. He needed the kind of break that the typical American vacation week couldn’t offer. So in 2017, he took a sabbatical—which included a ten-day silent meditation retreat followed by a six-week walking pilgrimage in Japan. The experience was so rewarding that he took another sabbatical last year, this one an overland trip across four African countries that culminated in volunteer work at a university in Mauritius.

These were two totally different experiences, but with the same impact: They gave DiDonna some real separation from his work, and reminded him what it was that really motivated him. The experiences also sent him on a quest to find academics who were studying sabbaticals so he could better understand how the implementation of sabbatical policies impact employee behavior. Informally called the Sabbatical Project, DiDonna’s research includes partnerships with professors and foundations alike, and—as he tells associate editor Julia Hanna in this episode of Skydeck—the goal is to make a real change in the culture of work so more people can have the same kind of life-changing experience he had.

(Photo by Susan Young)

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Julia Hanna: You've mentioned a couple of your own sabbatical experiences. One was the walking pilgrimage in Japan, and another was a spiritual retreat in India. Can you give us a sense of what came out of those two experiences in a tangible sense? What was different from when you left to when you came back?

DJ DiDonna: Well, first of all, I think especially the walking pilgrimage in Japan ... So, It's around a small island in the southern part of Japan, called Shikoku. You're relying on generosity of the people around the island. They will stop you and give you gifts. They build shelters for the pilgrims to stay in. I think that kind of changed my wiring around giving and generosity and service. Our company was a mission-oriented company. We were focused on enabling access to finance to individuals across the world, so that they could live out their dreams and start businesses.

Being that close into a place where giving is such an integral part of the culture, I think, made me want to give in a more intense way, which is why I ended up working with a nonprofit for a year—kind of dedicating a year of my life on that. I also think, from a concrete perspective, just stepping away from the pace and the surroundings of the thing that you think is important—especially this startup—was really valuable, and I think it interwove with some of the spiritual and religious teachings there. It's just, you can't be attached to things that you can't control.

Hanna: Right.

DiDonna: And so I think, being able to actually live that out was helpful for me, because imagining a world where I wasn't running this business that we had started, and where I couldn't necessarily control if it was going to be successful or not, that was really helpful to experience that versus just theoretically understanding it and writing it down on a piece of paper.

Hanna: Right, and we do have so few opportunities in today's world to do that kind of work. It seems we always have our phones with us and our work with us, and it gets harder and harder to step out of that, I think.

DiDonna: One of the questions I often get is what the difference is between a sabbatical and a vacation, or a long vacation. I always joke. I mean, how many people do you know that have taken a long vacation? Not only does that not really exist, especially in American work culture, now we've tried to solve that problem with unlimited vacation, which studies have shown results in people taking even less vacation. Then you have phones, and you have access to work outside of work hours.

Some of the research that I've looked at, as well, talks about the benefits of detaching from work. It studied employees that go home, that don't look at their phones, that have hard cut-offs on the hours they leave, and it showed that universally people would be more successful at work had they detached the night prior. It's not rocket science that detachment from work allows you to fill up the coffers again and be excited about what you're doing.

I think sabbaticals is a macro example of that. How many times do you have the opportunity to really step back from work in an amount of time where you feel rejuvenated. I mean, I think you often hear people say, “I was just really starting to unplug, and then I had to go back to work,” on a vacation. That's a pretty common refrain.

Hanna: You mentioned your work. Can you talk about that a little more? You said that you're engaged in something you're sort of informally calling The Sabbatical Project. Can you give me an update on what you've done with that to date and where you hope to go with it?

DiDonna: Absolutely, so I'll talk about a little bit of my journey, post-sabbatical, and how I got to where I am now. We started a company that was doing credit scoring in emerging markets. I stepped away to take that sabbatical after seven years, came back, and I decided to step back from the company and stay on the board. We sold the company.

Then, some of the experience I had on my sabbatical led me to believe that I wanted to spend a year really giving of my time, and so I went to work with a nonprofit, whose board I had been on for the past five years, that did academic, rigorous assessments of the efficacy of nonprofit interventions. You imagine a homelessness prevention program in Chicago actually studying those from a rigorous, academic perspective to see what's working and what's not. The sabbatical led me to that choice of employment for a year, a limited-term interim executive director. During that time, I reached out to other academics that had been doing research on the subject, and also individuals who'd taken sabbaticals, and companies, through the HR and the talent departments that have designed policies. I'm working with a professor at the University of Notre Dame, Matt Bloom, and the Templeton Foundation, to do research on individuals and institutions that offer these policies, and to see what's going on there.

Most people, when I talk to them about sabbaticals, they have a friend, or they have an anecdote of someone that went on them. It's always universally positive, but we need to get from anecdote to evidence about does it make people happier, more successful? Does it make companies have greater retention, better recruiting? We need to get to the evidence in order to actually change the culture around this, to enable more people to be able to take sabbaticals.

As you mentioned, The Sabbatical Project is a formal research project, in which we're gathering that information, doing the research, and trying to bring the actual numbers to light, so that we can make a change in the culture of work.

Hanna: How would you advise people to design their own sabbatical, if they happen to be in a position to take one?

DiDonna: Well, I have some hypotheses. As you say, I really want to go from this anecdotes to evidence, but one of the reasons why I wanted to take a sabbatical myself before starting to advise people on it is that I wanted to see what common mistakes are out there. What I would say is most people who are going to take a sabbatical, especially if they're feeling burnt out, they're going to go from a really high level of intensity of your life and your job to something different than that. I think it's dangerous to go from 100 miles per hour to sitting on the beach sipping a coconut for a month.

Hanna: Right.

DiDonna: What I would encourage people to do is substitute out the work intensity and life intensity for intensity in something that you're passionate about and that's meaningful to you. Whether that's an immersive foreign language course or whether it's indulging in one of your old habits and interests, like painting or pottery, put yourself in a position where you can put the same level of effort and energy into something that's more restorative and something that you want to return to. Then, from there, you can step down the intensity to starting to read, get coaching and therapy, and start to explore what else is out there and what you would want to do. That's stage two. Then stage three is more of an integrating what you've learned.

I spoke to a CEO of a financial advisory firm in Seattle, who has created a sabbatical policy for all of his employees. When I asked about what he wanted to do differently ... He and his family took a year off. The company offers six months paid. He said that he wants to offer resources to his employees to make sure that, A, they totally disconnect, because he's seen anecdotally that people were checking their email every once in a while, or just swinging by the office once a week, that it just was not successful for them, and B, give them resources that allow them to do some kind of coaching and reflection. It's difficult to go from doing something that's so meaningful for you to not having that in your life.

Hanna: It sounds like you're working on evidence for why sabbaticals are a needed part of corporate life, or just life in general. I wondered, what do you think it will take to make them a more mainstream part of culture at Fortune 500 companies?

DiDonna: When you talk about the Fortune 500, I think that that's going to require the more mainstream approach to understanding that sabbaticals are good for their employees, that it increases work tenure, happiness, things like that, because if you're operating in an environment with millennials and younger, where people aren't staying at companies for longer than three years, that's very costly to companies. I've seen companies that already get that. I've seen venture capital firms. I've seen law firms. I've seen tech firms.

But it's really, I think, bringing that evidence to the fore. I can imagine bringing the evidence about the increases of recruiting, the increases of retention, and then also being able to offer some sort of service to help them design these policies and, more importantly, to help ensure that their employees have successful sabbaticals would be pretty integral to having wide-scale adoption. The worst thing that a company can do, and that an individual can do, is muster up all this energy to take time off, and then not disconnect, not have a great experience, and they come back frazzled and feeling even more stressed out, because they know they have to describe to people what they did, and they aren't proud of it.

I think it's something you have to take seriously and you have to be intentional about. No one's going to guard your time for you. Very few people are going to suggest that you take time for yourself and that you guard that. Until you are intentional and self-directive, you're just giving away the keys to have other people take control over your time.

One of the goals of this project is really to talk about what the broader benefits are. I talked to a law firm that was trying to reduce burnout in their senior partners. They had had folks that were unhappy, folks that had health issues. Their concern was that if they gave the senior partners time off, it would negatively affect the business, because customers were used to only dealing with the senior partners, and so senior partners wouldn't want to give up sole custody of those customers, because if they left they could bring their customers with them. They had all sorts of concerns.

What happened is they instituted a mandatory sabbatical policy. The senior partners had to get the junior partners and the junior staff up to speed on how to deal with these clients, which gave the junior partners an experience that no one else at their age and experience level would have in competing firms. It actually increased the number of contacts that the employer had inside those customers. The key personnel risk of a senior partner leaving and bringing their customers with them decreased significantly. Finally, the senior partners came back much more happy and refreshed and rejuvenated.

I think that we need to take the conversation from people's anecdotal stories about how great it is to take time off to companies realizing that these sorts of policies haven't been carved in stone for a century. These are things that we have control over and can change. Concepts like a two-day weekend are new within the last hundred years, so we can actually change and effect that, especially with my experience at HBS. Working from the management end, the actually corporate level down to make these changes, is going to be the most successful one.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

For more information on The Sabbatical Project, visit their website or email DiDonna at dj@thesabbaticalproject.org.

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