Not long before it was time to depart on her first sabbatical, Laura Smith, Managing Director, U.S. Human Resources, emailed her boss, Matthew Harrington, U.S. President and CEO of Edelman, a global public relations firm.
“I wrote that I wanted to take my sabbatical but that I knew there was a lot going on and that and it might not be a good time to go,” she says. “I said that I’d only take a ‘semi-sabbatical’”.
Harrington wrote back: “I don’t believe in semi-sabbaticals. We’re not doing life or death work. You deserve this sabbatical and should find a way to disconnect.”
Although Smith knew that her boss placed a high value on work-life balance, she recalls being “almost hurt” by his reply. “It felt as if he’d said, ‘We can operate without you, Laura, you’re not that important’, and I really had to take some time to get through the emotional reaction I was having.”
Smith’s boss had also told her that he felt it was important that the senior members of the Edelman team “set an example” and take their sabbatical when due one.
“I thought to myself, ‘If the Head of HR can’t disconnect, then what message am I sending people?’” Smith says. Edelman’s U.S. employees receive a paid sabbatical after 10 years of service and every five years after.
During Smith’s sabbatical – the month of July – she spent two and a half weeks at a beach house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a week in the mountains, and the rest of time at home with family. She did not check her BlackBerry. She did not go online. And she only received one “urgent call” from her firm that involved answering a quick question. “Being disconnected was hard for the first few days, but I was determined to prove that I could do it and set an example.”
The sabbatical experience made Smith realize that the powerful benefits of disconnecting are not just for the executive going away but also for those left behind at the office. “The impact that my team experienced was profound, and I didn’t realize it until I returned from sabbatical,” Smith says. “By going away, I sent the message that I trusted them to make decisions without me. The trust factor is a huge benefit for senior people who go on sabbatical. It says ‘I know you can do this, and whatever decisions you make, I’m going to stand by you’”.
By going on sabbatical, Smith stretched her team. “They knew that they had the opportunity to make some decisions themselves, as opposed to asking me what we should do. There were a few instances where they were tempted to call, but they didn’t. They talked it through as a team and solved problems together.”
When she mentioned to non-Edelman friends and acquaintances that she was on sabbatical, Smith realized the impact that having such a program has on Edelman’s brand as an employer. “I can’t tell you the number of people I encountered who said, ‘Oh my gosh, what company do you work for? Companies actually do that?’ It’s a huge statement about what kind of organization we are.”
Smith wanted each day of her sabbatical to feel as long as possible, so she rose early each day. She wrote a daily journal. She didn’t schedule anything. By the end of her break, she was ready to get back to work. “And that’s the way it should be,” she says.
Upon her return to Edelman, Smith sent an email to her colleagues and team that included the following statement: “Today is my first day back following a month-long sabbatical. I knew what a great benefit this is but experiencing it made a big difference. I feel renewed and so grateful to work at Edelman and with all of you. THANK YOU to my colleagues for making this benefit possible and THANK YOU to my team for keeping all things under control and doing the great job they always do.”
After fully understanding the far-reaching benefits of her sabbatical, Smith believes Edelman’s sabbatical eligibility program should be reviewed and she plans to propose an enhancement to her senior team and hopes to gain approval.
“It’s absolutely the right time to do it,” she says. “During this economy, there’s so much we want to do but can’t right now. But expanding our sabbatical offering wouldn’t cost so much, and the benefits – to individuals, their team, and their clients – are so worth it.”