Taking a sabbatical from work can bring unforeseen dangers

Taking a sabbatical from work can bring unforeseen dangers

What does HSBC’s new chief financial officer have in common with one of the world’s greatest crime writers and a billionaire Silicon Valley tech mogul?

The answer is not obvious, because everyone is a member of an unusual club. They all took sabbatical from an enviable corporate job and returned to find themselves on the path to bigger, bolder success.

Georges Elhedery’s story is the most surprising. He was in his late 40s and co-head of investment banking at HSBC in January, when he announced he was taking six months off for “personal development”. It was a rare decision for anyone in the cutthroat world of investment banking, especially a senior banker. And what happened next was also rare.

When Elhedery returned, having learned a little Mandarin, he was promoted to chief financial officer, a move that made him a candidate for the top job of chief executive.

Here are two key takeaways, starting with the idea that a gap year is professional suicide, because those who take it are visibly less committed to their career.

Elhedery shows the opposite, which leads to a second lesson: be careful not to speak ill of a colleague who is apparently going to professional oblivion with an extended leave of absence. You can find him firmly back at the office — and as your boss.

Different conclusions can be drawn from other members of the overworked sabbatical club. Before becoming a bestselling Norwegian crime writer, Jo Nesbø studied to be a financial analyst and was hired by a leading brokerage firm, DNB Markets, to build its options division.

He also played guitar in a band at night, and after a year he was so burned out that he told his boss and the band that he needed six months off. “I took a plane to Australia to get as far away from Norway as possible,” he once wrote.

On the long flight from Oslo to Sydney, Nesbø plotted a novel about a flawed but likable detective named Harry Hole. When she returned home, she had nearly finished the first of what would become the hugely popular Harry Hole thriller, and was well on its way to becoming a million-dollar publishing phenomenon.

Nesbø’s story offers a different lesson about sabbaticals: they don’t always produce a tanned, rested worker motivated to put in years of more loyal work. Sometimes they produce a competitor, like Marc Benioff, co-founder of software company Salesforce.

Benioff was earning a multimillion-dollar salary at what he described in a memoir as “the best job I could have imagined” at the powerhouse of Oracle software when he sank into a deep malaise. When he told his boss, Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, the older man told him to take a three-month leave of absence. Benioff went to India, found guidance from a “hugging saint” and started thinking about starting his own software business. Two years later, he left Oracle and set up Salesforce, sparking a sometimes tense rivalry with Ellison.

What does all this demonstrate? On the one hand, easy assumptions are often wrong in corporate life, as well as in much of life in general. The desire to rest from years of tireless work is intense in many people, including those who don’t want to stop or relax.

Likewise, sabbaticals do not automatically guarantee company loyalty. Its popularity will inspire commitment in many workers, although research shows that the uplifting effects of six months off can wear off soon after returning to work. But the likes of Benioff and Nesbø are unlikely to be held in place by the lure of a long break, no matter how much they want it at the moment.

Ultimately though, if you work for a company that offers a sabbatical, you are extremely fortunate, especially in the United States. Only 5% of employers offered paid sabbaticals in 2019, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey of its US members. Slightly better, 11% had an unpaid sabbatical.

For most people, this type of license is precious, so grab it if you can, even if it doesn’t produce everything you, your colleagues or bosses expect.

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