Say Goodbye –If Only for a While

How a sabbatical could save your career

Pat Harris, McDonald’s global chief diversity officer, is sold on sabbaticals. A 31-year veteran of the Oak Brook, Illinois-based quick-service restaurant giant, she recently returned from her third paid break from the office. Every 10 years with the company, corporate and regional employees and those at McDonald’s company-owned and -operated restaurants get eight weeks off with pay to recharge, rejuvenate, or add to their workplace skills, if they choose. Harris, who was promoted to her current post in February 2006, added two weeks vacation to her sabbatical this time.

“I planned to spend a lot of time with family and friends, but this time I also wanted to make it all about me and take a lot of time to think about what I really wanted to be doing at work,” says Harris, 59, who spent one previous sabbatical caring for her gravely ill mother and another one traveling around the globe. “The sabbatical came at a good time for me professionally, because it allowed me to think about and plan for my new global diversity responsibilities in addition to my U.S. diversity work.”

Just 5% of American companies offer paid sabbaticals, and only 22% offer them at all, according to a 2006 benefits survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. The time off, however, not only gives employees a work-world hiatus but can send them back to corporate America with renewed focus, skills, and a healthier approach to work/life balance. For Type-A professionals who are used to running on fast-forward, such a break–whether paid, unpaid, or creatively crafted with vacation or sick days–provides an opportunity to re-examine goals and expectations. “A sabbatical can give you a switch from a career that’s on autopilot to one that’s more conscious and aligned with your priorities,” says Mary Lou Quinlan, author of Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives (Broadway Books; $23.95).

Even though most companies don’t offer sabbaticals, employees can present a strong case for such a break to management.Use these tips to enhance your chances of being granted a leave and to make the most of your time away:

Do your homework. If you’ll have to take unpaid time, Quinlan suggests you examine your financial resources and come up with a best case/worst case scenario. Ask about maintaining insurance benefits and returning to the same job you left.

Create a thoughtful plan. Decide what you want to accomplish. Figure out who might be able to fill in for you while you’re gone. Joyce Gioia-Herman, certified management consultant and president and CEO of the Greensboro, North Carolina-based Herman Group, suggests planning your transition back into the company when you return. Also show how your sabbatical might add value to the company.

Work some work into your time off. Gioia-Herman advises employees to “find ways to relate some activities to your regular job, so that you learn while you are recharging your batteries.” While taking personal trips during her second sabbatical, Pat Harris met with a McDonald’s

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