Oh, for the luxury of a sabbatical
BOSTON — June is a month of dreams and hopes, of optimism and new beginnings. Think graduations. Think weddings.
It's also a season when even the most committed workers begin daydreaming about an extended vacation. As early-summer sunlight streams through office windows, they long to hang a "Gone fishing" sign in their cubicle, disconnect voice mail and e-mail, and disappear until, oh, maybe September. Just for a few months they'd like to inhabit a world with no alarm clocks, commuter traffic, deadlines, or meetings. They want time to think, read, travel, pursue hobbies, be with family and friends.
That fantasy has just become a reality for one high-profile television anchor in Boston, Natalie Jacobson. Beginning this week, she is taking a 15-week unpaid sabbatical. After 27 years of co-anchoring the news with her husband, Chet Curtis, Ms. Jacobson says she needs a chance to "recoup and regroup." She wants time to visit colleges with her 18-year-old daughter and time to take a trip with her seventysomething father. Fair enough.
Yet the idea of a sabbatical remains so unusual that her career break has created a stir in the local television community, which calls it "unprecedented."
In academic circles, sabbaticals stand as a hallowed right. After seven years of teaching, professors can take one semester off at full pay or a year off at half pay. But in the corporate world, even businesses that earn accolades for being "family-friendly" - giving workers time off to care for a baby or a sick relative - often balk at meeting employees' own needs for relaxation and renewal. "Worker-friendly" is a concept waiting for broader acceptance.
American vacation policies don't help. In Europe, where many countries mandate time-off by law, vacation allowances are often three times as generous as those in the United States, where companies determine vacations by length of service.
Eighty-one percent of American employers give 10 days of vacation after one year, according to Hewitt Associates. In Britain workers receive 23 days, in Germany 24 days, and in the Netherlands 20 days. Only after 15 years can a typical American worker take four weeks off. But as people change jobs more frequently, fewer qualify for long vacations.
At the same time, many Americans are taking shorter, more frequent vacations. A long weekend in London ranks as an undeniable pleasure, but no one can pretend it's relaxing.
A measure of good news comes from the World Future Society in Silver Spring, Md. It predicts that in the next millennium sabbaticals, including breaks for childrearing, education, and renewal, will become standard. Many companies, it says, will see the benefit of offering partially paid sabbaticals in "high-stress" fields.
As if on cue, some workers in their 20s and 30s are already taking a "Just Say No" approach to the demands of a workaholic culture, refusing to log excessive hours. Can their interest in sabbaticals be far behind? The Boston Center for Adult Education even offers a class called "Time Out." It encourages participants to "take a sabbatical from your career or job and recharge your professional and mental spirit!"
In another sign of cultural shifts, bookstore shelves are filling with titles such as "Slowing Down to the Speed of Life," "The Art of Doing Nothing," and "Doing Less and Having More." But who has time to read them, much less practice what the authors preach, in the midst of nonstop work and too-short vacations?
Toyota captures the spirit in an ad featuring palm trees and surfboards. Urging readers to "escape" in a new car, the ad says, "But do it soon. Unused vaca-tion days cannot be carried over into your next lifetime."
What a perfect rationale for any June daydreamer interested in following Jacobson's example.