Sonia takes a sabbatical to heal from burnout and grief. During her sabbatical, she prioritizes time with herself, time with her friends and family, and understanding what is healing for her.
A public health practitioner’s sabbatical to heal after ever-evolving health crises
While I hoped and expected my sabbatical would shift my mind –quiet it, slow it down– I was completely shocked at how much this pause brought me into my body: into a physical presence of living, vibrant things rather than words and screens.
Describe any changes you made in your life post-sabbatical:
Working 30 hours/week; boundaries around my time; different approach to travel and rootedness
What catalyzed your sabbatical?:
Negative event – death of a loved one, health/burnout, job loss, etc.
How did your sabbatical experience change the way you thought about your employer:
I’m self employed, but the sabbatical completely changed how I set terms with my clients, now I protect my time, etc.
List some activities you engaged in during your sabbatical:
Traveled to Nicaragua, staycation in Baltimore, walks, swimming, retreats, mindfulness, therapy, dancing, journaling, letting go of lists.
Tell us about your sabbatical:
Balance in work has always been hard for me – I’ve worked in public service and social justice spaces my whole life, and I tend to be all in. Fortunately, I’ve also seen what it looks like for employees to have space to take intentional time off, particularly in the hard and never ending context of systems change work: when I was just 25, an employer I had been working with for five years granted me a paid three month sabbatical. While the majority of that sabbatical was spent healing from burnout and traveling way too intensely (as is often the case when you’re in your 20s), that model always stuck with me.
Several years later, I planned to take a 3 month sabbatical in the summer of 2020, upon completing a doctorate program in public health. I had started grad school in 2016 while working 60 hour weeks in a senior role at a local health department, and even after transitioning into running my own business, I clung to that work volume and pace while juggling classes, fellowships, teaching, travel, and more. I already had tickets to South Africa saved when the pandemic hit – but after defending my dissertation on Zoom it also became clear there would be no graduation ceremony, no in-person celebration with friends and family, and no international trip to unwind. Staying put and staying employed/busy seemed like the wisest thing to do, even though I could feel burnout coming on fast.
Despite this, I promised myself I would take a full 3 months as soon as it was safe to do so, and in December 2021 I closed out my client contracts, put up an out of office and began the slow process of not only addressing long-term exhaustion, but also the specific acute toll of the uncertainty and grief that COVID had brought over the past year and a half. Pushing past incoming stress had taken its toll on my body – the fall before I took time off, saw several physical health crises and I couldn’t shake my chronic fatigue.
I had saved up all throughout 2021 and knew I wanted to travel, but the thing I missed most, at a very basic level, was actually just experiencing the city where I live (Baltimore). So I kicked off with a four week staycation, which I am so grateful for: it created a sense of ease that allowed me to truly enjoy the rest of my time off. Heading to a museum in the middle of the day; lingering at coffee shops with nothing to do; napping when I wanted to; all of this was true luxury and also a great relearning of what it’s like to listen to what your body actually needs.
For the second month, I headed to Nicaragua for a tropical vacation filled with beach time, walks, swims, fresh food from a local farm, creative writing, and more.
It was incredible — I had a ton of breakthroughs around my relationship to time and what’s necessary for me from a healing perspective.
It was also important to me to be fully offline and solo for at least a few weeks, so I prioritized that but then also had the joy of hosting 18 of my close family and friends in Nicaragua too, so they could share in the experience.
In the last month I traveled domestically and started to reorient myself to the changes I felt from resting and going with the flow.
My biggest reflection would be that a sabbatical can/should contain some planning, but leave lots of space for course correction, intuitively doing what feels right in the moment, and living in ways that feel right for you.
I also think it’s essential to take privilege into account — for me, a sabbatical meant true autonomy, because I have relative financial security and no family obligations. At the same time, as a woman of color and an immigrant kid, I had to work through significant guilt and risk at taking time away from work that I love/causes I support. Working through those dynamics around work and money – understanding where they come from personally as well as societally, is super crucial.
Describe the impact of your sabbatical in one sentence:
Going from supporting health and healing to actually living it.
How long was your sabbatical (in weeks)?
Why do you think others should (or shouldn’t) take sabbaticals? Are there occasions in life where it’s particularly helpful?
Others should! Times of transition, and times of restoring physical/emotional/spiritual health.
Interested in more stories of people taking sabbaticals to heal from burnout? Start with Kimberly’s story here.
Read more about Sonia here.