To Sabbatical or Not to Sabbatical

Beth DiDomenico, ND

A sabbatical seems like an unreachable escape for many of us, but what if it was just the thing we need for ourselves and, ultimately, our practices to be and feel successful? How long do you want to practice? When are your loans going to be paid off? If you do not practice retirement now, how do you know you will do well with it when the time comes? Is your current way of working sustainable in the long run? When will you spend that quality time with your family? Are sabbaticals only for academics? These are some of the questions that got me thinking about taking a career break.

The concept of taking a sabbatical was originated by the ancient Israelites. The idea was that every seventh (or Sabbath) year) they were to forgive their debtors and discontinue the tilling of their land in order for the land and people to have a recovery year. It was first adopted into the academic world by Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, in 1880, when they began to allow tenured researchers and professors 1 year’s absence in every 7 in order for them to find rest or to acquire new skills or training. Although still very common in academia, some religious groups, and a few progressive companies, sabbaticals are not a frequent American practice.

Did you consider maternity leave or sick leave a vacation time? If you think that staying up half the night with a newborn, mourning the loss of a loved one, or recovering from illness qualifies as “time off,” then you have lost sight of what our professional teaching is about! I know this through personal experience, of course. Allowing yourself a chance to recover and time to refresh your perspective can prove invaluable for making life more meaningful.

Sustaining Your Practice

What is the sustainability of your practice? How long are you intending to practice naturopathic medicine? Do you have the energy and motivation to stay on your current track? Naturopathic medicine is a lifetime commitment for many of us. Even those who retire from their practices continue to participate in conferences and volunteer in the field. It is a powerful testament to the quality of our profession that many of our elder physicians are still involved. Taking an extended leave from your practice can help you round out your life experience and find the time to rejuvenate, so that our profession can enjoy your services for many years to come. It may help us to practice longer and wiser, instead of harder.

Are you waiting for the right economic climate? Whether the economy is up or down, it is always a good time for a career break. If you are not making enough to save or your savings are making less than 1% in a bad economy, then stop putting your money into it, and take a sabbatical. If your practice is going gangbusters in a growing economy, then you have the finances to enjoy an extended leave. The economy excuse is a poor justification of your fear about taking some time off.

Do you still have years of paying back your loans? Don’t worry; they will still be there when you get back from sabbatical! I have heard colleagues say they are waiting to pay off their loans before they take some time off. I know of no one who has taken a sabbatical in celebration of their school loans being paid off. It is just another way of putting off the dream. Another intriguing excuse I have heard is that someone is waiting for the kids to be the right age. Is there a wrong time to enjoy quality time with your kids? Caveat: I do not have teenagers yet, so my opinion may change. Our children will remember and cherish this time for the rest of their lives. I know my little people better now after a 5-month sabbatical than I would have in 3 more years of being a working mom.

Is there something more? Do you have a hobby you have neglected? Maybe you need to reconnect with friends or family. There may be new training you would like to take that you have never had the time to commit to. Taking time off to “smell the flowers” can bring back the simple joys in life. Allowing more music, art, and right-brained activities into your life can enhance your ability to communicate with staff and patients on a whole new level on returning to your practice.

Time off from one’s practice will take some planning. Here are a few lessons I have learned in my first attempt at a sabbatical: The time away from your work needs to be more than 3 months; otherwise, you are really taking an extended vacation (which is also great) and not a sabbatical. A better amount of time is 6 or 12 months. This is a reasonable amount of time to try to rent out your home if you will be living elsewhere (which I highly suggest for anyone who is addicted to his or her work). It is also a reasonable amount of time for a covering physician to commit to your practice. It is simpler to suspend your malpractice and other insurance for a half year or full year at a time. Plan ahead, financially and otherwise, at least 6 months before taking your extended leave. This will include training staff, setting up your personal finances for autopay if you will be traveling, meeting with your accountant, and so forth. Planning for a sabbatical allowed me the opportunity to complete the following chores I had always wanted to get to: putting all my passwords and accounts in order, simplifying all the clutter in our home for a renter, obtaining a will, and creating a financial plan. I will be reaping the benefits of getting it all together for the rest of my life.

Ten Signs That It’s Time to Take a Sabbatical

I am by no means a sabbatical expert, although I would like to become one. I am a believer. I am committed to enjoying a career break every 5 to 7 years for the rest of my working life. As I relish the last days of my time off and prepare for my first day at work this year, I feel excited and grateful. I am full of plans for my business and patients, family and garden, and my future sabbatical. I am back.

Ten signs that it is time to take a sabbatical include the following:

  • When your patients present their chief complaint, you moan to yourself, “Oh, here we go again.”
  • You have not (fill in with a favorite pastime) since you started in practice.
  • Having never been accessed, all your continuing education binders and thumb drives have gathered layers of dust.
  • You fantasize about quitting naturopathic medicine.
  • When you announce you are taking a vacation, your staff breathes in a collective sigh of relief.
  • When asked to tell a little about yourself, your first sentence is about naturopathic medicine.
  • Your kids refer to you as “Dr.”
  • Your patients start giving you treatment suggestions.
  • You are too fatigued for anyone to be friends with you anymore.
  • You have always wanted to write an article for NDNR but could never find the time.

Beth_DiDomenico_headshotBeth DiDomenico, ND is a 1998 Bastyr University (Kenmore, Washington) graduate, who loves her job as owner of Federal Way Naturopathy, in Washington State. The clinic is an integrative medical center with 5 NDs, an MD, a licensed massage therapist, an RN, a nutritionist, a hypnotherapist, and yoga and tai chi instruction. During her sabbatical, she unplugged from the Internet, found a new passion in birding, volunteered at a medical clinic in Ethiopia, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

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