Google manager says unpaid leave can help the burned-out take stock of their career and reassess their strengths.
In 2011, I knew something was wrong at work. I was a client services manager at Google, and I was miserable. My “think about work” mental switch was permanently on, and I couldn’t find the off switch. I was constantly thinking about the next email to send, or on my laptop or phone tackling my to-do list. I would be out with friends, and while everyone else was engaged in conversation, I was lost in my own world, missing everything.
Although I was burned out, I thought I was doing a good job. My manager felt otherwise and tried to give me constructive feedback. But my ego just wouldn’t allow me to hear what she was saying.
Finally, my manager took me aside one day and said: “You are not a fit for this role. You should think about what’s next for you.”
You might think that this story ended with me leaving the company. But fortunately, Google is one of a minority of companies that offer unpaid leaves of absence not related to family or medical issues. After my manager’s accurate appraisal, I put together a case for the company to allow me a three-month leave.
The leave — or pause, as I came to call it — allowed me to reassess my path and take stock of my strengths and my goals. I returned to Google three months later with a new job and a new outlook.
Detaching from work is one way to pause, but pausing is also a change in mindset. I define a pause as any intentional shift in behavior.
My experience with taking a career pause made me realize how valuable it can be for both employers and employees. Currently, a parenting leave is one of the few times a worker may take extended time away from a job. Why should only parents have this opportunity?
I happen to have no children. I think leaves should be available for parents and nonparents, and for the purpose of clarifying your career goals. The academic world — and some corporations — have embraced the concept of sabbaticals, and I hope more companies recognize how important they are in helping their workers thrive.
During my pause, I took a few small vacations, but otherwise I didn’t do all that much — at least in terms of tackling big outside projects. I did create some rules so that my days would be sure to have structure. Untethered from the corporate world, it would have been all too easy for me to fall into aimlessness.
So I made it a requirement to shower once a day, make my bed and get out of the house by 10 a.m. I also had to spend at least an hour a day outside the house doing something I enjoyed, like yoga or hiking. And I made sure to spend no more than 30 minutes at a time on my computer. Taking these simple steps enabled me to clear my head and become more sure of who I really was. I achieved a level of introspection that simply would not have been possible while dealing with the daily urgencies of the office.
According to a survey by the nonprofit Families and Work Institute last year, more than half of U.S. employees “feel overworked or overwhelmed at least some of the time,” and “70 percent say they often dream of having a different job.” I am convinced that giving employees a chance to take a pause would greatly reduce these numbers.
People who take sabbaticals not only experience a decline in stress while on leave, but they also find that their stress declines after returning to work (compared with their stress levels before they left), according to research cited in Fortune magazine.
Given the benefits of taking unpaid leaves, why don’t more companies offer them? My sense is that, in addition to the inconvenience that might result, companies are afraid they will lose more employees permanently. In fact, unpaid leaves are a way to attract and retain talent. Companies can offer this coveted perk and have happier, more satisfied employees who know they are trusted to return. This leads to increased company loyalty, goodwill, engagement and reduced turnover.
Some people will inevitably choose not to return to work after a pause. This may not be such a bad thing and may even be a blessing in disguise that allows someone to pursue a new opportunity that might otherwise not have occurred.
Pauses bring employees a renewed sense of purpose and alignment. Exploring new interests or lifelong passions, taking a class, or spending time with family that otherwise wouldn’t happen are all big payoffs. Employees can reflect on what matters in life and take action to align their behavior with that. Employees end up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated — a feeling that is likely to have a ripple effect on their job and their co-workers when they return.
New leadership and growth opportunities emerge from these pauses. Newer or less experienced employees can fill interim roles and learn new skills. This leads to more fully engaged team members, which leads to greater flexibility and adaptability across a team or company.
Once you return to work after a leave, you can incorporate pauses into your day-to-day working life, by going outside and taking a walk, for example. I believe workers could benefit from picking a time of day for a “digital device pause” — where they intentionally disconnect from any technology. In today’s always-on and connected world, it is too easy to get caught in the spin cycle of never-ending to-dos. Whether it is for a few minutes or a year, pausing is one way we can take a step back before moving forward again.