Opinion: How I learned sabbaticals are for journalists, too

Eyes & Ears

Posted online

Sabbaticals are for those working in academia and ministry. At least, that’s what I thought.

Then one was offered to me.

Springfield Business Journal Publisher Jennifer Jackson presented me the idea of a monthlong sabbatical as a meaningful way to recognize 20 years of service to Springfield Business Journal. I started as a green reporter right out of college. My first day on the job was Sept. 5, 2000.

This industry, like others, is one you learn by experience and doing the hard work – interviewing, asking tough and honest questions, doing the research, challenging yourself and pushing for more. I feel like I’ve received the fruit of those efforts in my 20-year career at SBJ.

But last month was a time to breathe and reflect. Twenty years is a long time at a single company, especially in this day and age, and a lot can happen over those years professionally and personally.

And here I was given some space. I was on sabbatical leave for the month of September. I could hardly believe it. Full of thanks is an understatement to how I felt throughout it.

What did I do?

I did take some recommended travel.

One stop was Boise, Idaho, a somewhat familiar place to Springfieldians through the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Community Leadership Visit program. It is unequivocally a biker and pedestrian friendly city. That’s something I bring back. Our community can learn from its easy to navigate and integrated bike lanes and timed traffic lights. The drivers respect the cyclists. And it’s an easy transition from urban riding to the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt. The tree-lined path follows the river through downtown Boise, connecting neighborhoods, the business district, parks, Boise State University and Lucky Peak Dam. With constantly changing scenery, I made it 12 miles – the longest ride of my life.

Another trip was to take my children on a hike in northwest Arkansas. Destination: Whitaker Point/Hawksbill Crag, near Ponca. The trail is aptly named for the ledgestone rock that hangs hundreds of feet above the treetops as far as the eye can see. I was made to feel small, in a healthy way, and adventurous. Out in nature and disconnected from cellphones, the kids and I connected on the hike more than we had in years it seemed.

And I did follow my publisher’s instruction to avoid reading SBJ. It was very hard, but I did it. It helped me fully turn off that part of my work brain.

I found myself checking off a home project list like never before – picking up paint brushes and rollers, a pressure washer wand, saws and a hammer. It felt good to work with my hands rather than my head.

Sabbaticals are meant to discover and flex different muscles – and to rest the tired ones. That’s how mine turned out.

Traditionally, the time is spent traveling, researching a new field or maybe writing a book. The idea is to focus on something you love or a new goal outside of work. They can be paid or unpaid and last a month up to two years.

While it is most common in academia, Fast Company reports that a quarter of Fortune’s 100 Best companies to work for offer employees sabbaticals. According to jobseeker site GlassDoor.com, companies like Charles Schwab, PayPal and Deloitte have sabbatical programs, typically kicking in after five or seven years of service.

At SBJ, sabbatical leave is not a new corporate program or expected to become common, but it shows that even small businesses can think outside the box when rewarding employees for substantial service marks or uncommon accomplishments. No doubt it’s risky at the breakneck speed and vigor at which we all work. Just think of how much vacation time goes unused at year’s end at area companies. Sometimes, we have to be told to stop.

There’s something to the ancient Jewish culture following the command in the Bible to let the land rest from farming every seven years – where the idea of sabbatical, or Sabbath, originated. The soil needs time to rejuvenate to remain good soil.

I returned to work to see some awesome things: a podcast launch, led by Features Editor Christine Temple, new teamwork emerging, communication improvements and the first day on the job for new reporter Christine Morton, formerly of KY3. I recognize the team did monumental work in my absence, and I’m extremely grateful.

My takeaway was that this sabbatical was not about a corporate strategy or project, but it was holistic for me. In that way, it shows companies can have heart and care for their employees.

Sabbaticals are not for everyone and every company, but SBJ has shown to me that we can lead and be inventive in areas – and other companies and their leaders can too.

Think about it.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.