It wasn’t my intention to go on holiday and never return to work.
But I guess if you quit your job and go to Bali for a month, you’re going to come back with a new perspective. It wasn’t a particularly exciting trip – I didn’t go ‘off the beaten path’ or take ayahuasca.
It’s said you can’t run away from yourself but, while in Indonesia, I discovered that maybe you can.
For 12 years, I was a committed employee at a top advertising company. The offices I worked in were always more of a home than the flats I rented. After spending all day in meeting rooms with colleagues, I’d eke out a few more hours with them, clutching pints on the pavements of Soho.
Throughout my twenties, as I stubbornly worked my way up the advertising industry, life became work and work became life. I holidayed with people I shared a desk with, I dated colleagues and, unless it was a Friday night, I worked.
It didn’t make me unusual, I should point out. One reason I dedicated so much of my life to work was because everyone I knew was doing it.
I might have been keeping a successful career spinning, but whether I was living a successful life was questionable. I had become a crappy girlfriend, a distracted friend and, increasingly, a short-fused mum.
At work I began to flinch when people came to my desk. I’d been made partner but it never felt like a promotion. I didn’t feel like a manager; I felt like a personal assistant to 40 people. Like bread tossed to a hungry shoal of fish, I started to feel that, if I didn’t get out, there would be nothing left of me.
That’s when I started to think about a sabbatical.
The word ‘sabbatical’ derives from the word Sabbath, which basically means ‘to rest’. I hadn’t rested in decades. In fact, I wasn’t sure I even understood what it meant, let alone what it felt like.
But one day, as I sat in a tropical garden, I held a blade of grass between my thumbs and tried to make it sing. I must have stayed like that for half an hour, maybe longer; I’m not sure, time moves at its own pace when you are in true repose. But I know that it felt like something akin to rest.
After that, it became easier.
I was able to lie patiently with my son and build little towers of pebbles on the beach. Or I could stand trance-like in the outdoor shower just admiring the view. The change in me was clear: I could let thoughts pass through my brain without trying to turn them into a project or put them on a to-do list.
‘You are unwinding!’ my surf tutor would say, and I realised how literal the saying is.
As I disentangled from work, I found myself stretching and physically taking up more space. Surfing came with its own gift – you can’t take your phone with you (no checking it mid-exercise class like I would at home) and most of the time you’re just bobbing about, waiting. No one can tap you on the shoulder with a ‘quick question’. It’s just you and the water.
There’s a reason we don’t clock-watch on holiday.
According to research by Stanford University, being in a state of awe increases our perception of time. In the study, participants who were exposed to awe-inspiring nature (like the rice paddies of Bali) felt like they had more time and therefore were more likely to be kinder to others and to themselves, such as eating healthily or doing something for fun (like being tossed about by a wave).
It took travelling 7,700 miles for me to see my life back home more clearly.
Time away from the daily chatter of adverts and ‘content’ made me realise how little anyone cared about them. The blinkers were lifted and I could see how small I’d allowed my world to become and how unhealthy a life of Pret, meetings and evening Zoom calls was.
‘We’re going to start to seeing “wellness sabbaticals” trending – people are taking long breaks in the pursuit of health,’ says Beth McGroarty, head of research at Global Wellness Summit.
‘Small trips make a difference to stress levels, but research shows that the three-week point is generally when we see big differences, like cortisol dropping and blood pressure levelling.’
So how long does it take for us to start thinking differently?
‘At 21 days, habits and mindsets begin to change,’ McGroarty says. ‘You need that amount of time to flip a switch on a behaviour.’
Originally sabbaticals were created for academics to conceive their next project, and that makes sense to me. It’s essentially some space to discover and properly think.
With this particular journey of self-discovery, there is obvious privilege to acknowledge: not everyone can afford time off from work or their life. If you’re not single or childless, getting away isn’t an easy option.
But some of the obstacles are self-imposed. We’ve become a nation of workaholics.
In the UK, only half of employees take their entire annual leave allowance and 13 per cent take less than 20 per cent of their allocated time off. It seems we are no longer working for a life full of possibilities and travel, we’re working to achieve… at work.
From the moment I got up, everything was scheduled: 30 minutes to get ready, 30 minutes to write a report, and so on. I was incredibly productive.
Before pressing her own pause button, Genevieve was a successful director at a London venture capital firm: ‘We had strict targets to meet each quarter. I’d plough to hit them, then every three months I’d look up and be given the next one. I could see my life disappearing, the monotony took its toll and, increasingly, I felt at odds with the belief system that drove everyone around me.’
Genevieve is now on a career sabbatical, some of which she spends working for a charitable foundation in Kenya. But how did it feel to give up the prestige and money of venture capitalism?
‘A professional coach once told me: “Taking a break isn’t about retracting, it’s about expansion”,’ Genevieve explains. ‘And it’s true. I have much better friendships, I’m kinder, I had time to fix an ongoing issue I’d had with period pain and, importantly, my work-life balance is sustainable.’
It’s a shame that it normally takes giving birth, being made redundant or reaching burnout to take an extended period off work. But if you don’t take breaks, you forget how healing they are.
‘When we’re looking at work to provide the answers to everything – happiness, fulfillment, money, purpose, fun – we’re not only asking for a lot, but we also forget about the basic pleasures of life,’ says Helen Sproat, a psychoanalytic therapist who works with people at transition points in their life.
‘Unfortunately, instilling fear in people is how you get them to work hard. The crueller the environment, the more they seem to rise to the challenge.’
We’ve created a crazy belief system of prioritising work above all else, sometimes forgetting that, as in academia, a break might actually improve our output.
The right sabbatical lets you see what your life might look like on the other side of the sliding doors. After my month in Bali, work didn’t ever quite resume how I’d left it. I saw that the bottom of my life didn’t fall out just because I didn’t have a job title to parade around with.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have to work. I just stopped chasing status and swapped Lean In for Lonely Planet.
Seeing how much I’m influenced by my environment, I began to think: Why not live where people holiday? I’ve always felt more energised when the sun comes out, and there’s no denying that London made me competitive, angry and weary.
In September 2019, we packed up our London flat into the back of a Luton van and moved to Lisbon.
Having spent 18 years in London and only ever visited Lisbon once before the move, it was a bit of a whim. But, 10 months on, I can say that the gamble paid off.
I knew there would be weekends spent at the beach and miniature cold beers drunk in the sun, but I hadn’t anticipated the amount of people I’d meet nailing it professionally; people who work hard but who also take their downtime just as seriously.
Of course, this kind of change isn’t necessarily the easiest of adjustments. After spending hundreds of euros on language lessons, I can just about order a salad. Making new friends is a tiring process, and I sometimes stand dumbfounded that I ripped myself from a community of people I’d spent the best part of two decades building – but I really do feel like I’m on holiday every day, even when I’m on deadline.
People keep asking me: ‘So, have you moved for good?’
I think they want to know if I’ve found The Answer. But I just shrug and reply, ‘I don’t know what “for good” means any more. All I know is that I’m happy here now.’
This article appears in the July 2020 edition of ELLE UK. Subscribe here to make sure you never miss an issue.
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