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How to plan for a sabbatical

As the national conversation around physician health and wellness grows, doctors are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of taking care of their own mental, emotional and physical well-being. For some, that might mean making lifestyle changes, learning to practise mindfulness or planning a restorative vacation. For others, however, it might be worthwhile to consider a sabbatical.

The term “sabbatical” traces its roots to the Greek word for Sabbath, which, of course, we associate with rest. But that does not mean a sabbatical is the same thing as a vacation or time off.

“Sabbaticals are intentional, goal-driven, and … accompanied by a professional objective,” according to Look for Zebras, a blog specifically for doctors — whether they are based on “a formal program or an informal endeavour.”

So how should doctors approach sabbaticals?

Decide whether a sabbatical is right for you

A vacation can help you recharge your batteries, but taking a sabbatical can help do that, too. It might also help you to avoid burnout.

“[B]urnout among physicians is far too common,” wrote Dr. Sidney Roberts, a radiation oncologist, in the physicians’ blog Op-Med. He defines burnout as “chronic stress characterized by emotional exhaustion and lack of empathy for patients along with a cynical or negative attitude.”

According to the Canadian Medical Association’s 2018 National Physician Health Survey, 30% of physicians reported burnout. A sabbatical could rejuvenate you and your career, giving you time to make decisions about next career steps, reconnect with why you chose medicine or even consider retirement.

Burnout is not the only reason to go on sabbatical. Maybe you want to take a sabbatical to study or to learn new skills, to better understand other aspects of the profession, or to gain a new type of experience.

Give yourself lots of time to plan

A sabbatical is a big deal, and there is a lot to think about to get it right. Here is a checklist of sorts, but be warned that each of these requires a significant amount of your time. It’s never too early to start.

  1. Take care of business. Similar to taking a parental leave, there are financial considerations if your practice will still need to serve patients and pay for salaries, benefits, rent and equipment. Take into account the cost of hiring a locum to fill in while you’re gone. Locum rates vary depending on the type of practice, location and level of responsibility.
  1. Figure out what type of sabbatical is right for you. Do you envision using your sabbatical for work, study, relaxation or volunteering? Or perhaps you can do a combination. Work sabbaticals are a way to gain new experience and knowledge by taking on a different set of challenges from the ones you are used to, while still earning an income.

If you choose to study instead, that too will furnish you with new skills and knowledge to bring back to the job. And a volunteer sabbatical — say, overseas in the developing world — could help you bring renewed energy and a fresh perspective to your practice.

  1. Think about timing. If you go on sabbatical too early in your career, you may not reap all the benefits. But equally, if you wait until you are close to the end of your career, you may not have time to put your new knowledge or skills to good use. Of course, you can take multiple sabbaticals if your practice and finances allow.

There is also your family to consider. Dr. Rob Woods, an emergency physician and director for the FRCPC Emergency Medicine Program at the University of Saskatchewan, wrote about his sabbatical for the emergency medicine practitioner publication CanadiEM. He timed his sabbatical for a year when his children were old enough to fully participate in activities but not yet in high school. “Our kids were a great age for this type of trip and they will never forget the adventure,” he wrote.

  1. Plan ahead financially. A sabbatical likely will not provide your usual income, so it is important to have a financial plan in place. One idea is to take your sabbatical over two calendar years if you can. By spreading out the dip in income, you can plan and manage expenses, and you might save some income tax. There’s more than one way to plan for a sabbatical, and you don’t have to do it on your own: Your MD Advisor* can work out an income and savings strategy that’s right for you to help reduce the financial stress.
  1. Be prepared for paperwork. There are a number of administrative and logistical hurdles to get past when planning a sabbatical, especially if you want to go abroad. These include researching which countries accept Canadian medical qualifications; applying for your work or study visa; finding lodgings; and so on.

Know how to reap the benefits of your sabbatical

Do not forget to take time to think about why you are doing this.

“Remember, the definition of sabbatical is rest,” wrote Dr. Roberts wrote in his Op-Med blog post. “Be still. Listen. Be open. Don’t just ‘do’! Find out more about who you are apart from medicine.” He recommends setting goals but not overdoing it.

Finally, prepare for your re-entry to the workplace

You do not want to lose all the benefits of your sabbatical when you return to “real” life. Be mindful of the re-entry process so it does not take you by surprise. Ask yourself what you can take away from your sabbatical that will help you re-enter your regular workplace feeling renewed. This may also be a good time to reflect on and consider changes you might like to make to your regular practice.

* MD Advisor refers to an MD Management Limited Financial Consultant or Investment Advisor (in Quebec), or an MD Private Investment Counsel Portfolio Manager.