For your own good health, take a sabbatical

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published May 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that more than half of working physicians are currently struggling with burnout, which can increase the odds of making medical errors. In order to mitigate burnout, many physicians take sabbaticals.

  • Sabbaticals for physicians can entail studying, conducting research, engaging in volunteer work, or simply recharging your passion for medicine.

  • Physicians who plan on taking sabbaticals can make the most of their time off by deciding what kind of experience they’re looking for, when and where they’d like to do it, and what their budget will allow.

In 2012, Dr. Gayle Galletta, an emergency medicine physician of 12 years, decided that working full-time wasn’t feasible anymore. No longer able to manage the burnout, she approached her boss about reducing her hours to lessen the burden.

Instead of granting this request, Dr. Galletta’s boss gave her the option to take a one-year, unpaid leave of absence—a sabbatical—which she happily accepted. A fulfilling year in Norway with her family shortly followed, which she shared in an article published by White Coat Investor.[]

Sabbaticals can help your career

Galletta isn’t alone in her experience. Many physicians rely on sabbaticals to help alleviate the harsh symptoms associated with burnout, according to Roxanna Guilford-Blake writing for Wolters Kluwer.[]

Those who are planning on taking a sabbatical can optimize their time away from work by planning ahead.

When you’re feeling good, you take better care of your patients, according to Guilford-Blake. That’s why, when burnout strikes, you should embrace the opportunity to take a sabbatical.

In an article for Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Scott Friedman, MD, states that taking a sabbatical allows physicians to ditch the daily grind and get inspired, both personally and professionally.[]

Described by Friedman as a “priceless gift,” sabbaticals are a privilege that physicians can use to expand their knowledge base in their field, and then relay what they’ve learned to their colleagues.

Friedman, who went on a sabbatical at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, talks about tangible ways to do so:

“Upon my immediate return, I shared my experiences through a combined seminar/travelogue lecture to my colleagues at UCSF,” he wrote. “I also recognized that it was important to assume a disproportionate clinical load for the next year in repayment to my colleagues for my time away.”

In addition to feeding your inner student, a break from your regular shifts gives you the chance to redefine your professional identity and center your current interests.

For example, one of Friedman’s colleagues took a mid-career sabbatical, during which his professional focus shifted from clinical investigation to basic molecular biology. Having had the time to completely transform his work, he became a highly-cited scientific leader in his new area of interest—a win-win for him and his field.

Time for what matters most

Outside of professional development, taking a sabbatical gives physicians an opportunity to spend quality time with family while acquainting yourself with the culture and history of a new place, according to Dr. Friedman.

“Weekend trips with the family to ancient biblical and cultural sites and engagement in the political scene, while also immersing myself in classes to learn Hebrew, yielded a comfort level for us with the culture, history, and contemporary challenges that no amount of tourism could provide,” Friedman wrote.

On top of that, a sabbatical can provide you with space to cultivate and nurture your hobbies, which Friedman experienced first-hand.

"The year also allowed me to refine and indulge my love of photography, enabling me to chronicle the remarkable experiences and people I had met, and share them with family, friends, and colleagues upon my return."

Scott Friedman, MD

Planning your sabbatical

If you’re ready to embrace the benefits of a sabbatical, we’ve got a few guidelines to help you organize your planning process.

According to Guilford-Blake, physicians planning a sabbatical should ask the following questions:

  • What kind of experience am I looking for? Between teaching, researching, volunteering, discovering a new passion, and more, there are endless possibilities for how you can spend your sabbatical. This is your time to be selfish!

  • When is the best time to go, and for how long? Nothing needs to be set in stone right away, but knowing the year (and maybe the month) that you’d like to plan around is a good place to start. Then, you can settle on the length of time that works best for you—whether that’s a few weeks, months, or a year.

  • Where should I go? Even if you decide to stay in town for your sabbatical, you are bound to reap the benefits of time away from work. Going overseas has much to offer, too.

  • What is my budget? Now’s the time to map out your finances for your trip. Design a budget that covers food, travel, lodging costs, lost income, and other expenses.

Remember: There may not ever be a perfect time to up and leave work. That’s why Dr. Friedman urges physicians to take advantage of the opportunity whenever it may be possible.

“[Sabbatical] is a rare opportunity for renewal that should not be missed,” he wrote. “It continues to reward me every day of my career.”

What this means for you

Burnout is a well-known struggle that all too many physicians face. In order to keep it at bay, you can temporarily escape work and enrich your personal and professional lives by taking a sabbatical. The first step is to determine what kind of experience you’re looking to have. Then, you can assess where, when, and for how long you’d like to go, as well as the financial landscape of the trip. Try to find ways to maintain your skill set during your time off, so that you can return to your job with ease.

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