Burned Out? Maybe It's Time for a Medical Sabbatical

Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS


November 14, 2022

I'm on Ed Yong's newsletter email list. Yong is a science journalist who, in addition to a plethora of award-winning articles and two books, has published some of the best pieces about healthcare during the pandemic in The Atlantic. His recent newsletter email started out like this: "I have some personal news. I'm taking a 6-month sabbatical, starting immediately. These past 3 years have been the most professionally meaningful of my life, but they've also broken me."

I think Yong's words resonate with many of us in healthcare. Burnout among physicians was already an issue before the pandemic; now, it is a monumental concern. A recently published comparison survey shows a dramatic increase in emotional exhaustion and burnout as well as decreased satisfaction with work-life integration in US physicians between 2020 and 2021, especially among women (see my prior blog for more on this topic).

The word sabbatical originates from the Greek word sabbatikós, meaning "of the Sabbath" and referring to a day (or year) of rest. Today, a professional sabbatical refers to an extended period away from usual work duties, used for renewal, research, or gaining skills. In the US, this concept has historically been embraced by academia, where taking a year off after 6 years of teaching is not an uncommon practice.

Collaborative research on the effect of sabbaticals in the academic setting has shown that they result in decreased stress and increased overall well-being; these positive changes continue even after a return to work. Of note, those who fully detach themselves from their regular jobs seem to gain the most from sabbaticals, and those who spend their sabbatical in another country enjoy bigger gains than those who remain in the same location.

It seems reasonable that sabbaticals can offer similar rewards for workers outside of academia. A survey of leaders at nonprofit organizations found that sabbaticals not only helped alleviate stress, but returnees had greater confidence in their leadership role; post-sabbatical, they were also better able to focus on the organization's vision, to work with the board of directors, and to generate new ideas for effecting change and raising funds. And, the interim leaders who filled in during the sabbaticals were more effective upon their boss' return, benefiting from the opportunity to develop their own skills and abilities.

Yet, despite these demonstrated gains, only 15% of employers offer sabbaticals (and only 5% offer paid sabbatical leave), according to a 2018 research report by The Society for Human Resource Management. I'd argue, as others have done before me, that medical sabbaticals are a way to help healthcare workers avoid (or recover from) burnout and encourage job retention.

Yong's email announcing his sabbatical noted that "stepping away is a huge privilege that most people don't have." He's right — not all physicians have equal opportunities for time away from medicine, especially if they expect to still be paid. But, some healthcare systems have embraced the concept and figured out how to offer sabbaticals to their physicians; for example, read this account by a family physician in Seattle who was able to plan a sabbatical with the blessing of his organization.

I've been on a sabbatical of sorts myself. I'm an infectious disease physician who traveled throughout most of the pandemic as a locum tenens provider. After finishing an 18-month assignment, I decided to take time off before considering a new placement. I'm now approaching the end of a year away from the burdens of day-to-day consultative work.

As an independent contractor, my sabbatical has been unpaid, but it has still been absolutely worthwhile. Though I haven't seen patients, I've remained connected to medicine through other means: writing medical blogs, publishing a book, attending international infectious disease conferences, participating in CME activities, and connecting with colleagues beyond the hospital. I've also spent a lot of time engaged in personal rejuvenation: returning to restorative sleep, cooking healthy meals, traveling to other countries with friends and family, and reading for pleasure in the middle of the day.

The extended "time-out" of my sabbatical has afforded me many benefits — decreased stress, lessened fatigue, updated education, and improved well-being, to name a few. It has also helped me better realize the things I need to be happy, both at work and at home. I'm looking forward to Ed Yong's return to writing when his sabbatical ends, just as I look forward to finding my place in medicine again when my sabbatical is done.

You can sign up for Ed Yong's newsletter, The Ed's Up, here.

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About Dr Roni Devlin
Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS, is an infectious diseases physician currently residing in the Midwest. She is the author of several scholarly papers and two books on influenza. With a longstanding interest in reading and writing beyond the world of medicine, she has also owned an independent bookstore, founded a literary nonprofit, and published articles and book reviews for various online and print publications. You can reach her via LinkedIn.


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