Skip to main content

Sabbaticals refresh. Every seven years, academics get a chance to recharge and focus in depth on a research issue. Some organizations have sabbatical policies that allow employees to rearrange the way they are paid in order to occasionally take a break.

But Simon Cohen went further. When he started to feel the need for a personal pause, he also sensed that the communications company he had built, Global Tolerance, based in London, could also use a refresher. So he consulted with his staff of seven full-time employees and some of the 75 consultants in 25 countries, and decided to declare a total corporate sabbatical.

Since last spring, the company has been closed. On April 1, work will begin again, he expects in a new form, although he isn't quite sure what that will look like. But he isn't worried, since he believes in the power of the pause.

"This sabbatical is a necessity, not a luxury, in the 21st century. We seen burnout all around us," he said.

Much of Mr. Cohen's life has involved balance and imbalance. He grew up as a bacon-eating Reform Jew, and spent his years at university studying theology at the University of Nottingham, primarily Christianity but also Islam. He ended up selling advertisements for the 130 local newspapers owned by the Daily Mail, making good money in his early 20s but feeling depressed by a sales culture that encouraged expense-account fibbing as he and colleagues took friends out for lunch but reported it as client work.

"I had always seen myself as a good person with a strong moral compass. But from 9 to 5, I would put on a professional mask and my professional life was not aligned with my beliefs. On the face of it, I wasn't a nice person. It was a very shallow lifestyle," he said in an interview.

In November, 2003, he quit his job. He had no idea what he would do. But he had money for 30 days, which gave him a deadline, and he is good at responding to deadlines. The result, following a passion that started after the tarring of Muslims in the Western World following 9/11, was Global Tolerance, to build understanding.

He had already been working to get religious communities and the media to understand each other, and his firm began taking these issues to the wider world, eventually branching out from the religious divide to other touchy social issues. He gained high-profile clients, including the Gallup Organization, the Dalai Lama and Gandhi's grandson. His passions came together with his working life, and he figured he had found balance.

His team was energetic and open to new ideas. One ritual was the Sound of Silence, effectively a 60-second sabbatical. At 5:30 p.m., someone would ask a provocative question, such as "What would it mean to grow up?" After everyone pondered it quietly for a minute, the questioner would then facilitate a discussion. It refreshed, built bonds between the team, and even led to creative ideas to assist clients.

But he began to realize the balance he had found was an illusion. He was too often neglecting his wife and friends. He was also neglecting himself: In October, 2010, he became sick and was bedridden for two months.

Last year, with his wife pregnant, he found himself in India on business when he heard a story about Lord Shiva, the Goddess Parvati and their two sons. The boys were told that the son who went around the world three times the fastest would win some prized golden fruit. One son, Skanda, flew off on a magic peacock. The other, Ganesha, circled his parents three times, told them they meant the world to him, and won.

"I realized I was like Skanda on a magic peacock, missing what was the world to me – the embrace of my pregnant wife – and if I didn't change, I would miss the world," he said.

But he wanted his staff to also gain from the sabbatical. So he helped each of them to find the right footing for the fallow year. In some cases, employees are enjoying a break like him, balanced with some degree of outside work, perhaps with Global Tolerance clients who have become their own freelance clients. He feels giving them this experience will be broadening and pay off down the road. In other cases, he helped with job searches for those who needed full-time work, assisting one employee to secure a job with one of the firm's clients.

He has been a stay-at-home father to Seren, who was born May 5. Between diaper changes, he has been writing a book on unconventional wisdom and consulting on reputation management with a Buddhist master in India. He believes there is no greater gift than being present, and feels Seren has been tutoring him in that art.

Next, who knows? He wonders whether he should take a different role when the company re-forms in April. He knows their approach needs to be different to be more effective – and will be different, given that everyone has been growing in ways they couldn't have had this just been another year together. "I anticipate something radical," he said.

He urges others to try just a 60-second sabbatical – asking themselves a provocative question and seeing where it leads. "After you see the power of a 60-second sabbatical, just think what it would be like to have one for a day, or a week, or month, or a year? What's stopping you? We all figure we don't have the time. But you can create a space for opportunity, even if it's only one minute," he said.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter