Today’s technologically advanced era has has brought much comfort and convenience into our lives. Information technology revolution has completely changed our lives for the better. There is however a downside to this. Stress and anxiety is at an all time high and is leading to early burn out for many professionals. If you’re also experiencing this, do read on to gain a fresh perspective from the personal experience of a Career Coach.
Last year, I spent the entire September in the Teerthan Valley in Himachal Pradesh. I lived in a quaint remote homestay in the beautiful village of Laida. How did I find it? I just searched for “Work from the Himalayas” and it led me to a website with a similar domain name where I found the hidden gem called Laida Holiday Home Stay run by Rittam Thakur and his family. I booked it within 1 week of talking to the website representative and the homestay owner. The internet connection was good enough for zoom calls and OTT streaming. The food was home-cooked with organic and fresh-from-garden veggies, rice, and pulses and offered with dollops of ghee made from the household cow’s milk. In the mornings and evenings, I would go on small hikes up and down the 7000 ft mountains and on weekends visit nearby places like Jibhi and the Teerthan River.
Does this sound idyllic? It was. How did it help me? It helped me put things into perspective that I was unable to do with all the small little to-do items I was consumed with. I could strategize long-term plans for my start-up, plan my book and work on my personal goals. Was it the touristy place or the food or the hospitality or the mountains or the lack of junk food or the clean air which helped me do all this? No. It is the time that I got to contemplate which helped me.
Are humans equipped for today’s work environments?
Human beings can not and will not be able to cope with the really fast-paced tech-enabled social media-driven lives that we aspire to live to. We are just not wired like that. Working continuously in fast-paced, high-stake environments for long periods is bound to burn you out. And burn out happens to everyone. In 2015, I conducted a survey to measure burnout rates among high school teachers teaching in Delhi municipal schools in 5 regions of Delhi. The results showed that a mammoth 48% of teachers were burnt out with many more in line to join them. Teachers are some of the most burnt-out professionals in India as they need to perform myriad duties within and outside schools. If you have ever felt the need for a break, but can’t figure out why you need a break, you’re probably facing burn out which can lead to mood swings, anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, a high percentage of professionals across the spectrum, experience frequent burnout. And we have witnessed this in students as well.
Human beings are meant to process information slowly. While absorption of information may be high, assimilation of that information is slow and the subsequent usage of that information to make good decisions is even slower. As per a 2007 report from the research organisation Basex, information overload causes an approximate loss of USD 997 Billion to the US economy due to loss in productivity and leads to stress in many cases. And this report pre-dates the Facebook, YouTube, and 4G revolutions.
A few gifted individuals are able to manage these aspects better than others. Some of them become productivity gurus on Youtube and Instagram and now, everyone feels the pressure to be able to do the same. Learning how to be better is great, but since every human is unique, the same techniques might or might not work for all. Plus if you’re already burnt out, then such wisdom might prove to be counter-productive and add to the existing vulnerable state that you’re in.
How can breaks help?
Let us define a break first. A break is when all the noise in your mind - which keeps ringing like alarms about deadlines at work, personal chores, and taking care of your family - starts fading away like a fog as the sun shines through it. That clarity after the fog has lifted helps you see clearly, naturally, and without pressure. That clarity then brings back your creativity, reveals newer perspectives, and helps you grow as a human being.
Breaks can be extremely short like a weekend, a movie, hanging out with friends one evening, or just walking in a park. Breaks need to refresh and reset your mind. So while some situations might be sorted with smaller breaks, there might be other situations where the levels of burnout, stress, and information overload are higher which need deeper interventions.
What are sabbaticals?
Career sabbaticals are extremely important for any professional today. While it might be confused with a vacation or a solo trip in nature’s lap, it’s your journey towards better introspection by taking a break from work. The concept can be traced back to our ancient cultures, such as the Torah and the Bible talking about not working the fields for a year after every few years. Sabbaticals were started by western universities such as Harvard in the late 19th century in the form of a long paid leave for academics to rest, recover and facilitate advancements in intellectual pursuit. Just like keeping a farm field fallow for some time allows the earth to rejuvenate its nutrients so it can support the next harvest, taking a sabbatical helps you rejuvenate and come back to work with a fresh injection of energy and newer perspectives.
Many institutions and companies recognize the importance of such breaks and have good policies around them. The concept can be seen in the practice in the form of months-long or years-long paid leaves for academic study or 4-day work weeks being employed, implemented most recently and famously by Microsoft in Japan and companies in Western Europe. In India, government jobs allow civil servants to take a study leave of 2 years to pursue up-skilling through higher education in India or abroad. For students, a gap year after high school is a highly encouraged phenomenon in Europe and other developed countries.
Which one should you go for?
My friend Soum Paul, who is a prodigious programmer and serial entrepreneur from IIT Kanpur, once recalled that when he started working on AI two decades ago in Switzerland, he realized the beauty of such a gap year. Consequently, after a few years of working in tech in the US, he decided to go backpacking and was able to nurture his filmmaking and writing talents. These helped him to complete various successful projects in filmmaking, writing 2 books, and now running a blockchain-powered publishing business whilst finishing his 3rd book on the future of AI.
I had taken a year-long sabbatical when I was selected for a regional revitalization fellowship program in rural Japan in 2019. That experience helped me work with innovators and change makers from 35+ countries, I was mentored by ex-UN leaders, ex-diplomats, corporate leaders, international strategists, professors, entrepreneurs, and others from Japan, the USA, and Hong Kong. That experience introduced me to the SDGs which today is a major part of my work in mentoring the youth.
So you can take breaks in the form of fellowships, paid leaves from your employer, work remotely, summer camps, immersion programs for startups, artists, personal growth programs or spiritual sojourns such as Vipassna meditation, learning a new skill such as scuba diving or mountaineering, mentoring young minds in alternative education programs, or just a break to do nothing. The break has to help you get away from work, relax and be ready for the next phase of your life. As I tell a lot of my clients, take regular career breaks or the burnout will force you to take a break.
About the Author:Saurabh Nanda is a Career Consultant and International Youth Mentor. He is the Founder and Director of SN Mentoring (https://snanda.in) a Career and Education guidance organisation built on expertise, experience and results where passionate mentors bring out the best in you.