Thirty-five year old media professional Cynthia Loh (name has been changed) took 90 days of no pay leave from work during one of the busiest periods of the year.
The Singaporean wanted to take the time off work to find herself and was feeling really frazzled by work commitments and the daily stressors faced at work. During her break, Cynthia enrolled into a 200-hour Yoga teacher training course with studio Yoga Movement. She paid S$3,900 to take the course.
That was a few months ago. She has since completed the training. Cynthia has returned back to her workstation but her social media is still active with yoga demonstrations. She also recently conducted a free outdoor yoga class for her friends.
“With the support from my great boss, I was able to take three months of unpaid leave. Even though this period was really tough on the team with one man down, I really needed the break from work, from Covid-19, and to regain my sanity.”
Cynthia’s not ruling out turning her newfound hobby into a side income, but due to work commitments, she is putting those plans on hold for now.
“Now that I have returned to work, I feel I need to make up for the lost time. Work has been hectic but I feel fresher and more ready to start my day again.”
Cynthia is among many others who have experienced a burnout caused by the pandemic.
According to experts, the prolonged stress of Covid-19 and the many lockdowns has had an effect on our cognitive functioning.
The pandemic hasn’t just been a stressful event, as Mike Yassa, the director of the UC Irvine Centre for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory says.
“It’s been a collection of many stressors at the same time, some life-threatening, alongside disruptions in our physical activity, routines, and daily rhythms.”
More are taking sabbaticals or going on long leave
Another Singaporean, Willynn Ng, who is in her early thirties, took a three month break in April this year. The pandemic fatigue and uncertainty made her want to reassess her life goals and plans for the future.
The marketing graduate signed up for a “Scrum Master” course with NTUC Learning Hub, using her $500 SkillsFuture credits. The young mother of four also took the time off to declutter her home and catch up with friends.
“During these three months, I learnt to be a better person and definitely will not lower my standards in making decisions from this moment on,” Willynn said, sounding stronger than before.
Leza Klenk, a personal branding coach and CEO of Spendless Academy, also announced her plans to go on sabbatical leave for a few weeks in August on LinkedIn.
She cited personal reasons and added that her assistant would be posting social media content while she was away.
“All the best everyone. I am looking forward to chatting with you all again. My final advice – Take care of your mental health, because you can never pour from an empty cup,” she said.
Pandemic fatigue has affected everyone, including those at the top.
Other C-level executives have also been reported to be on sabbatical leave: Prudential Asia group CIO Stephan Van Vliet took 12 months off this year to return to his home country the Netherlands for personal reasons.
Nanofilm’s former COO, Ricky Tan also took a sabbatical leave recently for personal reasons before his resignation to pursue other opportunities.
What is a sabbatical?
A sabbatical is typically defined as a long-term leave period from work. During this extended break, employees may choose to pursue their own interests such as travelling, writing, volunteering, studying or other activities (or even just rest).
However sabbatical leave entitlements differ from company to company. They are usually more easily handed out to employees that have been there for quite some time, like five years or more.
Sabbaticals can last anywhere from two months to up to a year and most companies do not include sabbatical leave in annual paid leave allowances.
Most of the time, sabbaticals involve using unpaid leave. This means that the employee has to forgo taking home any income for the time that he or she is away. Sometimes, sabbaticals are offered only to high performers as a form of reward to entice them to stay longer with the company.
In Singapore, there is no statutory entitlement of unpaid or sabbatical leave, so it’s up to individual companies to decide if they want to grant this to employees.
Some companies that include such leave schemes are the National Council of Social Service, food chain The Lo & Behold Group, and Maybank Singapore.
Overseas, companies have taken steps to launch company-wide breaks in this period too as they recognise the need for a break for their employees. US firm Hootsuite closed its office for a week in July. In its announcement on LinkedIn, it said:
“As you may know, it’s been a crap year for literally everyone. So we’ve decided to go on a company-wide break to regather our wits and refuel our tanks…Please don’t get in touch. Talk to you later.”
Last week, Nike closed its corporate offices for a week to give employees a mental health break. The global brand said that the extra time off is “intended for employees to refresh and recharge during the ongoing pandemic”.
The pandemic fatigue
The pandemic has had a major impact on mental health and work-related burnout has been on the rise, said Anita Jiawen Sadasivan, co-founder and Chief Wellbeing Officer at mental wellness platform MindFi.
“For individuals who are burnt out, unhappy at work and considering a career switch, sabbaticals are a great time to develop a new skill set and ready oneself for a career change, or even just to pause and reflect on one’s life and career path. For those who love their work but are feeling exhausted, a sabbatical can be a time and space to recharge and decompress so that they can return with renewed motivation.”
Anita recommends taking sabbaticals. “The pandemic fatigue is real. We’ve been living with stress, uncertainty, restrictions and major lifestyle changes for close to 18 months now. It is exhausting.”
Some symptoms of ‘pandemic fatigue’ are irritability, lethargy, a sense of dread, and insomnia.
Anita Jiawen Sadasivan, co-founder and Chief Wellbeing Officer, MindFi
“This comes from the constant uncertainty that we are living with, the lack of exercise and sunshine from long days spent in the home, and from the blurring of work life boundaries and having difficulty disconnecting from work.”
Chronic stress has been found to kill brain cells and even shrink the size of our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for memory, focus and learning, other experts note.
Due to some conditions caused by work from home, social isolation and loneliness also impacts the brain.
“We’ve seen changes in volume in the brain’s temporal, frontal, occipital and subcortical regions, the amygdala, and the hippocampus in people who are socially isolated,” said Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge.
Employers opening up to the idea of longer leaves
It may be true that workers need a break to unwind and come back stronger amid the pandemic, but that luxury may not be given to everyone.
Returning to a job waiting for you after a period of rest or finding time to pursue your own interests beyond work is a pipe dream for many.
Thankfully, more employers have become receptive to the idea over the years.
According to the Singapore Ministry of Manpower’s 2018 Conditions of Employment report, 51.9 per cent of companies in Singapore said they allow their employees to take unpaid leave of more than one month.
That’s almost a 10 per cent improvement compared to in 2014, where 42 per cent offered this to their workers.
Still, not all HR experts encourage employees going on the idea of sabbaticals, as it can be disruptive to business operations. Employers and bosses may offer leave of absence, but that doesn’t mean that they can fully embrace the idea of being one man down when the business is fighting fire, for example.
If one is really keen to go on a break, an action plan is necessary. The best way is to give your boss or employer advance notice or have a chat with the supervisor really early on, so that everyone can make arrangements for your work while you are away.
This will also make the job easier for your colleagues, who will have to take over your role in the interim, and ensure positive relationships when you return.
Can’t sabbatical? Here are other ways you can relax your mind
If sabbaticals are not applicable, try taking two weeks off from work to recuperate from stress and burnout.
“Spend the first week disconnecting, relaxing, and recharging. In the second week, look at your boundaries, habits, and stress coping mechanisms,” said Anita.
Using mental wellness apps like Headspace and MindFi can help you process your thoughts, learn to evaluate and set boundaries, manage stress, and build lasting habits.
Practicing meditation by being in the moment can also help one find calmness as it has been linked to improve stress and enhance memory resilience.
Physical activities can also help to improve cognitive functioning. Exercising increases neuroplasticity, also known as the brain’s adaptability to change, which can help our brains bounce back from Covid-19.
If not, one can listen to music. Music lowers cortisol levels in the body, and research has shown it being linked to improved brain resilience later in life.
To take stock of what works and what hasn’t been working for us over the past 18 months, Anita provided three takeaways for us to think about:
Do you have adequate work life boundaries with regard to both time and space? If your boundaries aren’t working for you, what can you do to make this better?
Do you feel safe and comfortable communicating your needs and limitations at your place of work? Is there anything you can do to improve this communication?
Are you getting enough exercise? Are you drinking too much alcohol? Alcohol consumption and inactivity have been on the rise since the onset of the pandemic. As the pandemic drags on, make sure that your sleep, nutritional and exercise habits are supporting your health!
Featured Image Credit: Leza Klenk, SoFi, Willynn Ng