Probably most people dream of taking a really long break and doing something they've always wanted to do. Miriam Wolschon, who lives in Hamburg, dared to do it! Today she is a senior consultant at the press agency public imaging in Hamburg. During her time out, she worked for a Hamburg PR agency in the field of business and finance. We talk to her about what a sabbatical feels like, what it brings, and how best to argue so that the employer plays along.
Miriam, it sounds super-tempting to be able to really draw on all your free time. What was your idea to take a sabbatical?
What attracted me was the great freedom. I am an East German child with a very straightforward curriculum vitae: A-levels, studies, trainee in a PR department. After my studies, I worked for 10 years. Then I had the feeling: I need to see something different! I didn't know immediately how to go about it, so I attended an adult education course called "Finding Goals". During the round of introductions, one of the course participants told me something about a trip around the world. When I heard this keyword, the idea literally manifested itself in my mind's eye.
What happened next? How did you continue to pursue and plan your dream?
I didn't plan very long. I had 18 months' notice, and the first thing I did was look for and find open-jaw flights via Startravel. Otherwise, I didn't spend too much time planning my trip. I then dropped the pen on 1 July 2018, and on 1 August I boarded the plane to Singapore. I then travelled for four months.
How did your environment react?
Very positive! When I expressed the idea, my mother just said "Do it!". But she did get a bit nervous as the date drew closer. We then discovered WhatsApp for ourselves so that we could stay in touch.
What was it like when you asked your employer? What were your best arguments and how did he react?
I was very lucky because I was not the first person in the company to ask for time off. A colleague had already done it before me, which had the advantage that I didn't have to argue much. However, I have to say that my request was so urgent that I would have done it anyway. If necessary, I would have resigned. But that wasn't necessary. I didn't have to overcome any big hurdles at all, but got a positive response from my employer.
How did you arrange it?
It was "only" about a time-out of 5 months. We agreed that my employer would keep the Christmas bonus and the upcoming salary increase and pay them to me over the course of the 5 months. We put it in writing briefly so that everything was neatly recorded, even if something might change in the management during my absence.
With sabbaticals, the question often arises as to how to insure yourself during the time. How did you do that?
That wasn't a big problem for me, because I was still employed. However, I did take out travel health insurance with HanseMerkur - it can be taken out for the exact day. I also attended a language school in Canada during that time, and such insurance was a requirement there.
What did you do during your sabbatical?
I spent about 2 weeks everywhere: Singapore, Sydney, Hawaii, San Francisco, Vancouver. I then travelled across Canada by train to Toronto, Canada. I spent two weeks at a language school there. Then I went on to Montreal. My parents visited me there. Afterwards, I travelled on a cruise ship via Halifax to New York. I stayed in the Big Apple for 2 weeks and a friend visited me there. From New York, I flew to Paris, and from there I went home.
Did you have a queasy feeling when it was about to start?
No, not at all! I was very happy with myself and had no fear of contact. I love to travel and I can also be alone with myself.
Was there a situation along the way where you were afraid?
No. I had a lot of fun travelling. There was never a situation where it was dicey or I was scared, not even on the road. All I can say is: the world is a friendly place.
How much luggage did you have for the 5 months?
I had 2 pieces of luggage: A shoulder bag with a 7-kilo carry-on, and a 13-kilo roller bag. More would have been annoying.
Can you tell us a little about how you financed your sabbatical? How much money did you need? What was your financial plan?
I sublet my flat for the time, all inclusive. I also tried to reduce my other fixed expenses as much as possible. Before that, I had put money aside to build up a financial reserve. But I was still employed during my sabbatical, so I had a steady flow of money. In total, I probably spent 15,000 euros during my trip, although I have to say: I wasn't frugal and I didn't work during the time. After all, I didn't want to mortify myself. I always chose comfortable accommodation, mostly via Airbnb or in cheap hotels. I had also booked reasonable flights and otherwise lived well.
What were your expectations of your sabbatical? Was there a specific benefit or experience you were hoping for?
The word "benefit" sounds too monetaristic in this context. I simply felt the need to do something good for myself. Of course, I also gained life experience. Just the experience of being alone with myself for months and travelling in a foreign language. I also had to organise myself during the trip, of course. I embarked on the trip because something was missing. My peers from the old federal states had been abroad much more often than I had.
What were actually the takeaways for you in the end? Maybe even completely unplanned?
The biggest takeaway for me was that I dared to do it. You deny yourself so many things. In our country, the Protestant ethic applies: work first, then pleasure. That is, after all, a lifetime. Maybe I won't be able to go on such a trip when I'm old and decrepit... The important thing is that on such a trip you always take yourself with you. It is a great feeling of freedom to be able to think about it every day: Am I going to the art gallery or the botanical garden today?
How was your re-entry when you came back?
That was unproblematic. Here I have to pay a big compliment to my colleagues who stood in for me and kept the flag flying on the job! You often think you are irreplaceable in your job. In reality, that is not the case. When I came back, some clients were very happy to have me back and it was seamless. Others got on well with my replacement and were happy to stay on. Both were fine.
Between you and me, I can imagine that many would like to take a sabbatical but fear that it would be detrimental to their career. Is a sabbatical harmful to your career?
I don't think so. At the employer where I was, I had already reached the highest career level. There wouldn't have been much room to move up. When I later applied to other companies, my sabbatical was a good conversation starter in my CV. So I don't think it was detrimental to my career.
Some people criticise sabbaticals as selfish. They say you make a fancy dress while you benefit from all the social networks that others have to finance during the time. How do you see that?
I don't follow this argument. The money I spent during the sabbatical was earned beforehand and I also paid into the social networks. Those who criticise such time off say less about sabbaticals and more about their own mindset. In the end, everyone has to see it for themselves: Am I the busy little bee who takes a break after 10 years of work, or do I not treat myself to it? Actually, the sabbatical is not about money, but about the feeling of having time. I see it like this: as an employee, you sell your life time. But that doesn't mean my lifetime belongs to my employer. If I want to do something else with my time, that's my decision! After all, it's my life! Of course, I could have kept on beating the drum and possibly rush into a burnout. Is that more socially acceptable? We all know it: there are times when things get busy, when there is a lot to do. For example, when colleagues are absent due to illness or parental leave. Working life is a cyclical story, and it's always appreciated if you give 120% when needed. But the door should swing both ways. For example, my girlfriend had hearing loss and needed a very expensive cochlear hearing aid. I help to finance that, too. During the 10 years I worked before I took time off, I was rarely ill; only once in hospital when I gave a bone marrow donation in 2013.
Were you ill or had an injury during your time out?
No. Maybe a cold, but nothing else. I had a well-stocked first-aid kit with me, but fortunately I didn't need it at all.
Are there any do's and don'ts for sabbaticals that you would like to share with our readers?
I would like to recommend "Das große Los" by Maike Winnemuth to you. In it, she writes 10 things she recommends to future world travellers, and I can wholeheartedly endorse this. I got myself a tablet for the trip and used various apps to synchronise my travel plans, because flight times or something like that often change. The good thing is: there is an app for everything! Also, I want to shout out to everyone: The world is a friendly place! I have received a lot of encouragement from complete strangers, and that feels good! And one more thing: on a trip like this, redundancy is sometimes important. For example, my mobile phone fell into the water on the way and couldn't be repaired. I then bought a new phone in Canada, but I still had my tablet with my data and travel plans. The Baltic States have good SIM cards that work anywhere on the globe. My data, like photos or addresses, were all in the cloud. I can only recommend this to everyone!
Thank you so much for this inspiring interview, Miriam!