Paid to have a life-changing experience

Paid sabbatical was a life-changing experience for local attorney

March 2, 2013
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Jon Higie, an attorney with Peacock Keller, in his workplace after returning from a monthlong vacation in Europe. Attorneys with the law firm are required to take a six-month sabbatical. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Jon Higie, an attorney with Peacock Keller, in his workplace after returning from a monthlong vacation in Europe. Attorneys with the law firm are required to take a six-month sabbatical. Order a Print
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From left, Lisa, Jon, Ben and Kyleigh Higie pose in Monaco, with a view of the French Riviera.
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The Higie family on Segways in Florence, Italy. The Higies spent four weeks in Europe while Jon Higie was on sabbatical from Peacock Keller.
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From left, Jon, Kyleigh, Ben and Lisa Higie stand with the owner of la Botticella, a Pittsburgh Steelers bar in Rome.

Last summer, Jonathan Higie’s company paid him not to work.

Higie is a partner at Peacock Keller & Ecker LLP in Washington, one of a small number of companies that offers a paid sabbatical to employees.

Peacock Keller introduced a mandatory sabbatical program for its partners about 10 years ago, after the senior partner, Charles Keller, took a yearlong leave to serve as president of Rotary International and discovered that the time off left him with renewed passion for his job.

Sabbaticals have long been a way of life in academic settings, but they are gaining traction in the corporate world as more companies view them as a tool for retaining, rewarding and motivating employees.

According to the Human Resource Management’s 2011 Employee Benefits research report, just 4 percent of companies offer paid sabbaticals, while about 18 percent offer unpaid sabbaticals. But more than 20 percent of companies on Fortune magazine’s list of the Top 100 Companies to Work For provide fully paid sabbaticals.

For six months, Higie was off the grid: He didn’t have to check emails or voicemails, or set his alarm clock. He described his sabbatical as an extraordinary, life-changing experience.

“It was wonderful. The primary thing I wanted to focus on was spending time with my kids, and I was able to do that,” said Higie.

Last June, Higie took his wife, Lisa, daughter Kyleigh, 16, and son Ben, 12, on a four-week trip to Europe, including stops in London, Paris, Florence and Rome. After they returned home, Higie and his son embarked on “guys” road trips, including one to Cooperstown, N.Y. to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame before heading to Boston for a tour of the city and a Red Sox game. Higie and his brother drove to Bennett Spring, Mo., for a week of fly fishing, and then Higie flew to San Francisco to visit a lifelong friend. At the end of summer, the Higies took trips to Chautauqua, N.Y., where Higie’s parents own a cottage. And he ran a 5K race.

He also spent time with his parents – his father had surgery during the sabbatical, and Higie was able to help out during the recovery – and attended his children’s cross-country meets.

“The best thing was having an extended period of time to spend with important people in my life,” said Higie. “I hadn’t had a summer vacation since eighth grade.”

Elizabeth Pagano, co-founder of yourSABBATICAL, an Atlanta company which helps companies plan sabbaticals, calls time “our most important currency.”

“There have been studies done with the elderly who are getting ready to pass away, where they’re asked what regrets they have. No one ever says they wish they’d made more money; they almost invariably say they wanted more time,” said Pagano.

Pagano and her mother, Barbara, started yourSABBATICAL after they took a six-month sabbatical following 9/11, sailing alone from Pensacola, Fla., to the Caribbean’s Northern Antilles – 2,000 miles – on a 43-foot sloop named Revival.

So Pagano knows what she’s talking about when she encourages employees to make their sabbaticals meaningful: travel, learn a language, take classes. Some companies, in fact, require employees to complete service projects during their leaves of absence.

McDonald’s has offered sabbaticals since the 1960s. Corporate employees receive eight weeks of paid leave, in addition to vacation, every 10 years.

Judy Key, human resources director for McDonald’s Pittsburgh region, traveled with her husband and two children, and spent time as a cheerleader mom for her daughter’s cheerleading team – something she would not have had time to do without her job pause.

“It’s a great benefit. You are refreshed and you’re actually anxious to get back to work when you get close to returning,” said Key. “Ray Kroc viewed it as a time to renew and refresh, grow and develop, and we look for most people to do that.”

While employees enjoy time away, their jobs are covered by co-workers, a duty that Higie believes makes the firm better because employees are forced to become knowledgeable about more areas of the company.

“I learned that no one is indispensible. I realized (the firm) did fine while I was away,” said Higie, noting the time off reinforced the idea that the company operates as a team.

Higie’s partners have tailored their job breaks to their own interests, but perhaps one of the most profound sabbaticals was Wes Cramer’s 2007 leave. Cramer spent several weeks with his mother leading up to her death. While he found time to travel, research, complete home projects and do charitable work, Cramer was most grafetul for the chance to spend long periods of time with her.

Cramer wrote in the firm’s publication, Peacock Tales, that his 2007 sabbatical helped him grow as a lawyer, a husband and a Christian.

For Higie, the sabbatical “is like halftime at a football game. It helped me to get perspective, reflect and evaluate where I am in my career. It’s been just wonderful,” he said. “I can’t think of one negative thing.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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