How a career break can help with burnout

For most of her life Tanisha Drummer Parrish was hyper-focused on traditional markers of success, moving from business school to corporate America to start-ups.

And the 44-year-old was successful, by all accounts: good jobs, nice house, beautiful children. But she was also exhausted. As she worked day after day and night after night, thoughts of taking a break from work altogether started to take hold. But, in her mind, that wasn’t what successful people did. So she kept working.

She reached her breaking point when her oldest daughter asked when she was going to get off of the computer and spend time with the rest of the family. She couldn’t keep going the way she had been. It was time for a break.

“Signals like that made it very clear that I didn’t want to live this way, and this isn’t the person I want to be,” Parrish tells Fortune. “I was burned out to the core.”

It took Parrish six months to give herself the “okay” to go through with quitting her full-time job. But she finally left her role at a startup in June 2022 and didn’t return to full-time work until January 2023.

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Courtesy of Tanisha Drummer Parrish

During the six month “extended sabbath,” as she calls it, Parrish read books, exercised, and spent time with her children. She did not work at all. It was a transformative experience.

“Looking back, I don’t know what I did,” she says. “I didn’t achieve anything except peace of mind and clarity around next steps.”

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers like Parrish have been negotiating what they want their futures to look like as more and more experience burnout, illness, and increased stress. Millions changed jobs over the past three years; others are working out how they can live a softer life while keeping the lights on.

For some, a break from work altogether has proven to be the best option. A growing number of employers are offering their employees sabbaticals to provide the time workers need to truly feel refreshed—and ready to tackle the working world again. Some simply need a break, while others take the time to plan out a career change or realignment of priorities.

It’s still a rare perk, though, which is why Parrish and two other women who spoke with Fortune decided to quit their full-time jobs for extended periods, ranging from six weeks to one year. All three women said they didn’t feel less ambitious during the break; if anything, the time away re-energized them and allowed them the space to reflect on life, work, and their place in the world. Here’s how the breaks changed their relationship to ambition and work.

‘I could just rest’

Shari Bryan worked in law and then for an international non-profit for over two decades. While she loved her work, the constant travel and responsibilities of an executive vice president role took a toll. She decided to leave full-time work in 2021.

Over the next year, Bryan traveled to Greece, spent time with her 90-year-old mother, took classes at the Culinary Institute, and started consulting on the side, working on projects for a European foundation and an international security firm. The break had its intended effect: Getting away from the “intensity” of Washington D.C. healed her soul, she tells Fortune, and she was ready to start working again after a few months.

But no traditional gigs appealed—while she wants work that’s challenging, she doesn’t want the stress and anxiety that came with her old job. So she decided to keep working for herself and has embarked on what she calls a “listening tour” to take stock of her options, meeting with friends, acquaintances, old coworkers, and others in her network about possible opportunities.

“I’m ready to still be in the game, I want to be big, I want to be significant, but it’s gotta look different than it was before,” says Bryan. “I don’t want this to sound as if the only thing I know how to do is work. But nothing I can think of doing is as interesting as what I think I can do if I keep working.”

Now, the 62-year-old consults and works with friends and acquaintances on projects that sound interesting to her, including events like International Jazz Day. She might go back to the corporate world if she finds the right gig; as of now, she plans to work until she’s at least 67.

Courtesy of Shari Bryan

“I still have what it takes, and I’m still capable,” she says. But the break gave her the confidence to do the things she finds intellectually and creatively fulfilling, instead of playing a supporting role to someone else. Since she started consulting, she has set a pay threshold and won’t take jobs that offer less than that, something she never would have done before.

“I’ve decided to help some people voluntarily, but paid work, I’m insisting on getting what I’m worth. I’ve said no a few times,” she says. “The knowing your worth thing has been a bit of a revelation to me.”

‘If you have found at least one job, you can find another one’

Ericka Spradley knew she wasn’t living up to her own worth when she left her job as a retail store manager in 2006. Then in her mid-30s, Spradley had worked in retail for various companies for 18 years. She wanted to make a change, but exactly what she wanted to do was still a mystery to her.

At the time, she lived with her grandparents; while she figured out her next steps, she moved to a vacation rental in a different state.

“For the first time in my career, I could just rest. I had nowhere to go, nowhere to be,” Spradley, now 50, says. “I felt centered. It changed my life.”

After six weeks, a bank offered her a role managing a financial center, something she never would have thought she was qualified for. But her sabbatical taught her “skills are transferable.” Over the ensuing years, she worked her way up at the bank. Eventually she landed in a role that allowed her to coach other female employees. She had found her purpose.

In 2018, she started a career management company, now called Confident Career Women. None of that would have happened if she hadn’t taken the time to figure herself out, she says. Her advice: Take the leap of faith more often.

“It’s amazing that we talk ourselves out of so many things every day,” she says, noting it understandably makes people nervous to leave a job in order to take a break. “If you have found at least one job, you can find another one.”

The logistics of taking a break

Of course, it’s easier to take a break when you have the financial resources to do so. All three women noted that it is a luxury to be able to step back from full-time work for any amount of time—that’s not a possibility for many people, at least not without significant planning.

Parrish planned her exit with her husband. They saved for a few months, and he was still working full-time. Still, being out of work herself meant changing her mentality around money: Instead of it being the ultimate marker of her success, she learned that other things were more valuable.

“Being the Type A person that I am, when I see the decline in the bank account, it’s like, what’s going on,” says Parrish. “I mentally had to say, we saved for this, we’re not going to worry about the money coming out. No more money would have made me any happier.”

Bryan also worked high-paying jobs for decades and saved a significant amount of money.

Courtesy of Ericka Spradley

Spradley’s tale is a little different. She was single and living with her grandparents before taking her six-week break; in order to afford it, she withdrew money from her 401(k). It’s not something she would advise most people do, but it worked out for her, and she has never regretted it.

Now, she makes more money than she did in retail. The bet on herself paid off.

“I believed that there was more, and if I made money before, certainly I’d make money again,” says Spradley. “I was right. I was right in more ways than I realized.”

All three women said they had faith that more work would come. And it did: Parrish is building her own coaching company; Bryan now consults for clients from references she built over her decades in Washington D.C.

Reframing priorities

Parrish still has “big goals.” But she’s no longer interested in climbing the corporate ladder or ticking off the boxes she once thought were so important. What makes a good life has changed forever in her eyes. She’s now ambitious about taking care of her health and spending time with her children.

“The word ‘ambition’ has almost been eliminated from how I view my goals and my life and the impact I want to have,” she says. “Prior, it was about achievement or recognition, or how fast can I get to the top. The things that matter now are, What about my inner peace? What about my health?”

The breaks weren’t without their pain points. But none of the women regret their choices, and they don’t miss their old jobs.

Of course, in hindsight, they would have done a few things differently. Both Bryan and Spradley say that they would have made more plans for their time off. While the rest was restorative, having more structure to her days “in and of itself brings a level of peace,” Spradley says.

“If someone was going to pursue this path…make sure you have adequate support outside of your family and friend circle,” Spradley adds, noting she started seeing a therapist. “We don’t mean to, but we can burn them out by asking them to provide a level of support they’re not equipped to.”

If Parrish did it over, she wouldn’t wait until she was “100% exhausted” to take her leave—she’d make the leap sooner. If it’s appealing to you, there’s a way to plan to make it happen, she says, even if it feels impossible to imagine at the moment.

“It doesn’t have to look like a six-month sabbatical. I know people who don’t even take a break between jobs,” she says. “You can figure out what it is you want, and if there is something you can crack that can fulfill that need.”

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