GIMME A BREAK

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In April 2001, Maeve Richmond joined the pink slip brigade after she was laid off by the digital entertainment dot-com she had worked at for more than 16 months. But instead of seeking a new job, Richmond, 28, spent the summer refurbishing her Manhattan apartment and visiting her family home in Bennington, Vt. Says Richmond: “In a way, getting laid off created an opportunity for me. I thought of it as a personal review time to figure out what I really wanted to do.�

Soon after Sept. 11, Richmond figured out her next move: to launch a consulting business that handles marketing and event planning for visual artists. Richmond didn't take a traditional “sabbatical,� but used the summer months after she was laid off to take time for herself. Increasingly, more Americans are doing the same. Driven by a number of factors — from corporate cuts to burnout to the lingering effects of Sept. 11 — the idea of taking a “time out� is tempting a broad range of Americans. As Senior Editor Pamela Paul points out in this month's cover story, on page 34, more folks are taking a break — sometimes even a full-blown sabbatical — from the reality of daily life.

In fact, this most recent surge in sabbaticals is driven by an unlikely suspect: the employer. As Paul notes, while some companies are trimming staff, others are asking employees to take a voluntary leave to cut costs. “Today's sabbatical takers may not be sabbatical seekers,� Paul says. “But faced with a slow economy, some of these folks figure their time is better spent traveling or regrouping than fruitlessly searching for work.�

The decision to temporarily “check out� for some short-term soul searching is part of a larger shift in attitudes about the workplace. It is a residual effect of the 1990s “free agent� mentality, the Gen X mantra that “I-am-more-than-my-job� and the dot-com era when more people could afford to take time off and job-hopping among startups — with lapses in between — was customary. These new sabbaticals are becoming more common at all stages of life, and forcing business to take notice. What's more, ample opportunity exists for companies to provide services to those who take off, Paul notes.

Within businesses, these new sabbaticals are poised to join the ranks of other popular work-life initiatives, such as flex-time and telecommuting, and may indicate a future direction of employee benefits. For employees, these breaks prove that a balanced life does take some work.

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