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SABBATICALS: How to travel, do charity work and still earn your salary

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mcreamer@crain.com

hal walker recently spent 18 days in Vietnam working at an orphanage for blind children and at a Buddhist-run soup kitchen.

After his stay in Ho Chi Minh City, he flew to New York to work on a syndicated talk show. Then, as a capper, he worked on a musical from a cabin in the Dominican Republic.

Mr. Walker isn't some fresh-out-of-school wanderer who's trying to find himself. He's a creative director for the New York office of Omnicom Group's Ketchum, the global PR agency where he's worked for 10 years, and one of a select group of employees who have earned a paid seven-week break to pursue non-professional interests this year.

That also puts him among the growing wave of American workers taking advantage of increasingly generous sabbatical policies.

To you always-on types used to watching the kids' soccer games by the glow of your BlackBerry screen and for whom "work-life balance" is a phrase to be accompanied by a sarcastic chortle, the notion that marketers and agencies are offering extended periods of time away from the office for doing humanitarian work or writing screenplays may seem like a joke.

It's true, though. Major marketers such as McDonald's Corp., Coca-Cola Co. and American Express Co. all offer sabbatical programs.

Mary Tosline, global human resources director at Ketchum, said the agency's program, in its seventh year, "is a lot about work-life balance.

"We're working day and night for clients," she said. "I talk a lot to people who've taken sabbaticals and it's wonderful to behold how they see it is a gift, to be able to take time and do the things that are really important to them." Another Ketchum employee, VP-Human Resources Manager Stephanie Douglass, split her time on sabbatical between working at an orphanage in Romania and trekking Mongolia.

Notwithstanding Ketchum's offering or, say, that of independent Wieden & Kennedy, whose human-resources policy allows employees with at least seven years' tenure to take six weeks of paid leave, sabbaticals in the agency world are a rarity, especially at the biggest shops.

A quick informal survey found that most of the largest 15 agencies have no policies regarding sabbaticals, some forbid them and others take them on a case-by-case business.

That puts the agency world in sharp contrast to any number of large corporations that find one of the best ways to retain talent is to hold out the chance to have a life-changing experience as a reward for continued service.

That is far from avant-garde human-resources thinking, but agencies haven't exactly warmed to it, arguing that in a client-service business, it's tough to let key people unplug.

Wieden views its program as a way to reward employees for their service. Trish Adams, managing director of Wieden's Tokyo office, took a sabbatical last fall, when she was based in Portland, Ore.

She and her husband, Joe, on sabbatical from his post at Intel, spent five weeks in Italy and Greece. "I'm not sure if I'd say it necessarily changed my career," Ms. Adams said, "but it did make me appreciate the company I work for and also make me a huge advocate of taking time off to recharge-not just every seven years."

Often, it's the smaller shops that lead the way. Two years ago, Denver-based independent agency McClain Finlon created a program that gives two weeks pay, as well as travel and lodging expenses, to an employee who wants to take a charitable trip. Human Resources Manager Sara Greene recently spent five weeks in Romania working with orphans. Production Artist Christina McCoy spent a month in Tanzania teaching art at a volunteer school there with financial support from the agency (AA, Feb. 13).

Chairman-CEO Cathey Finlon said the program is important during what she termed a "high-velocity time period" for the agency, which has grown from 125 people at the end of 2004 to the current 220. "We want people to stay with us," she said. "This is one of the ways to show that we're committed to their whole lives."

It remains to be seen whether agencies' policies will be influenced by a broader business world, where the idea of sabbaticals has taken off. In 2005, the Harvard Business Review, which some might consider an authority on productivity, recognized the cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson's metaphor of the "midlife atrium" as one of its breakthrough ideas of the year.

Ms. Bateson's atrium-so named because it's designed to add fresh air and sunlight to a completed house-involves workers taking time off during the middle of life.

"Burnout is taking an even greater toll on companies' productivity and morale," Ms. Bateson wrote in the Harvard Business Review. "The enemy of stagnation is challenge, the dizzying ascent into an unfamiliar space."

contributing: alice z. cuneo
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