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Sabbatical, part 2

So it has taken a while to get round to writing this update on my sabbatical. Where does the time go?

As Sabbatical, part 1 [see previous blog] came to a close I was running out of time and had also begun the massive challenge of disentangling my work and personal life – as I write this remains a work in progress. A lot of it done but much more work involved than initially thought and so the plan is to complete this over Easter when I have booked two weeks off.  Nevertheless it was probably one of the singly most useful things I did whilst off that will contribute to my health and wellbeing in the long run.

It turned out that a lot of the latter part of my sabbatical has the themes of ‘awards’ running through it!

I was delighted to be invited to be a judge for some local awards that recognise good work in our local community – everything from new business to volunteers.  So one evening in early September was dedicated to going through tons of entries and on the evening of the 6th October we celebrated all the winners and runners-up at a glittery black-tie dinner courtesy of one of my favourite local haunts, The Talbot Hotel, Malton.

Remaining on the theme of awards I also attended a further black-tie dinner and ceremony in London during September where I was up for ‘Charity Chief Executive’ in relation to my day-job and my good friend Rebecca Adlington, the quadruple medal Olympic swimmer and all time legend was also up for Celebrity Charity Champion (also in relation to my day job and the  Encephalitis Society).  The team at work very kindly let me out of sabbatical for the glitzy night in London.  Neither of us won but it was great to be a finalist and I was the only woman in my category, and even managed to get myself  ‘hot date’ for the evening – not bad for a middle-aged misanthrope – and thank you Freddy for stepping up!

Watching from afar I was also thrilled to see my Encephalitis Society team smash two industry awards for our digital work, bringing home trophies from the Charity Times awards for Fundraising Technology, and from the Digital Impact Awards for Best Use of Digital by a charity.

During this sabbatical I had invested heavily in my health and fitness.  At the time of writing I have now been doing Pilates for 18 months and been back on a cross training regime for a year.  I have lost 22lbs and am probably in better physical health than I have been since my 20s or 30s.  

Then as you know I departed for Sri Lanka and there is a previous blog on this to read if you are interested in my merry jaunts around that beautiful country.

As those of you who know me or who have read other parts of this blog know, I lost my beautiful “Earl The Dog” in June 2017, and I still pine for him every day.  Whilst in Sri Lanka we spotted a dog online that we liked the look of and upon arriving back in the UK we drove the two hours to where he was for a “meet and greet”!  There would be a lot of work with him but he had a loving nature and although he suffered epilepsy we felt we could take him on and we collected him the following week having been fast-tracked through selection.  The latter should have sounded my alarm bells and what followed was two weeks of absolute hell.  I am only now able to write about it and plan my next blog to be about my experience of re-homing this poor chap and the cautionary tale of working with a rehoming centre who cared little beyond getting the dogs into a home – any home.  As I say a tale for another time so please watch out for next blog post.

After the return from Sri Lanka it was really only one week until I returned to work.  At this point I think it prudent to capture some of the vocational learnings I had as part of this sabbatical.  Of course my primary aims were to rest, reinvigorate and re-motivate myself.  I also wanted to get back on top of my health and wellbeing.  At varying levels I achieved all these.

It was extremely useful to watch the charity from afar.  Areas that needed work were much easier to identify when not in the thick of the day-to-day work – and there were two glaring realities that I knew would need focus when I returned.  I also returned to work with renewed confidence.  It was clear that before I departed I would sometimes avoid those difficult conversations because I was simply tired and couldn’t face them – understandable but not really what a chief executive should be doing.  

Just before I finished my sabbatical I began some work on emotional resilience at various levels – this is a work in progress and one I hope to commit more time to this year – this will hold a busy chief exec in good stead going forward.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was the sabbatical enabled me to realise I was not as emotionally attached to the charity as I thought I was, nor as other people thought I was – this was a bit chicken and egg on reflection as I can’t work out whether I ever really was emotionally attached or whether I adopted behaviours because other people thought I was.  This is not to say I am not highly motivated and passionate about what I do, I am, but I am not unhealthily caught up in it and this was both a surprise and a relief.

So sabbaticals are a funny thing – they need heaps of planning, and heaps of communication.  For anyone thinking about taking one then some of these pointers might help:

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate with your team before you go and make sure everyone puts their expectations on the table and that you talk them through thoroughly and agree middle-ground where necessary.
  2. Having said that have your sabbatical is your sabbatical and do not take a sabbatical that is not your vision – it won’t work out if you take it to meet other people’s expectations of what your sabbatical should be.
  3. Plan your return and what that looks like before you go!
  4. Get a balance between personal and professional development.
  5. Decide what your priorities and goals are whilst off and stick to them.

More Issues than Vogue!

So there we have it – a renewed CEO post-sabbatical.  How do I know it worked for me?  In short, I am fitter, emotionally more well and robust, I am physically less tired at times when I would previously have been on my knees, I am more confident and I am very grateful to my team and my Board for allowing me this incredible opportunity.  I just don’t think people can work all their lives without having more than two weeks off at a time – if you look at it like that then it just makes sense, right?

I might still have more issues than Vogue, but I don’t care!  




Sabbatical Adventures, Part 1.

This post is about the first half of my sabbatical – what I have done and what I have learnt or achieved.

Unashamedly I am going to admit to the first month being (I am on a three-month sabbatical from my role as CEO of the Encephalitis Society) somewhat hedonistic. Not having to be up in the small hours to travel, and even when I am in the offices I am usually there before most other members of the team.  It is not unusual for me to start work at home at 06.00 – I work best in the morning you see!  I usually have dogs in my life (although not at the moment) and so I finish earlier than most in order to catch the last rays of the day walking with them.  Then it’s not unusual for me to do a bit more I the evening.  So the novelty of not having to rise at a certain time was luxury.

I did what all the books on taking a break from work tell you to do and I went away immediately, on my own, landing in Gibraltar on the 1st August!  Big fan of monkeys and I had always wanted to visit Gibraltar since I was a teenager so it made sense to me.  If felt safe there too, being just a small island.  I met the monkeys, walked the botanic gardens, visited a small animal sanctuary and visited the Great Siege Tunnels.  I was also fortunate enough to be there when they had live gigs happening for free in the evenings at Casemates Square and so I enjoyed one of my favourite past times – listening to some good music.  In fact my favourite was a local band to Gibraltar called Jetstream.  They also play the UK and if you get a chance they are worth checking out.

When I came back a week later I did some of those things around the house that never get done – the boring, but oh so satisfying stuff, like sorting out cupboards, bundling stuff off to the charity shops and so on.  I also did a lot of cooking as I love to try out new recipes.  Through a friend of ours I also got to see the band Texas in concert which was a real throwback to my days in the 80’s, and I also volunteered for the latest innovation in my home town, the Marathon du Malton which was a foodie spin on completing a 10K!  I proceeded on to London and met up with a chum to go and see Hamilton.  I was very excited about having got tickets and although innovative and clever I am sorry to say I left a little disappointed.   For me it lacked some light and shade – the music continued throughout in the same vein and it turns out that rapping can inhibit clarity in speech so at times the story was hard to follow.  I would also have liked to have seen more fusion in the dance – bringing together the traditional musical with modern day dance fitting the theme of the show such as hip-hop.  There is one group I love who do this splendidly, in their case mixing folk and hip-hop – check out the Demon Barbers if you ever get a chance!

From London I headed down to Tylney Hall Hotel for a Spa Break which was really lovely – the grounds were spectacular and being on my own the staff made a fuss of me as it was my birthday.  In normal circumstances it might appear a random place to go and why would I want to be on my own on my birthday?  However there was a reason…I was attending a memorial on the Sunday of a young man aged 17 who had died of encephalitis – it was the 10-year anniversary and having supported his parents through undoubtedly the worst time of their life, I had promised to attend despite being officially on sabbatical from the day-job.  It was so lovely to see all his friends, all now grown and in their mid-to late 20’s still wanting to come back and honour his memory with his family – I was honoured and humbled to be there.

Returning home I got to grips with a lot of ‘life-admin’.  I reviewed and assessed our pension-planning.  I had a massive clear-out of old paperwork and files from the year-dot.  I submitted an application to the Guide Dogs for the Blind to re-home one or two of their dogs that don’t make the grade.  This follows the passing of my much moved chum

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#EarlThe Dog who passed on 22nd June 2017 and for whom my heart still breaks.  I updated all those things that never get updated like LinkedIn, my research profile on ResearchGate, my CV (if my employers are reading this – its not because I’m leaving, its because I need up to date CVs for our research work!!), my twitter feed and of course, I set up this blog!  I pored a lot over whether to keep my Instagram – I barely used it and I admit to being tired of seeing various aspects of people’s bodies and apparently ‘oh-so-perfect’ lives being thrust in my face.  Lets face it we all know social media is a heavily edited version of reality, right?  In the end I decided I just use-it or lose-it.  So I have upped my game with it and am posting more than before because there were some people whose lives I genuinely did want to keep up-to-date with and moving away from Instagram would have meant that was not possible.

I submitted a synopsis to my publishers for a follow-up book to a book I wrote in 2016 called Life After Encephalitis and this is currently out for peer-review.  A further book they wanted me to write because apparently I am ‘uniquely placed to do so’ came back from peer-review with resounding reviews.  One reviewer even said they had read the synopsis and said to themselves – ‘damn, I wish I had thought of this’.  So since no-one else has thought of it and they have now formally commissioned me, we are keeping the subject matter under wraps – so watch this space!

During these first few weeks of the sabbatical I also spent some time thinking about who I am.  When you become an ‘expert’ in something – in my case, encephalitis – your own identity gets blurred and in some cases lost.  I had forgotten who Ava was and if I am honest I had fallen out of love with my personal self.  So I decided to reassess my values for this latter part of my life – what were the values that were going to be important to me going forward?  What follows are the top-six (in no particular order) by which I intend to assess my future plans and decisions:

  • Acceptance – to be open to, and accepting of myself, life, others, etc.
  • Adventure – to be adventurous; to actively seek, create, or explore novel or stimulating experiences.
  • Fitness – to maintain or improve my fitness; to look after my physical and mental health and wellbeing.
  • Self-development – to keep growing, advancing or improving in knowledge, skills, character, or life experience.
  • Kindness – to be kind, compassionate, considerate, nurturing, or caring, toward myself and others.
  • Mindfulness – to be conscious of, open to, and curious about my here and now experience.

I guess you will be able to judge for yourself how I am going with these as this blog develops and do please leave me any comments telling me about the values that are important to you, and why.  The good news is this sabbatical time has enabled me to reconnect a bit more with myself and to learn to love myself a little again – its a work in progress however I suspect!

Then I started a project that will undoubtedly be the biggest contributor to my health, well-being and work-life balance when I return to work…I began to disentangle my work world from my personal world.  This involved buying an iMac for home and beginning the epic task of transferring all my personal files (documents, videos, photos, music) off my laptop and various old laptop hard-drives to my home computer.  it might not sound a big deal but it is, and it is going to take longer than my sabbatical to sort however it will mean that when I return to work I can delete all my personal stuff and keep the laptop solely for work use.  Therefore I won’t need to open it on days off and be drawn back in to work things I didn’t get finished during the week.  I have also decided to no longer have my work email come in on my iPad when I return to work as this is something I often use in the evenings and when you see those little email notifications I become distracted and drawn back into my work world.  Of course, if one of those emails happens to be a curve ball (as is so often a case for a CEO) then a good mood can so quickly turn and as my poor, long-suffering husband could attest to, I can go from 0-60 on the Rant-richter scale very quickly, often ruining both our evenings! So I will have a computer and an iPad solely for personal use.  My phone, will, of course, continue to receive work emails, calls, social media, etc.

So where am I now – rapidly running out of sabbatical and wondering how on earth I am going to do everything else I had planned!  However in recognition of my new value of Acceptance I will try not to beat myself up and keep taking small steps towards all that I wanted to achieve, both during the sabbatical and when I return to work.

There will be a further blog about the second half of the sabbatical and no doubt other blogs in the interim.

Thanks for reading and do please leave any comments!


If you google ‘sabbatical’ the definition that pops up first is thus:

1. a period of paid leave granted to a university teacher or other worker for study or travel, traditionally one year for every seven years worked.
“she’s away on sabbatical” 

I think the concept of having a sabbatical in academic circles is relatively common and not considered out of the ordinary.  Not so for many other professions and my world – the charity/non-profit world is one of them.

The problem is that I had worked for my employer for 18 years and to put it bluntly I was knackered.  I was still motivated by my cause and also by the amazing team I had around me but I was tired and my health was suffering.

As well as a high-level and often stressful job (anyone responsible for generating money in to their charity will know what I mean) I travel a lot in my role, both in the UK and abroad.  Now the life of planes, trains and automobiles along with airports, train stations, and hotels is not all its cracked up to be.  If I had a £1 for every time someone coo’d when I said I was off to London, or Cape Town, or Barcelona…and don’t get me wrong I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities my career has offered (but I have also worked hard for it).  The reality is often far less glamorous – stressing over lost suitcases (I haven’t travelled with hold luggage now for years no matter where I go or for how long!); eating on the run (there is only so many Marks and Spencer or Waitrose sandwiches one can eat) and pining for a hot meal; beds….oh the beds! – its a hit and miss affair what type of room you will get, where it is located in the hotel (opposite the elevators is a absolute no!) and the calibre of the pillows and mattress; Noise – hotel room noise – you have a 09.00 lecture to deliver however the rest of the hotel is in hen and stag mode until the early hours; The Flight – the person in front of you wants to have their seat reclined for the entire journey and you have no room to watch the little box tv in front of you, nor hold a book to read, nor to eat food should any arrive (travelling the entire way back from Sydney like this has scarred me for life (as you will learn as you get to know me through my blog patience and tolerance are not virtues I was at the front of the queue for when they were being handed out), then there are the lovely kiddies who want to kick the back of your seat for hours.  Another issue is our penchant for iPads and other hand-held devices – and those folk among us who want to watch them without earphones – on trains, on planes, in the restaurant on the table next to you – if I wanted to watch the footy or the latest Tomb Raider then I would do so with MY EARPHONES IN – I do not need you to share your interests with me! …OK sorry I have gone in to rant mode…back to the issue of the Sabbatical!

We looked long and hard at the concept of sabbatical before formulating our policy on it – and given that the charitable sector has been in for a bit of bashing in recent years (Kid’s Company anyone? The sad death of Olive Cooke.  The more recent safeguarding scandals in large charities – I could go on and I could write a blog about it – 🤔 hmmm, perhaps I will…) we were concerned about how providing a sabbatical may be construed.  We all agreed I needed one and we also all agreed that the reputation of our charity was important too.  So we started doing our due diligence and researching options.  Fortunately the concept of leaders in charities and non-profits taking sabbaticals is not as rare in the US as it is here in the UK and we found lots of evidence to suggest not only was a sabbatical important for the individual (reflection, revival, regeneration) but also for the company – in particular in two important ways:

1. It helped in succession-planning (what were the gaps if your current leader was absent, for whatever reason) and it also provided leadership opportunities to others in the organisation.

2.  The costs associated with providing a sabbatical to a senior leader are significantly lower than the costs associated with vacant senior posts and recruitment-costs associated with filling senior roles.

Indeed in the US and Canada there are some organisations set up to provide grants to enable non-profit leaders to take sabbaticals.   The concept of taking a sabbatical even has a term – ‘creative disruption’.  If you are at all interested in more detail about looking after your staff then a great starting point is a 2009 study conducted on facilitating sabbaticals in non-profit organisations:

Having said all of this I do think sabbaticals need thoroughly researching for any organisation and a clear policy needs to be drawn up – this is an opportunity to be clear about the rationale for sabbaticals in your organisation and also provides transparency – a word that some elements of the charitable and non-profit sectors have yet to embrace.  Procedure is more problematic and having had time to reflect on the way we delivered my sabbatical then processes and procedures of delivering a sabbatical need to be tailored to, and built around, the individual in question.

In respect of the value of sabbaticals Rick Tobias, Executive Director of Toronto’s Yonge Street Mission says:

If people in the academic world need sabbaticals, I would argue that the need is higher among those working with broken and wounded people, or healthy people with high needs, such as new immigrant families.

He goes on to point to the high rates of burnout, compassion fatigue and rapid turnover among people working in these areas of the charitable sector, and believes that sabbaticals are effective at combatting this burnout.

Now some of you may still be sceptical about sabbaticals in the charity/non-profit sector or indeed about the need for sabbaticals at all.  So this bit is for you…

In January I had a routine check-up with my doctor.  My heart was tachycardic (over 100 beats per minute) and we established I was operating like this a good deal of the time.  My resting heart rate even when asleep was still in the 80’s and so I was bundled off for an urgent cardiology appointment…turns out I wasn’t yet about to drop off my perch but this was a real wake-up call for me that has resulted in not only the sabbatical, but a will to lose some weight and get fitter – all three of which you will be pleased to hear I am on with.  For those of you who need hard-evidence below is a screen shot from my Fitbit which shows my resting heart rate in the month before my sabbatical (on the left) and my resting heart rate half-way through my sabbatical (on the right).

I am not suggesting the sabbatical and my absence from working life is solely responsible for the dramatic reduction in my resting heart rate in only six-weeks but I am arguing that the reduction in stress and the TIME to dedicate to myself, my fitness and my body IS responsible, and so ladies and gentlemen I leave you with the concept of The Sabbatical.

My next post will be soon and about what I have been doing on my sabbatical!