- Ellen Wong is a naturopathic doctor with her own practice in Toronto, Ontario.
- Before taking a three-month sabbatical this year, she took many steps to prepare her business.
- She hired help to cover for her, anticipated legal challenges, and prepared social-media content.
With the Great Resignation, the backlash of the Great Regret, and the momentum-gaining “quiet quitting,” employees are seeking ways to manage work-life boundaries and protect themselves from burning out.
But small-business owners and entrepreneurs face a different dilemma — how do you “quiet quit” when you’re running your own business and your livelihood depends on it?
Rather than closing down or quitting, it may be better to take a break. I’m a naturopathic doctor with my own practice in Toronto, Ontario, who’s been practicing for more than a decade, and taking an “entrepreneurial sabbatical” has given me the time I’ve needed to reflect on my trajectory, improve my mental well-being, and create the space I needed to feel happier and at peace again.
There’s a risk of losing current or new clients in the process, but I decided if I continued down the path toward burnout, my inability to provide the type of care and service to my customers would also result in the loss of clients, and maybe worse, my entire business.
There’s a systematic approach to preparing for a sabbatical. Putting the necessary components in place means a guilt-free experience, no customer backlash, and the ability to keep your business running — or even growing — while enjoying a much-needed break.
You first need to decide how much time you want to take off. Ask yourself how long you want to be on vacation, but don’t get into the weeds of how that can happen yet. Once you have an answer, if you can, double it, because the answer you first land on is probably the minimum. Doubling it is probably closer to what you want and what your body actually needs.
The longest vacation I’d ever taken before my sabbatical was five weeks for my honeymoon. I remember coming home from that feeling rejuvenated, excited, and rested. I was also able to do a lot of pondering and planning for the future during that time.
Reflecting on that time away, I knew that I wanted my sabbatical to be at least five weeks. This time though, I had to account for the fact that I’m more tired than I was back then and I have a toddler (who will inevitably require my attention, which means less pondering time for me). I doubled the time and rounded it up to three months, planning to start my sabbatical in July 2022 and go back to work in October.
Next, consider your budget. Based on how much time you want to take off, decide if you need to hire an additional contractor or increase the hours of someone on your team. I decided I needed to hire an assistant.
Consider the minimum expenses to cover your business operations. These include contractors, employees, or services (email automation, subscriptions, etc). You’ll also need to take into account your living expenses during the time that you’re off. I recommend adding a little extra buffer, so you can outsource or delegate if something comes up.
Your product or service
Get clear on what services or products can continue to be provided while you’re gone, and by whom. For example, if you run a coaching program, can you bring in guest speakers? If you have a physical product, can you outsource your fulfillment process? If you provide a service, can you set up an agreement with a trusted member of your field whom you can send your clients to?
For existing customers, I reached out to colleagues and asked if they would be willing to take on a patient if needed. I also communicated with patients and clients directly so they knew what to expect and whom to contact. Clearly communicate to your current customers whom they can contact for support.
If you’re a regulated service provider, check with your regulatory board for steps that have to be taken before and when you return from a sabbatical. For me, I had to ensure continuity of care, which meant that my patients needed to know either how to get a hold of me if needed or someone they could reach out to who would have access to their medical information and be able to provide a similar level of care.
Consider anything else that needs your attention during the time you’ll be gone, such as renewing contracts. If possible, take care of these before you leave.
Sales and marketing
You can still generate leads and even convert prospects on sabbatical. Continue running ads and posting on social media. Use scheduling platforms like Facebook’s Creator Studio or hire a social-media manager. Yes, your engagement may dip — mine dropped by about 30% — but being active is better than not posting at all.
Once I got back to work, I dedicated a bit more time to social media and things went back to normal fairly quickly. Make sure your lead-generation and nurture funnel are created. You can even set up and automate a “return to work” promotion before you leave.
Systems and operations
For many entrepreneurs and small-business owners, this can be the most limiting factor. Many of the operational aspects of your business might be living inside your mind. Going on a sabbatical is a great opportunity to outline and clean these up.
When hiring additional help prior to my sabbatical, I dedicated time to standardizing (identifying key tasks and creating standard operating procedures, or SOPs) and systemizing (how often and when the SOPs need to be acted upon) my business.
One of the first tasks for my new assistant was to go through videos I recorded about my business operations and turn them into SOPs. Transcription software like Descript can be used to extract the content out of videos. My assistant and I also worked through areas she didn’t understand or felt could be improved. It meant that when I returned from my sabbatical, I had an even more efficient business than before I left.
In the 3 months of my sabbatical, I freed up mental space to do ‘big picture thinking‘ about my business and the direction I wanted to take it
The biggest benefit in taking a sabbatical is that you’ll get clarity around certain areas of your business and identify ones that can be improved, delegated, or outsourced.
It’s really hard to work on your business if you’re always working in your business. Spending extended quality time with my daughter and husband was a game-changer for my mental health and sense of happiness.
The spark to go back to work has returned — this time with fresh perspectives and a renewed sense of energy and purpose. I’d chosen to go back to work at the same intensity as I did before and wasn’t fully prepared for how fast I needed to get back into things. In hindsight, it might’ve been a better transition if I had chosen to take 10 weeks fully off, then eased back in slowly for two weeks.
Because the large majority of my business income comes from one-to-one patient care, I generated significantly less income while I was away. However, because I had a self-directed online program available, the income generated from that was enough to cover the business expenses.