[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post was submitted by Dr. Gayle Galletta, an Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, the mother of three teenagers, and an 11-time Ironman triathlete. Her solution to physician burnout was a sabbatical with her family in Norway. We have no financial relationship.]
I had always regretted not taking a study abroad year and mastering a foreign language while in college. After practicing Emergency Medicine for twelve years, I finally decided to do something about it. I took a sabbatical. The year was 2012, and I was getting burned out, primarily from drug-seeking patients. My stay-at-home Norwegian husband and I packed up our three children, ages 8, 9, and 10 at the time, and moved to Norway for a sabbatical. There was a lot of planning involved, but it was well worth the effort.
Taking the Leap
Curing my burnout by taking a sabbatical wasn’t my first course of action. I initially proposed to my boss that I would go down to 0.25 FTE, working two weeks every two months. This was rejected due to fear that my colleagues would want the same, which would make staffing more cumbersome. Instead, I was granted a one-year, unpaid leave of absence.
Saving for a Sabbatical Year
We saved up enough cash for one year of living expenses in Norway. I had paid off my student loans within a couple of years out of residency. We had a reasonable mortgage on our primary home and owned two duplexes. We were fortunate to find a family relocating from Australia that rented our home, inclusive of our two dogs and minivan. A real estate agent acquaintance was hired to manage the duplexes. The rental income was enough to cover our mortgage in the US plus the rent on the modest home that we rented in Norway. We sold one of our cars in the US and used that money toward purchasing a car in Norway. My individual disability insurance, that I had purchased at the end of residency, was portable and gave me peace of mind while I was biking, skiing and traveling around Europe. My husband and children are all dual citizens and I was residing in Norway on a student visa, so our health insurance and expenses were covered by Norway, where healthcare is considered a basic human right. Since we were living on a fixed income, we set up a budget for the first time ever and cut costs where we could, like cutting the kids’ hair ourselves.
The Sabbatical Experience
Our children went to elementary school where my husband had grown up, and I became fluent in Norwegian by attending adult language classes with immigrants from around the globe. Six months into my sabbatical, I flew back to the US to work 10 shifts with a locum tenens company to refill the coffers and keep up my skills. Shortly after returning to Norway, I was unexpectedly hired to lead a pilot project staffing Norway’s largest emergency department with attending physicians to supervise the residents. My one-year sabbatical had now become two. I converted my student visa to a work visa and renewed our tenant’s lease back in the US. My husband also needed a project and bought an antique Italian wooden Riva motorboat to restore.
During the year I worked on this pilot project in Norway, I utilized my newly obtained Norwegian language skills and learned about the inner workings of single-payer medicine. There was no malpractice insurance to pay since there is already a system in place to financially support patients who have been injured or have poor outcomes. I paid Norwegian taxes. There are no 401(k)s nor 529s, as retirement and education are also covered by the state.
Although my pilot project ended after one year, we had set the stage for emergency medicine to become a recognized specialty in Norway; a goal that was achieved in 2017. My husband’s boat is restored and has won “best in show” at three separate events around Europe. We traveled around Europe during school vacations which, in addition to creating priceless memories, resulted in my son acing a pop quiz on European geography upon repatriation to the US. And I may have hit the jackpot with my decision to take an unpaid sabbatical, as my oldest is now a senior in high school and hoping to attend university in Norway next year, which is tuition-free.
When I finally returned to the US after two years abroad, my previous job was no longer available. I took a position an hour from my home and learned first-hand about contract management groups. My contract was bought and sold twice in the span of 18 months. As soon as a position opened, I returned to my prior place of employment where I have remained ever since.
My Biggest Regret
My biggest regret was not doing Roth conversions. I received a salary once I started working in Norway, but it was about 1/3 of what I earn in the US. I should have used those two years with lower income to do Roth IRA conversions while I was in a lower tax bracket. I had been so focused on not running out of money, that I squandered an opportunity to grow my tax-free retirement savings. I had also been offered a lucrative real estate investment a few months prior to my sabbatical. I turned it down because it would have involved taking on debt and increasing stress. In retrospect, it was the wrong decision, but there was no way that I could have known that at the time. Hindsight is 20/20.
Lessons Learned from My Sabbatical
Taking a sabbatical can reduce burnout and help rekindle one’s passion for medicine. In order to do this, however, you have to have all of your financial ducks in a row.
- Eliminate any debt that you may have, including student loans.
- Have a steady stream of income, such as real estate, or save up enough money to live on.
- I initially took my sabbatical time as a “practice run” for retirement. Prior to starting work in Norway, I did Pinterest-like things, like picking wild, edible mushrooms and making homemade gingerbread houses. I learned that I am not psychologically ready for retirement yet.
- You must also be willing to take a risk. Moving outside of your comfort zone will help you grow.
- Have a goal to accomplish during this time such as learning a language, experiencing a culture, slow travel, or writing a book. Do not squander this amazing opportunity that you have worked so hard to create.
- Document your journey via blogging, photographs, or a journal and inspire others.
Prior to embarking upon my sabbatical, a colleague had warned me that I would be taking a career risk by leaving my stable academic position. Now, each time I renew my state medical license, I must explain any gaps of more than three months in my employment history. But I write this explanation with fond memories. My sabbatical provided me with a unique experience that helped to create my niche within emergency medicine. I returned home with a renewed passion for my career, unforgettable family memories, and a beautiful boat.
Have you taken a sabbatical to reduce burnout or as a “practice run” for retirement? What did you learn? What would you do differently next time? Comment below!
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