3 ways to handle the time after a sabbatical

Longterm-traveling doesn’t make you come back the same person you were before you left, that’s for sure. It changes one unnoticeably yet drastically, actually. It may come as a shock for the returned traveler when noticing that nothing and no one has changed in his home town. But it’s also difficult for those who had waited for him to deal with his enriched identity.

Keep in mind that even parents get a list of advices for their kids’ return when they are planing on doing a highschool year abroad. One thing they are told is that they should expect their kid having changed upon their return to home.
In a year away from family, friends, and colleagues, this traveler or student has to organize his time abroad totally independently all of a sudden. More than that, they have to organize everything without someone else telling them what to do or giving “orders”. This person becomes very independet, and in many cases very disciplined, too. When they come back home, they actually don’t “need” the help or supervision anymore because they have learned to get by and get their shit done all by themselves. They have learned to act responsibly (even more when we speak of adults taking a gap year from work).
Parents welcoming back their child from that highschool year abroad are often shocked and overwhelmed with that situation. Naturally they were used to treat their children like children in need to be still nurtured.
In a working environment this kind of clash can happen in a similar way.

I am glad to have been approached by a friend and colleague who leads a team in our big company. One of his team will be doing a sabbatical as well. My friend asked me how it felt for me when I came back. While I was telling him about my experience, the conversation moved more towards the question how my colleagues have dealt with my return.
Intercultural and human understanding became more and more important in this regard. Which is why I have written down some of my experiences along with some advices for both: for the returnee and for those who stayed.

How to be prepared for the “returnee”:

  • Their Changed Personality
    Personality A:
    If that person was used to be known as a sweet and humble one, be prepared to meet this person with a certain independence and determination in things that seem to be unwelcomed by those who have stayed in same place, and the same position for that entire period of time.
    While the returnee might have been a “Yeasayer” before, it’s possible to suddenly have confrontations in which he/she might have a strong opinion about something they don’t want to hide. Meaning that they want to be true to themselves and not say things just to please others. It might come as a shocking surprise to his old new environment.
    Not being used to this person’s newly gained attitude it’s easy to judge about it as an uncooperative or inappropriate behavior on any level you’re interacting with them.
    But if the colleagues put an effort to look behind the curtains, they could find that actually everything changed into something good. The returnee came back stronger. He/she are recharegd with a new drive, new point of views, with which they can bring new perspectives into the team and their friendships. Habitual problems could be seen differently and solutions can be found no one ever thought of.
    This new personality can actually be inspiring for everyone.
    Embrace it and try to profit from it (in a reasonable way).
    Personality B:
    If the returned traveler used to be stressed out easily before and constantly moaning about everything, not being able to be optimistic, don’t be afraid of a repetition of that pattern.
    If you secretly hoped they wouldn’t come back because you want to avoid that kind of negativity it’s understandable. But don’t worry: They definitely won’t come back as they were before. They have become different people. In a good way. They have become richer in their personality experiencing so many different cultures and traveling independently, they have seen real problems, so that they won’t even think of complaining about daily problems at home or at the office. They were forced to make decisions all the time without anyone telling them what to do. Deciding the next step on your travel can be stressful, people tend to underestimate that, believe me. To keep the stress (for whatever) away they have to find measures totally on their own to stay cool.
    It helps not only the returnee but yourself, too, to welcome them with an open mind, not expecting them to be the same annoying person anymore. Allow yourself to get surprised by a good turn, and again, take it in as an inspiration.
  • They’re easy going
    It’s perhaps hard to imagine, but give it a try: If you were traveling for a whole year without having worked in any fast-paced company during that time, without the rules that usually companies or family/friendship structures impose on you (such as working hours, asking for permission for something, etc.), how would you feel coming back to that kind of pattern?
    A one-year-traveler has to get rid of this life pattern in the beginning of his journey and probably comes back with a free mind and a soul full of self-determination. This person isn’t used to obey anymore. It doesn’t mean that this person has lost his team spirit. It just means that your colleague and friend has become more independent from others and has learned to get his shit done without having to follow any rules. They have learned to be responsible for themselves in their own way.
    This is why they might not let themselves get stressed out easily by projects and clients.
    The behaviour that triggers work mates the most is: If their work can be done in less than 8 hours, they won’t like to “waste” the rest of the time in the office as they are used to arrange their time independently with other things to do. Even though this behaviour is not right on a professional level because it’s not played by the rules, it’s not bad intention towards their colleagues. It just takes time to get used to heteronomy. Give them some time to get adjusted.
  • They seem arrogant
    Just because they don’t tell you much about their gap-year, doesn’t mean that they don’t want to. They probably just don’t know where to start. To recapitulate one entire year is not that easy. Also, please consider that maybe they are considerate enough to not make you envious.
    Just because they have had such an exceptional and at the same time educational year, it doesn’t mean that they feel being a BETTER person than you. Or MORE open-minded than you. Or MORE educated than you. The opposite is the case. They know that no one is perfect. With no exception everybody is flawed. The easiest way to cope with it, is to accept it (if you can’t change it). And on the bright side, this attitude allows you to be true to yourself hoping that it is contagious, at least for not being judged all the time (by mostly jealous people by the way).
    This knowledge makes them want to spread this liberating state of mind into their environment and to share their journey. Try asking them some questions about it, and you will see how they will open up as soon as you signal them that you’re not jealous and actually OK with it.
    An open communication is the key here.

Help re-integrate recap:
As mentioned above, getting adjusted to a less self-determined life is going to be very difficult for the returnee. He or she will be mourning that kind of lifestyle. Everyone is probably able to relate to that. Try to be open to help them re-integrate themselves by not jumping to conclusions. Everybody deserves the benefit of the doubt.
And there’s nothing better than having the chance to learn something from it. Consider it as a chance for you to change perspective and grow, too.

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