People and Culture

A South America Sabbatical: The Secret to Employee Wellbeing and High Performance

There’s plenty of research to suggest that looking after employees improves engagement, motivation and productivity, reduces turnover and helps attract talent.

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The word ‘sabbatical’ has its origins in agriculture. Farmers fallowing fields were expected to take a year-long break from working the fields every seven years. These days, a sabbatical means an extended period of leave from your career. But for many, taking a sabbatical leave requires a significant sacrifice that they usually can’t afford. 

But by adopting a flexible and individual approach, sabbaticals can deliver significant long-term benefits for employees and employers as the story of Jörg Sitte, Business Development Director at Zühlke Germany, who spent three months travelling across South America, reveals.

To some employers, work-life balance measures such as duvet days, break-out sessions, free meditation app subscriptions, onsite gyms or even a sabbatical leave, might seem gratuitous, until you consider the benefits of investing in employee wellbeing.

There’s plenty of research to suggest that looking after employees improves engagement, motivation and productivity, reduces turnover and helps attract talent.

For Jörg Sitte, a Business Development Director at Zühlke, work-life balance means fine-tuning a juggling act between the demands of work, his personal life and time for himself. The secret to his success? Prioritising.

“You can’t do everything, it’s your individual responsibility to set a limit and prioritise what’s most important,” he says.

But what does he do when he feels the scales tipping off balance?

Living in Munich, with the Alps just an hour’s drive away, nature is on Jörg’s doorstep. To unwind, he spends evenings and weekends driving out to the lakes and mountains to hike or to meet friends. He also appreciates Zühlke’s commitment to supporting a balanced lifestyle.

“If you have too much work, ask your colleagues for help and they’ll support you. And conversely, if your colleague is struggling, you'll do your best to support him,” he says. “Asking for help isn’t considered a weakness here.”

A well prepared break

So, when Jörg and his wife decided they wanted to take a sabbatical leave to go to South America for three months, Zühlke was happy to accommodate, despite Jörg’s seniority in the company. 

For many years, they dreamt of travelling around South America. Jörg’s wife had spent her childhood in Bogota and longed to return, but finding the right moment was difficult. The demands of their lives, looking after children and building a home left little time for globetrotting. But, finally, they reached a point where they had the freedom to travel for an extended period. The children had left home, and the couple had no immediate responsibilities tying them to Munich. Not knowing when the next opportunity might arise, they decided to act.  

Jörg made Zühlke aware of his plans six months ahead of the trip, so they could plan for his absence well in advance. To ensure a smooth handover, he delegated work to colleagues, ensuring each one understood the customer they were taking care of, and he tied up all loose ends before heading to South America.

Jumping into the adventure

When they arrived in Columbia, the pair had a place to stay for two nights, but nothing else planned. They travelled as they pleased, taking inspiration from other travellers and staying a while longer whenever they chanced upon somewhere truly special. A lover of the outdoors, Jörg found himself at home among the wide variety of climates, landscapes, and wildlife of South America.

They spent two months travelling through the mountains, exploring the coastlines of Colombia and the Amazon jungle. They lived among indigenous communities in the rainforest. The couple even learned to salsa and spent a night at Cali’s largest salsa club. The revellers moved so quickly it was hard to keep up, but they laughed and danced all night.

Bird in the jungle
Salsa Dancing

During their third month, they left for Ecuador to explore the western Andean range with its rich biodiversity and volcanic sites. Then on to the Galapagos Islands, where they experienced the island’s many enchantments as they explored forests of guava trees and wandered through cactus lowlands. 

The experience left an impression on Jörg, one that he’ll likely remember for the rest of his life.“

It was a truly enriching adventure. Travelling is really mind opening and to experience all these different cultures and live with indigenous people in their homes was just wonderful,” says Jörg.

Fruit market
Cactus lowlands

But are such programmes really viable when it comes to business? 

What’s clear is that the logistics of a sabbatical leave require advanced planning. Not to mention trust in your colleagues, something the culture at Zühlke fosters. 

Jörg believes this kind of flexibility improves employee retention and yields untold benefits. Reflecting on his own experience, he remarks that he returned to his work with renewed vigour and an appreciation of Zühlke’s commitment to work-life balance.  

At Zühlke, we believe the benefits of a sabbatical leave almost certainly outweigh any initial inconvenience. But costs aside, our employees are human individuals, and like all humans they perform better when they’re given the chance to rest. Most of all, we want to invest in our employees, to help realise their potential for innovation, creativity and top performance. At the end of the day, we believe in a fundamentally human approach. We want our employees to know that we value and appreciate them, as that’s the greatest motivation of all.

Contact person for Germany

Jörg Sitte

Director Business Development, Germany

As Director Business Development, Jörg Sitte is responsible for business development in the mechanical/plant engineering and MedTech sectors in Southern Germany. He is intensively involved in IoT and digitalisation projects as well as all the disciplines required for these projects, such as software (embedded, cloud and apps), electronics, sensor technology and mechanics/construction. He is convinced that the competitiveness of companies is increasingly determined by a successful digitalisation strategy. 

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