DETROIT -- Chris Barman realized she had crossed a boundary one evening this year when she was sitting in the family room with her husband and children. Everyone was watching TV, so Barman, then head of system and component engineering at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, flipped open her laptop to do some work, just as she usually did.
Then she got a surprise.
She says her son looked straight at her "and said, 'Don't do that.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Don't open your computer. Don't do that tonight.' And I thought that's kind of a sign that I've gone a little bit too far and there are some things we needed to scale back."
So Barman took action. She asked FCA for a sabbatical so she could reconnect with her family. It's something more companies seem willing to do these days -- allow time off to restore work-life balance.
Barman began her sabbatical in June and was due to return Nov. 2.
"In the whole big scheme of life, my kids are never going to be 14 and 16 again," says Barman, 44. "We're never going to have this time, and I really wanted to dedicate and give them focused time. It's not fair to them. So we're going to take some time off. We're going to spend it together. I want them to know that they are a priority."
For Chantel Lenard at Ford Motor Co., the realization she needed some time off work didn't come in a single moment. When she returned to the U.S. after two and a half years leading Ford Motor Co. marketing in its Asia-Pacific and Africa regions, Lenard says she was "totally worn out." While based in Shanghai, Lenard co-led a team comprising 1,000 people in 11 markets spanning 13 time zones. The assignment "required an incredible amount of stamina," she says.
Lenard says she saw very little of her daughters during her China assignment. "I was in the office from 7 a.m. till 7 at night so I left while they were asleep and then I came home and got on phone calls from 7 until midnight five days a week," says Lenard, now 46 and director of U.S. marketing.
When she returned to the Detroit area, the exhausted Lenard decided she needed to ask the company for a break. The negotiations were ticklish.
"They asked me, 'How much would you like?' I said, 'How about a year?' They said, 'How about a month?' We arrived at six months, which in the end was a perfect amount of time," Lenard says.
Asked whether anyone was worried she might not return, Lenard says: "I think there was a concern on their side. Why is she doing this? Is she going to look for another job? I kept hearing from people: 'You're going to be so bored.' I was never bored."
Lenard says the time flew by and she made maximum use of it.
"In that six months, I got to know those other moms in the classrooms. ... By forming those friendships, even though I'm not there as much now, I can count on those other women to tell me what's going on" at her daughters' school.
"It allowed me to recharge and reconnect with my daughters, to make some connections in the community. At a certain point we should give everyone a chance to do that."
Was Lenard concerned about coming back from a lengthy layoff to a new, high-profile job? "There was some concern," she says. "To put me in a high-profile job like the one I'm in now says a lot, too, for other people that might be concerned about taking that risk. Hopefully I sent the message that it's OK. It didn't kill my career. It's been really good."
FCA's Barman, who returned to work Nov. 2 as vice president of engineering, says her relationships with her children have deepened during the time off.
"It's been amazing; we've had a lot of good time together. We've had a lot of good conversation on topics they have questions about."
Barman says she has mixed feelings going back to work, which she loves. But she knows the time off was worthwhile.
"Based on the time we've spent together I know our relationship is stronger and that we have a great solid foundation going forward."