What is a Sabbatical? Your Guide
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An extended break from work can be a welcome change of pace for workers. But what is a sabbatical? Sabbatical leave can give you time to develop your skills, broaden your horizons, or just recover from years of the daily grind!

Whatever your field, there are serious benefits to taking time away from work – and employers are starting to catch on. Sabbatical leave is increasingly available to long-term employees, with over a sixth of employers offering sabbatical in 2018.

In the long term, a little time away from your desk can improve not only your skills, but also your satisfaction in your role. If you’ve been in the same place for a while, it might just be time to ask your boss about sabbatical leave. But how can you bring it up, and how can you maximize the odds of getting a yes?

In this article, we’ll cover the following points:

  • What a sabbatical actually is
  • Why you might want to take a sabbatical
  • How to ask for a sabbatical
  • What you can do with a sabbatical
  • Returning to work after a sabbatical

What’s a Sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a period of time spent away from work. While on sabbatical, a worker is still considered to be employed, and they are usually paid as normal. That means when it comes time to build your resume, you can include your sabbatical time as time employed, rather than having to include a resume gap. The idea is that an employee on sabbatical can use their time to rest, write, learn new skills, or develop as a person.

Sabbaticals have their origins in academic work. They were originally offered to scholars and professors every seven years to give them a break from their teaching responsibilities. While on sabbatical, they would take the time to read, write, research, and develop their thinking – all with a view to doing better work on their return.

Though they aren’t exactly universal, sabbaticals have spread from academia into other fields of work. In companies where sabbatical leave is available, it’s usually offered to employees after they’ve worked for at least five years within the company (though there isn’t a legal standard for how long an employee should work to access sabbatical leave). It can last anywhere between four weeks and a year, so that the employee can get the most out of their time away.

While sabbaticals have some similarities with vacations, they aren’t the same. Vacations tend to be shorter, as paid time off work under normal circumstances is usually limited – and they’re usually taken with recreational purposes in mind. A sabbatical is all about recovery and personal development, so workplaces are inclined to allow extra time for sabbatical leave.

Why Take a Sabbatical?

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many workers exhausted. Even before the pandemic, burnout was becoming a recognized phenomenon in the workplace, with nearly 80% of respondants to a Deloitte survey saying they’ve experienced burnout in their current role. Often, a two-week vacation simply isn’t enough to counteract the cumulative effects of burnout and stress.

That’s where the sabbatical comes in. Most private companies offer sabbaticals of at least four weeks, which – while a far cry from the year-long sabbaticals available in academia – means more time to rest and regain some equilibrium.

Even if you aren’t struggling with workplace stress, a sabbatical can be a great way to refresh your relationship with your job. Getting out of the office and focusing on what you love outside of work can leave you feeling happier and more fulfilled when it’s time to come back. You can return to your role with a newfound motivation, and perhaps even a new interest or hobby.

Lastly, sabbatical leave offers a unique opportunity for you to focus on your personal development. Whether you’re taking a class, volunteering for a cause, or working on your mental wellbeing, you’ll bring your new skills and experience back to the office with you at the end of your time away. That’s worth its weight in gold for you and your employer alike.

Asking for a Sabbatical

If you’ve decided that sabbatical leave is right for you, you will need to think about how to ask your employer for some time away.

Asking for anything in the workplace needs to be well thought out, and sabbatical leave is no exception. Before you set up a meeting with your boss to discuss the possibility of leave, here are some things you will need to consider. Go in prepared, and you’ll be on your way in no time!

Know the Policy

Your workplace may not have a policy on sabbatical leave. If that’s the case, don’t let it deter you; you can still ask! But if there is a policy in place, it’s important to know what it is and how it might affect your sabbatical plans.

For example, you will need to know whether your employer offers paid sabbatical leave. It may be that they will only offer to pay you part of your regular salary, or that they won’t offer payment at all. Your access to a regular income could have a real impact on your sabbatical plans, so don’t forget to check!

You should also be clear on whether your employer will require you to do something specific with your sabbatical. If you’re imagining a four-week rest and recovery break, but your employer is only prepared to offer sabbatical leave if you use it to volunteer, you may need to find a way to compromise.

Lastly, make absolutely sure that you qualify for sabbatical leave in the first place. If you haven’t been employed at your company for long enough, or if there are other factors set out in the policy that could affect your chances of being offered sabbatical leave, you may need to rethink your plan.

Have a Plan

Once you’ve established your workplace’s sabbatical leave policy, you’ll need to think about how you plan to use your time away from work.

You don’t have to be too specific, at this stage. All you need to do is give your employer a sense of what you plan to do with your sabbatical. That way, you’ll be able to prove how it can benefit both you and your employer.

Think about the skills you could develop, the experience you could gain, and the way your wellbeing could benefit. As with any negotiation, the goal is to present a clear case for the positive outcomes of your plan. To get you started, here are just a few of the ways employers can benefit from offering sabbatical leave:

  • Improved employee retention
  • Improved employee wellbeing and motivation
  • Opportunities for employee development
  • Opportunities to train other employees

Be Prepared for Transition

Keep in mind that if you do take sabbatical leave, the work you do will still need to get done. That’s a potential sticking point for your employer, so it’s worth considering well in advance.

When you ask for sabbatical leave, make sure you’ve thought about who could act up and cover your work. You could even offer to train or mentor them before you leave, to maximize business continuity. If you can frame your sabbatical as an opportunity for another employee to learn and develop, it may be an easier sell for your boss.

This is also a prime opportunity to ensure that your succession plan is up to date. Make sure any documentation related to your role can be updated before you take your sabbatical, so anyone who covers you has an easy point of reference if they need it. This is good practice even if sabbatical isn’t on the table, but regardless, your manager might appreciate sabbatical as a way to stress-test your business continuity planning.

Showing that you’ve considered all of these things is likely to put your manager at ease. It’s a sign of your long-term commitment to the role, and an indicator that you’re taking your proposed sabbatical seriously.

What to Do On Your Sabbatical

So you’ve been offered sabbatical leave – congratulations! What now?

If you’re not sure how to make the most of your sabbatical, we’ve got your back. Here are a few things you could do with your time away, and how they could benefit you in the longer term.

Volunteer

Volunteering is one of the most popular ways to spend time while on sabbatical. Without the rigid structure of your 9 to 5, you can commit to more involved volunteer projects and get more out of the experience.

If you find a project or cause you’re passionate about, it can be a great way to immerse yourself in a new community. It’s also a smart way to develop new or existing skills – the work you take on as a volunteer can give your resume a serious boost, just like the skills you learn at a regular job.

Plus, it feels good to do something worthwhile. If your motivation at work has been flagging, a volunteer project could be the antidote to burnout that you’ve been looking for – it will keep you from stagnating, offer you new friendships and connections, and give you the satisfaction of having done something meaningful with your time.

Skill Up

This one stands to reason – honing your existing skills and learning new things is a great way to use your time away from the office. The career benefits alone will make it worth your while.

But outside of work, learning a new skill can be a way to boost your mental health. Proving to yourself that you can pick up something new feels great. You’ll also find that the learning process gives your time some structure and shape, which is also proven to help keep your mental health on an even keel.

The skill you learn doesn’t have to be work-related, either! Consider learning a new language, taking a coding class, or learning how to do something with your hands. While new skills will give you the edge when job searching or angling for a promotion, that’s not the whole point – the point is using your brain, enjoying the learning process, and appreciating what you’re capable of when you try.

Pursue a Passion

Have you always wanted to write a book? What about learning an instrument, or visiting a country you’ve never seen before? Sabbatical could be the perfect opportunity to follow a long-held dream.

This can obviously overlap with skill-building. By committing to a passion project, you’re already developing your project management skills; likewise, anything you learn in the process of following your bliss can be applied elsewhere in future.

But ultimately, this is about your motivation and your happiness. If the job you’re in right now isn’t necessarily your dream role, a sabbatical can give you room to pursue what truly makes you happy. That joy will follow you back to work, and it may even give you the perspective you need to make changes to your life and routine.

Recuperate

It might sound like a waste of time, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using your sabbatical leave to rest and recover.

There’s no denying that work can be draining, particularly if it’s not the job you dreamed of when you were younger. Taking time to recuperate now might save you from the slippery slope of burnout later on. Remember, a break you’ve chosen to take is always more fulfilling than a break that’s become a necessity.

It’s also important to note that resting isn’t the same as ‘doing nothing.’ A rest can also be a period of reflection, and a way to get some perspective on why you need to be resting in the first place. Your period of downtime could give you space to reflect on how to avoid the need for further downtime in the future.

That insight is something you can take back to work and use to improve your wellbeing. Talk to your manager or HR department about what will help you feel better in the workplace – it could pay dividends.

Returning to Work After Your Sabbatical

Coming back to work after a sabbatical can be a shock to the system. Depending on how long you’ve been away, you might feel as though you’ve lost sight of who you are and what you can offer at work. And even after a shorter break, readjusting to the norms of the office can be demanding, too.

We’ve written in more detail about how to manage a return to work, and we recommend checking that out if you’re worried about going back. Make sure you talk to your employer before you’re due to go back, so you can establish a plan, talk about mutual expectations, and ensure that all your needs are taken care of on your return.

A phased or graduated return to work can be a way to ease your transition back into your role. It can also be helpful for the team members who have covered your work – you’ll be able to work closely with them to pass that responsibility back to you.

Lastly, remember to be confident! Your time away has taught you new skills, shaken you out of your regular routine, and given you space to develop as a worker and a person. Don’t be embarrassed about it – go back to the office with your head held high, and think of how impressed your colleagues will be to hear about what you’ve achieved.

Waverly March

Written By

Waverly March

Content Writer + Resume Expert

Waverly is a freelance writer, former HR officer and current international traveller. They believe in doing your research, showing up prepared, and bringing your passions with you to work. They've helped countless job seekers create better resumes and cover letters to improve and grow their careers.

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