Everything you need to know about taking a sabbatical from work

sabbatical leave

If you’re like me, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “sabbatical” is academia. In the movies and in real life, college professors take off for a semester or longer every few years to work on research or even teach on a different campus. They always come back and step right back into their role on their home campus. 

Since I started working, I began to see the concept of a sabbatical reach past campuses and into professional roles. A graphic designer friend of mine took two sabbaticals in the last five years to spend more time in their community, including with their immediate family. Another friend working in corporate America sought approval for a prolonged absence to recover from stress and burnout. They each relayed positive experiences. The limited research available on sabbaticals corroborates their feelings. In a qualitative research study of 51 individuals from sectors including “social service, consulting, design, finance, entrepreneurship,

medicine and government,” participants showed a significant shift in their personal and professional identity after taking a sabbatical. In essence, participants reached a peak life experience through sabbatical, one that brought more positivity into their approach to life, and in turn, their approach to work.

Sabbaticals are no longer just for tweed-wearing classics professors working on their next book. They’ve become a perk – outside of vacation time, family, or parental leave – at companies in a number of industries. Still, the concept of asking for an extended period of time off of work and, gasp, getting paid for that time, is a big obstacle for most of us. To better understand sabbaticals, if they’re right for you, and how best to approach the big ask with your manager and company leaders, we put together this guide to walk you through the process. 

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a planned extended leave from your regular work duties. It’s not classified as vacation or medical leave, but rather a time to devote to personal and professional growth opportunities. During this time, you might take a course, check an item off your bucket list, travel, or simply recharge after an intense season of life.

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To gauge whether a sabbatical makes sense for you over other types of leave, ask yourself why you want to go on sabbatical. Did your company just wrap up a major acquisition or project stage that took more time from you than normal? Is your daily workload keeping you from gaining knowledge and new skills relevant to your role? Have you taken a vacation and found it did little to alleviate stress from life and work?

It’s important to drill down to the root of your reasoning. It will help you define goals for your time off, but it can also help steer you toward a more appropriate type of leave like family or medical. A sabbatical can provide mental and physical health benefits, but it is typically not the main goal. A medical leave does prioritize mental and/or physical health and is defined differently from sabbaticals under employment laws. It’s always best to consult your medical professional if you’re trying to determine what kind of leave makes sense for you.

How to take a sabbatical from work

You found a graduate course fit for your line of work. You see the light at the end of the major project tunnel. You made your travel must-do list. Whatever your plan, you need time to execute. An extended break would be perfect. To make this sabbatical leave a success, there are a few steps to take before you even approach your manager. You want a well-defined plan for your time-off, but you also need to consider how your sabbatical fits in with your company’s plans and goals.

Research your company policy

Start by consulting your employee handbook or human resources to find any information about your company’s sabbatical policy. It’s common for companies to offer sabbaticals when you’ve been working there for a certain number of years. I’ve heard of five years of service required at a tech company and ten required at a finance institution. Depending on your company policy on tenure, you may need to adjust when you take leave. You may also use it as a reference point for negotiating earlier access to the benefit. 

Aside from eligibility, the other crucial component is whether or not your company offers unpaid or paid sabbaticals. They may even offer a hybrid option where the first four weeks are paid and any length of time beyond that is unpaid. Whatever your company’s policy, use it as a guide to define your own sabbatical and don’t let a current policy stop you from making a great pitch for time off. Even with demonstrated benefits, one survey from 2018 showed only 10% of companies surveyed offered unpaid sabbatical leave and 5% offered paid leave. The working world is different now as more companies offer sabbaticals in one form or another – opening the door to make a great pitch for your own leave.

Map out your sabbatical

Based on your company’s policy, map out what you want for your leave. Determine your top goal or goals for your leave. Are you looking for more professional development? Do you plan to take an extended vacation to a part of the world you always wanted to see? Write out these goals and use them as a reference point in the rest of your planning.

Next, define your ideal length of time – a semester to complete a course, six months to hike the Appalachian Trail, two months to take on a side gig, or something else. It’s also important to consider what might change if you need to negotiate and offer to take less time off.

With your goals and timeline together, calculate any benefits to your company. Maybe the course will expand your capabilities in a way your company finds beneficial. This time off may also help bring a renewed sense of positivity and productivity to your team, which can then uplift the company as a whole. 

The last step of mapping your sabbatical is to determine how to keep regular check-ins during leave. A class may have well-defined progress markers, but a bucket list trip may not. Depending on how you spend your time, find an accountability buddy to check in with along the way or commit to keeping a journal to write down your day-to-day activities. The purpose of mindfully checking in – with a friend or on paper – is to help you stay on track to meet your goals. 

Plan your pitch

Even if your company has a formal policy, it’s crucial to prepare a pitch. Properly presenting your request for sabbatical can help squash hesitation and offer your manager a clear sense of what will happen during your leave and when you return. 

Make sure to carefully define how your company benefits from your sabbatical in addition to laying out your timeline, goals, and expectations upon return.

Prepare to negotiate

As part of planning your pitch, you should know what you’ll say if your manager comes back with a “no,” “not right now,” or “maybe” answer. What are some things you’re willing to compromise on your sabbatical to make it happen? Prepare questions to ask that address concerns if your manager is hesitant about your plan. For example, you can ask them what a successful sabbatical would look for them – if your own definition isn’t matching their expectations. You can also ask them specifically how your sabbatical could be a win for them. Maybe it’s a matter of adjusting the length of time or even postponing it to a different part of the year. You might even consider a little practice to make the most of your personality traits best for negotiating.

Take the sabbatical

You’ve made your plan and received approval from your manager. Now it’s time to take off. As you prepare, make sure you’ve completed the administrative tasks of an extended absence. Your manager likely signed off on a plan to delegate your work to co-workers, but it’s up to you to make sure that plan is complete before you leave. An out-of-office document that lists any tasks or projects you’ve handled – that aren’t already in the team project management app – can help you mentally gather everything you touch on a day-to-day basis and offer a reference point for your co-workers. 

Plan to keep your manager informed during your sabbatical. This keeps communication open during an extended absence and helps keep you informed of what’s happening in the office while you’re out. This information can prove invaluable as you transition back into work after a sabbatical. 

Conclusion 

In only the last two years, many workers went through feelings of employment insecurity to feeling confident in asking for what they need. The working world has gone from pandemic to the Great Resignation on a dime leaving a lot of us workers tired, but empowered. Sabbaticals are not new perks, but they found a perfect moment to offer both employees and managers long-lasting benefits. 

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that everyone could benefit from a sabbatical at least once in their career. The potential for growth – both personally and professionally – is a huge draw. There is also a lot to gain in terms of mental well-being and productivity that comes with an extended period of time off work. Whether you’re chasing an exciting post-graduate course in a picturesque English town or, like me, seeking two months of freedom from work while recovering from a death in the family, sabbaticals offer an opportunity to step outside the culture of constant work and find how you fit into the rest of the world.

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