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How to navigate a work sabbatical so it helps (not hurts) your career

By Real Simple
May 16, 2021 • 6 minute read

A professional sabbatical could be exactly what you need to return refreshed and recharged. Here’s what it means and how to ask for it.

After a particularly stressful period at your job—maybe the busiest season of the year or following a big company-wide change—you may feel burnt out and depleted. You could take a vacation and attempt to disconnect from your email, but sometimes a long weekend or week isn’t enough to provide the recharge you crave—and need!—for your mental health. Instead, you might consider taking a work sabbatical. Since these aren’t standard practices (yet), it may take some negotiation to convince your employer, but sabbatical leave can offer many benefits, including decreased turnover and increased creativity.

Here, a 101 guide from career experts on taking a work sabbatical, and ultimately using it to enrich your life and career—instead of having it set you back professionally.

What is a work sabbatical?

A work sabbatical is defined as an opportunity to take a company-approved break from your regular work duties, explains Jamie J. Johnson, MS, CCC, a career advisor atThe University of Phoenix. There are many iterations on this concept. While some people take the time to travel or take a course, others may decide to research a side gig. Regardless of what avenue you’re considering, Johnson says the purpose of a work sabbatical is to allow you the opportunity to recharge, renew, and pursue personal interests. It’s an additional benefit to vacation time or personal leave.

“Employers who offer work sabbaticals seek to increase employee retention and inspire creativity among its staff,” Johnson explains. “This workplace benefit can build morale and provide employees the opportunity of personal and professional growth that can increase creativity and productivity in the workplace.”

Though in the best-case scenario, you’ll be paid your current salary during a sabbatical, some companies offer unpaid leave and/or a reduced rate, like 80 percent of your typical take-home pay.

How long is a typical work sabbatical?

The length of time for sabbatical leave can vary depending on the organization, but typically, they last anywhere from one to six months, says entrepreneur and influencer Elise Armitage. As a solid example, FacebookPayPalAdobe, and Charles Schwab all allow and encourage employees to take a 30-day paid sabbatical every five years they’re at the company.

Why are sabbaticals becoming more popular?

It’s no surprise that Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen Y, and Gen X have vastly different approaches to work. The under-45 workforce values work and life balance and is more likely to stick with a company if they offer flexible hours and solutions, instead of the standard 9-to-5 cubicle routine. Since many younger workers prioritize wellness, sabbaticals are a way for employers to implement their dedication to mental and physical health, says Magalie René, an executive coach and motivational speaker.

This benefits the company as well, as René says that, for one, it could help reduce employee turnover. “Past generations remained at the same organization for a lifetime, but as the tenure of employees has shortened, companies have become more amenable to sabbaticals as a means to retain employees and encourage them to remain on board long-term.”

The pandemic may be another reason employers could experience an uptick in sabbatical requests. During this time, many professionals have had to balance longer hours as well as more idle time (thanks to reduced social life) to think about their passions and purpose, says Amanda Augustine, a career expert for TopResume. “There will likely be many out there who’d welcome a sabbatical to dedicate their time fully to some of the initiatives or interests they began to dabble in over the past year,” she says. Plus, since many have been unable to travel for over a year, she says it would be unsurprising to learn that people are itching to book extended trips to new destinations as soon as it’s safe and feasible.

Navigating a Work Sabbatical

If you want to explore the concept of a sabbatical with your employer, it’s essential to understand what you’re hoping to get out of this time away from work and how to make it a seamless process for you and your employer.

Decide how you want to spend the time.

During the first week of your sabbatical, you might thoroughly enjoy sleeping in, binge-watching Netflix, and actually having time to finish the personal to-do list you’ve put off. However, not moving for a month (or three) likely isn’t the best use of your time, and may not leave you feeling as refreshed as you think when you head back to the office.

Instead, Augustine suggests deciding how exactly you’ll spend the time. Some ideas include:

  • Travel. Once it’s more accessible to country-hop again, a sabbatical could be your opportunity to take that trip around the world you’ve always fantasized about. You can map out the journey on your own, or join work-remote programs like Remote Year, to share the road with other like-minded explorers.
  • Train. Maybe running a marathon or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro has always been on your bucket list—but you’ve never had the time to prep your body for a feat of endurance. “Your sabbatical could be used as your chance to do some intensive training or make some of these athletic feats a reality,” Augustine says. Just make sure you know how much time it will take, so you set yourself up for success.
  • Learn. For lifelong learners who enjoyed school, not being in the classroom can put a damper on your productivity and creativity. Whether you’ve been thinking about learning to code, or you want to master photo and video editing, a sabbatical can be a time to dive into a new skill. “Consider taking off some time to study for the GMATs, complete your education, learn how to speak Italian, or pursue a micro-credential or other course of study that’s of interest,” Augustine suggests. “Look into various programs to find the one that best suits your needs. This will also help you determine how long of a sabbatical you’d need to take to complete your learning.”
  • Create. One way to enrich your mind and return to work rejuvenated is to put all of those visions in your head onto paper or a canvas. It could be writing a book, painting your masterpiece or another creative outlet, Augustine says. A sabbatical can provide the disconnect you’ve needed to tune in to another part of your brain.
  • Hustle. Do you have an idea for a side hustle that you’ve never had a chance to develop into something more? Or have you considered a career change but never had the time or headspace to determine if it’s the right choice? “Dedicate your sabbatical to giving your side hustle the focus it deserves so you can discover if you could turn it into a full-time career,” Augustine says.

Offer a concrete plan.

When you’re ready to move forward with your sabbatical goals, René recommends developing a detailed and thought-out plan that covers all bases and reassures your employer. These could be options for how your deliverables and responsibilities might be handled while you’re gone, as well as why the sabbatical will be beneficial to the company in the long run. “Prioritize the needs of the business and offer solutions for the project expectations of your job roles,” she continues. “This proves that you’re a team player, shows your commitment to both your goals and the company’s, and reinforces your intention to return to the position.”

Since the heart of a sabbatical is the need for personal time, you approach the planning with honesty and vulnerability. “If you’ve established a healthy relationship with your manager, this will create connection and allow you to be seen and supported, particularly if your reason for taking a sabbatical surrounds mental health,” René adds.

Involve your manager early.

Once you know the goal of your sabbatical and have a plan in mind, it’s time to speak with your manager. Rather than waiting a month before you intend to begin your time away from work, try to give as much notice as possible. This allows time for negotiations, discussions and approvals, particularly if you work for a larger organization.

As Johnson explains, it could be helpful to work closely with your manager to ensure the length of time off, and that the dates align with your department’s and company’s policies and requirements. You could also identify ways the sabbatical could create possible projects or programs that benefit employees. Johnson shares one idea to keep a journal to record your activities and learnings from the leave. “Discuss with your manager how you can incorporate your learning objectives as part of your performance plan,” she says. “Make this an opportunity to instill and create new career goals and plans; let this be a time to discover new professional growth opportunities.”

Arm yourself with data.

From reduced turnover to rejuvenated employees, work sabbaticals benefit employers, as well, Augustine reminds. But if you don’t gather this information, it can be tricky to convince your employer that your sabbatical is in everyone’s best interest. It could also help to make your case if you do some research and discover the company’s competitors offer a sabbatical benefit to their employees.

Be mindful of finances and timing.

If your employer does approve your sabbatical but can’t pay your full salary or nothing at all, you’ll need to have a financial plan for making ends meet. Before heading into the discussion, audit your savings to understand how much time you can afford to take off, so you can share that information with your employer, Armitage recommends. It’s also worth exploring how they’ll handle your health insurance, and if you’ll need to pay for it out of pocket.

Armitage says to consider the best timing for both you and the company. “If you’re an accountant and tax season is the busiest time of year for you, taking a few months off for a sabbatical in the spring probably isn’t going to fly,” she continues. “On the other hand, if your vision for your sabbatical is to spend three months living in Bali, you may want to choose months outside of the rainy season, from December to January.”

Reinforce your commitment to the company.

Employers will always worry that a sabbatical could persuade you to leave the organization. And while that’s a possibility, if you love your job and merely need a break, Armitage says to be clear about your commitment. “Allowing you to go on a sabbatical for a month or two is much easier than you feeling unhappy, leaving the company and your manager has to find a replacement and train them,” she continues. “Let them know that you’ll be excited to return to your job after your sabbatical, feeling energized, refreshed, and ready to work.”