How (And Why) To Take A Sabbatical From Work

How and why to take a sabbatical from work

Taking a sabbatical can have enormous long-term benefits, for both the individual and the employer.

Traditionally, sabbatical leave was common in the world of academia, but nowadays it is accepted, and even actively encouraged, across many different companies in many different industries.

For example, large global companies such as the Boston Consulting Group, eBay and Nike all offer paid and unpaid sabbaticals for their employees.

These companies recognise that job responsibilities often grow and grow, and people work longer and longer hours.

They also recognise that many people, whilst they may like their jobs overall, are often not really doing the things they want to be doing, or that really excite them.

It’s natural to want to get away, even if you do like your employer and your employer likes you. A short-term vacation won’t solve the longer-term problem – you need a real break.

Sabbatical Definition

The term sabbatical originally derives from the biblical term ‘Sabbath’, which has the meaning ‘day of rest’. It translates into the need to build periods of rest and rejuvenation into a lifetime.

Simply put:

A sabbatical is an extended break from the normal routine of work in order to rest, travel or pursue a personal goal.

With a sabbatical, employees can take a period of time away from their job in full agreement with their employer.

At the end of the sabbatical break, the employee has the security of returning to their normal job, on the same terms and conditions as before the break.

What is the difference between a sabbatical and a career break?

The terms ‘career break’ and ‘sabbatical’ are often used interchangeably.

They can easily be confused as meaning the same thing, as both relate to taking sustained periods of time taken out of your usual working life to do something completely different.

So, what’s the difference?

If you want to take time out from your work life but your company doesn’t support sabbatical leave, you may have to resign to get your extended break. This is the key difference between a sabbatical and a career break.

On the plus side, by resigning from your job you have total freedom to take a career break for as long as you like because you are no longer tied to the organisation.

You also have the opportunity, should you wish, to use a career break as an opportunity to try something completely new and change your career direction, without having to return to your old job after a few months.

However, unlike a sabbatical, you do not have the security of a guaranteed job to come back to once you are ready to return to work.

In summary:

A sabbatical is a more formal system, which requires agreement from your employer and offers you career security. A career break offers more freedom and flexibility, but comes with a higher degree of risk in terms of future employment.

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Why take a sabbatical?

There are many different benefits to the individual in taking a sabbatical:

  • Focus on and improve your health
  • Recover from job burnout – renew and refresh
  • Develop new skills
  • Undertake research
  • Complete a personal challenge
  • Travel and explore
  • Consider and clarify your career objectives or life purpose
  • A combination of the above

Convincing your employer

Many employers now realise that, in order to keep their best employees, they may have to allow them to take sabbatical leave for a certain period of time if that is what the employee wants to do.

The alternative – if the employer refuses a sabbatical leave request – is that the individual resigns and takes a break anyway. And that’s not a very good alternative for your employer.

In this scenario, the company has to recruit, hire, and train a new person to replace you – which is a very costly and lengthy process.

Conversely, if you take a sabbatical and return after a number of months, there is no need for any new training. Plus you come back revitalised, with a fresh perspective that can bring new and creatives ideas to your employer.

The organisation may also benefit from an employee who returns with new skills, such as a new language or a professional qualification.

If your employer supports sabbaticals, and has an existing sabbatical policy to follow, your request is a little easier.

But if your doesn’t have a formal approach to sabbaticals, you can go ahead and make your request (you don’t get if you don’t ask!), but you may need to be more convincing in your approach.

What’s in it for your employer?

When preparing to make your request, you need to prepare thoroughly, as you would for any other sales pitch or professional presentation.

You should outline what you hope to achieve during your sabbatical and how it will benefit both you and the company – your case should read like a business case, not a personal case.

Some examples include:

  • Consider visiting countries where your company has a presence. You can visit the local company too help develop your network, and to further your understanding of the wider company.
  • Consider also visiting countries where your company’s customers or suppliers are based. You could even perhaps visit them directly if that could be useful for your role. Or at least, you can learn about the local culture which may support future business engagements.
  • If you plan to learn a new skill or language, demonstrate how that could be applied in your future work to support your employer.
  • Simply resting and rejuvenating will mean you can return to work with a fresh enthusiasm, that will result in greater productivity.

If you company is going through tough times, they may actually welcome the reduction in costs by granting you an unpaid sabbatical. Consider if this is the case for your employer and use this in your case if appropriate.

Make it easy for your employer to say yes

You will also need to demonstrate how your responsibilities will covered in your absence. Your employer may be worried about things not getting done if you’re not there, so you need to alleviate those concerns.

You will need to be as specific as possible by outlining who will cover which of your usual tasks. Pay particular attention to covering any customer engagement, to reduce fears of negative impacts on customers.

You can also turn this into a positive by explaining how this will the professional development of another employee as they step up to cover for you.

Your aim here is to make it as easy as possible for your employer to agree to your request, by doing all the thinking for them in advance and showing them that there will be little or no negative impact.

If all your employer can see is a bunch of problems and headaches that will result from your sabbatical they are much less likely to approve your request.

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What to do on a sabbatical

There are a number of different things that you can do with your sabbatical break. For example, you can:

  • Simply rest and rejuvenate
  • Do volunteer work for a charity, at home or abroad
  • Complete a physical challenge, such as climbing a mountain or completing a long-distance trek
  • Learn a new language
  • Write a book
  • Develop a new skill

Whatever you decide to do it is really important to plan your time and your activities. If you don’t there is a risk that you don’t achieve what you were hoping to achieve.

How long should a sabbatical be?

The length of a sabbatical break depends very much on the individual and the company, but timescales normally range from 2 months to 1 year.

How to prepare for a sabbatical?

Once you have made the decision to take time off and have got agreement from your employer, it’s time to start planning.

Here are some of the key things you will need to attend to:

Agree your sabbatical terms

Understand the terms of your company’s sabbatical policy, including things such as maximum duration, what employee benefit continue or are suspended, what paperwork is required, and so on.


If you haven’t already, start saving money. You will need money in the bank to fund your lifestyle during your period without a regular salary from your employment. Often, the cost of living whilst on a sabbatical break is less than the normal cost of living, but you still don’t want to cut your sabbatical short due to lack of funds.

Cover your responsibilities

Make sure you have all your regular bills set up for automatic payment, directly from your account, so there is no risk of you missing something. You may also want to give someone you trust access to your bank account so they can help out if there is ever an emergency.

Rent your house

If you are using your sabbatical to travel, you may want to rent out your house whilst you’re away. This can be a great way to help cover your ongoing bills. Or, if you rent rather than own your home, you will need to agree a date with your landlord for the end of your tenancy.

Select your dates

Conform the start and end dates of your sabbatical, and commit to these. It can sometimes be easy to put off a sabbatical indefinitely, so you need to commit to a set of dates and share these with your employer, family and friends.

Update your resume

Before you start your time off, you should get your resume up to date whilst work is still fresh in your mind. Trying to update your resume when you’re looking to return to work in many months’ time can be difficult, as your previous work achievements will be a distant memory.

Get insured

Especially if you’re travelling, make sure you have the appropriate level of travel and health insurance in place so that you’re covered in the event of any unfortunate incidents on foreign soil.

Common Myths

Sabbatical Myth #1

Sabbaticals are only granted to people who’ve worked at their company for a long period of time.

Yes, some companies do have timeframes for their employers, after which a sabbatical can be granted. But sometimes it just takes a persuasive pitch to your employer in order to secure your time away.

Sabbatical Myth #2

Sabbatical activities should directly relate to your job.

What you do during your sabbatical doesn’t have to be strictly about education or training that relates directly to your work. It can be about pushing your physical or mental limits, or enhancing your creative side.

Sabbatical Myth #3

Sabbaticals are unpaid.

It can be possible to negotiate a paid sabbatical, or at least the continuation of your employee benefits during your time off. The ebook Negotiating Your Sabbatical provides advice and tips on how to negotiate a paid sabbatical with your company.

Useful Resources

Here are some recommendations for further reading: