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Sabbaticals: A Short Guide to Boosting Your Career

A growing number of companies are now offering sabbaticals for their employees.

In this article we dispel some of the myths surrounding sabbaticals, discuss the main types, and explain how to increase your chances of securing one.

Q. What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an extended break from work agreed with your employer.

The word ‘sabbatical’ derives from ‘sabbath’, the Hebrew word for the holy day of rest.

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Q. Is a sabbatical the same as a career break?

No, the specific terms of a sabbatical dictate that you are still under contract and will return to your employer. A career break infers you have resigned.

Q. Are sabbaticals paid?

The vast majority of sabbaticals are unpaid.

Paid breaks, where the employer continues to pay you are a salary while you are away from work, are more common within academia and are normally associated with research projects.

Some corporates do offer funded sabbaticals, but these are usually a reward for long service – say, 25 years.

Whoever your employer happens to be, check your contract and staff handbook to be clear about company policy.

Q. How long are sabbaticals normally?

It will depend on what your employer’s policy is and/or what you have agreed specifically with them.

Sabbaticals typically last longer than regular periods of leave – e.g. one month and upwards – and tend not to extend beyond 12 months. Three to six months is common.

Q. How long do I need to work for before I can take a sabbatical?

It can vary from company to company, but generally two years is the minimum qualifying period.

Q. What are the main reasons for taking a sabbatical?

a. Training

To develop new skills or improve existing ones. It could be directly related to your current role, complement your professional skill set or be a complete contrast.

By dedicating yourself 100% you will be able to immerse yourself fully in the experience and learn more over a shorter period of time.

The type of training you choose may influence heavily whether you are successful in securing a sabbatical.

For example, an intensive one-year MBA course may be viewed more favourably by an employer than, say, learning to be a yoga teacher. Your company may even fully fund or part fund the MBA.

That said, don’t pursue something simply because it’s more palatable to your employer if your heart is not in it. This negates most of the positive benefits a sabbatical can bring.

b. Travel

A two-week holiday doesn’t give you the time to fully experience foreign lands and different cultures.

An extended break can provide you with the necessary space to learn how other people live elsewhere in the world.

Longer durations of travel can also be combined with charity work or voluntary projects, whether you are helping dig wells in Sudan or build schools in Cambodia.

c. Change

You may have gotten into a rut at work and are feeling demotivated and disengaged. However, the thought of leaving is too daunting, undesired or you don’t know what to do instead.

In these circumstances a sabbatical can be a great way to take some time out, take stock and reflect on your career.

The break itself might be enough to reinvigorate your attitude towards your current role and give you a new and positive perspective. Or time away might give you the space to discover a new career and direction.

d. Burnout

A sabbatical can re-energise you, clears your head and gives you a new perspective and sense of purpose.

It can rejuvenate you physically, mentally or both.

For people with particular medical conditions, a sabbatical can give you the chance to recover fully.

Q. How do I ask for a sabbatical?

First of all, check your company’s policy on sabbaticals. Don’t worry if there is no specific policy. Your employer may still agree.

Raise the subject with your manager – and in private. Outline the reasons, especially the benefits, of why you are asking for a sabbatical.

Don’t just focus on the advantages a sabbatical will bring you. Emphasise the upside for your manager and employer – new skills, more worldly perspective, re-energised mindset, etc.

The more constructive your sabbatical is – i.e. the more directly connected to professional or personal development – the greater the chance it will be granted.

Be prepared to negotiate and compromise, whether this is over the timing of your sabbatical or its duration. Even if your employer has a sabbatical policy, they will be under no obligation to grant your request.

Q. What should I do if my sabbatical request is accepted?

Aside from celebrating, make sure you get the approval in writing.

Within this document the terms of your sabbatical should be made clear, including start and end dates.

Also, is their provision to return to work early? Can you extend your sabbatical beyond the original period?

Do certain benefits still apply during your sabbatical – for example, private health insurance?

It’s important to get these clarified in advance, and in writing.

Q. What should I do if my sabbatical request is turned down?

Even if your employer has a sabbatical policy, there is no guarantee your sabbatical request will be accepted.

It may simply be a bad time for your manager to lose you from the business. An important project may be underway, or suitable cover can’t be found for your role.

Also, you may not have ‘earned’ the right to a sabbatical – your attendance might be poor or your performance might be below par.

If you are turned down, you are faced with three choices:

The first is to put all thought of a sabbatical out of your mind and refocus your energy on your job. This could be hard.

The second is to wait and ask again sometime in the future hoping that circumstances change.

The third is to resign at some point soon. If what you proposed doing on your sabbatical means so much to you, this may not sound as dramatic as it does.

Q. Are there disadvantages in taking a sabbatical?

The most immediate and obvious one – unless you are lucky enough to benefit from a paid sabbatical – is a loss of earnings. Contributions to your pension are also likely to be frozen during this time.

If your employer operates a bonus scheme it’s highly likely you’ll miss out on that too.

Less direct downsides include the increased chances of being overlooked for a promotion, greater risk of being made redundant, and developing a reputation on your return for not being career motivated.

For future employment prospects there can be misconceptions that a sabbatical is just a long holiday. But concerns about a gap in your CV tend to be overplayed.

A sabbatical where you pursue professional or even personal development is not really a gap at all. Clearly communicate on your CV and during interviews the positive aspects of your sabbatical and the benefits it brought, particularly hard skills.

A career boost

In the past sabbaticals have been viewed by many employers as little more than a long holiday. This perception is changing.

If used constructively, sabbaticals can be an incredibly positive and reinvigorating experience, not just for the individual but also the employer. They can boost your career rather than set it back.

With working lives growing longer and longer, now might just be time to consider whether a sabbatical is right for you.

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Betsy Williamson
Managing Director – Executive Search & Specialist
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