Keeping your job during a mid-career break might seem farfetched. But taking a sabbatical from work is possible, whether you want to pursue new projects or enjoy life outside of your career.
Sabbatical leaves are months-long breaks from a job. They’re more common in academia, where a professor might take time off from teaching duties to research a new book or upgrade their skills. And according to one survey, paid and unpaid sabbatical benefits have become more popular between 2016 and 2021.
In fact, most organizations thrive more when employees take breaks. Sabbaticals benefit both the individual and the employer. They offer growth opportunities and the chance to learn new skills, which can make you a better employee.
Taking a long period of time off also has perks for your personal life — cross items off your bucket list or rest from a high-pressure job. Even if it’s not common practice in your industry, you can still start a conversation about long-term time off.
But first, you must learn what a sabbatical is and how to take a sabbatical from work.
What’s a sabbatical?
A sabbatical is an extended break from a job, separate from vacation time or other types of leave. They’re usually offered to employees after working for a company for a set period of time — university professors, for example, usually don’t qualify until they’ve worked at a university for 5–7 years.
You can go on a sabbatical to work on your mental health, pursue education or research opportunities, or spend time with family. Many also use this time to travel.
The average sabbatical is around eight months. It could also last two weeks, two years, and anything in between, depending on why you’re taking it.
Sabbatical programs are relatively rare in company policy. They require extensive planning and foresight. But if you’re set on taking an extended break from work and don’t want to leave your current position, there are ways to talk to your employer, explain your reasoning, and take a formal sabbatical.
Reasons to take a sabbatical
Job satisfaction: Being in a position for a long time, even one that you like, can lead to mental fatigue. In general, people who take breaks are happier with their jobs. An extended break can renew enthusiasm and bolster energy upon your return.
Self-discovery: A sabbatical is a great way to explore who you are outside of work and better yourself. You could learn a new language or extracurricular skill. Learning new things improves neuroplasticity, and neuroplasticity improves your memory and mood.
A true break: Taking a career break at 30, 40, or 50 is sometimes this simple: work is overwhelming, and you need to step away. Regardless of how we feel about our work and workplaces, sometimes we just need to ask for time off, and a sabbatical is one way to do it.
Settling into new responsibilities, like parenting or caregiving, might also demand that we take some time to find balance.
New projects: Many people use sabbaticals to pursue career development. In academia, this sabbatical may involve taking courses, writing a book, or publishing a new piece of research. In other industries, professional development could include getting a certification or learning new skills.
Volunteer work: If a social cause speaks to you, you could take a sabbatical to start volunteering. Taking a break from work is one thing, but using your time to contribute to the world can be rewarding.
Remember that taking a vacation, sabbatical, or stress leave aren’t the same. While you may take a sabbatical leave or career break to avoid burnout, stress leaves tend to happen when you’re already experiencing severe strain.
Asking for a sabbatical
If your employer has a sabbatical policy as part of their employee benefits, check with your supervisor or HR department to formally request a sabbatical. If they don’t have a formal policy, they may still be open to granting a sabbatical if there are solid reasons behind the request.
When planning a sabbatical and approaching a supervisor to request one, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Set an objective: The first question to consider is why you want to take a sabbatical. Communicate your needs formally in a letter or official request. Letting an employer know your reasons for taking a sabbatical will help them understand that it might be the right choice for you.
Consider your career: Extended leave from a job may combat burnout, but it’s a good idea to consider whether this career gap will affect your position. If taking a sabbatical will reflect poorly on you or stunt your career growth, vacation time might be a better choice.
Choose your dates: If you work a high-demand job or one where other people are relying on you, try not to leave at a difficult or inconvenient time. Propose dates that won’t be too disruptive, if possible.
Planning ahead means you can find people to cover your projects months before they need to. How long your sabbatical can be likely depends on your company policy, but aim for several months to allow yourself proper rest.
Organize your finances: Not all sabbaticals are paid, so give yourself an economic cushion to support the time off. Taking a sabbatical involves planning ahead to avoid financial stress. Set a few financial goals, like saving some extra income, to relieve some pressure.
Be flexible: When requesting a sabbatical, keep in mind that it may not align with the company’s current needs. Stay open and let your employer know you’re ready to have a conversation about what’s best for both of you.
Even if a sabbatical is an employee benefit where you work, getting one when and how you want it isn’t guaranteed. All parties involved need to collaborate and create a plan.
What to do when you leave
Once your employer approves a sabbatical, plan what that time off will look like. Regardless of your goals, plan to stay on good terms with your employer, and communicate with everyone involved throughout the process.
Have everything in writing: Keep a sabbatical agreement in an easily accessible document for you and your employer. Write clear terms about the length of the break, the projected return date, and any other facets of the sabbatical — even if it’s decided in an email exchange.
A written document ensures that everyone is, quite literally, on the same page.
Check-in: Many people who take sabbaticals want to get away from their workplace. But depending on the purpose of the leave, your employer may want to keep in touch. Let them know what kind of communication you’re comfortable with. This can make it easier to transition back into a job.
Stay sharp: Keeping up to speed on skills and developments in a workplace will help you return smoothly when your sabbatical is over. Don’t forget to outline these updates in your communication agreement.
Depending on the industry and the length of the leave, things can change dramatically, and you don’t want to feel lost.
Sort tasks: Before leaving, finish your assignments and ensure other projects will be taken care of while you’re gone. Communicate what tasks someone needs to cover and let your employer know who’s doing what.
What if my employer doesn’t let me take a sabbatical?
Even if you do everything right, your employer might say no, depending on the circumstances and your place in the company. If this happens, don’t despair or quit your job. They might be open to a shorter leave or one that begins on a different date. This is why keeping an open line of communication is key.
Only some employers offer sabbaticals, paid or unpaid. Those that don’t have a formal policy might still recognize that working full-time is difficult and can eventually affect your well-being.
If a sabbatical seems necessary to maintain your health or explore other interests, it’s worth the time and effort to explore other leave options.
You deserve a break
No matter how long a sabbatical is, taking one can be a life-changing experience. It can improve your work-life balance and help provide a respite from the hustle and bustle of work. Even a one-month sabbatical can offer personal and professional growth you can’t get from two weeks off.
Ask your employer how to take a sabbatical from work. Workplace flexibility isn’t possible for everyone, but it’s always worth asking about. Get out of your comfort zone and start a conversation with your employer. The benefits might surprise you.