What to know before taking a sabbatical

With careful planning and preparation, a sabbatical could be exactly what your career needs

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On a purely hypothetical level, taking a sabbatical from work sounds like an appealing idea. Then reality sets in as you consider the logistical hurdles. Can you afford to take an extended unpaid leave from work? Would your boss even let you? What would you do during your time away? Would it be worth it?

A sabbatical from work is not something to be taken lightly. As freeing as a spur-of-the-moment decision sounds, without careful planning and preparation, taking a leave of absence can cause more problems than it’s worth. The good news, though, is that asking questions like the ones above — and seeking practical, honest answers — is a good first step. If you’re willing to put in the time, thought, and effort, a sabbatical could be exactly what your career needs.

What is a sabbatical?

The term “sabbatical” comes from the Hebrew word “shabbat” (or “sabbath”), meaning “rest.” Traditionally, it refers to a period of paid leave granted to a university professor, usually one year for every seven worked. However, in recent years, the concept has expanded to include both paid and unpaid leave across a variety of professions. Often sabbaticals are used to study or travel, either for professional or personal growth.

In theory, at least, a sabbatical is different from a simple vacation. It is more purposeful and lasts longer than the typical vacation. Many companies have a formal policy for sabbaticals that dictate how much time you can take, explain whether your pay and benefits are suspended during that time, and allow you to return to your job at the end.

Taking a sabbatical from work

If you think you might be interested in taking a sabbatical, you should start by doing some research. Learning the answers to some basic questions will help you make the right decision.

Who can take a sabbatical?

Anyone whose company allows it can take a sabbatical. Find out whether your company has a pre-existing policy and see who qualifies for sabbatical leave under it. Many companies require you to have worked there for several years before allowing a sabbatical. They might also specify how many weeks you are allowed to take off.

If your company does not have a sabbatical policy, you may still be able to take one — you just aren’t guaranteed the right to. In this case, you will have to come up with a proposal yourself and take it to your boss for approval. Of course, even if you are denied sabbatical leave, you can still take a career break. However, you may have to resign, which means your job won’t be waiting for you when you get back.

Another important consideration is whether you can afford a sabbatical. Unless your company offers paid sabbatical leave or you plan to use accrued vacation days, you will have to fund your trip yourself. You also need to find out how a sabbatical will affect your benefits, including your health insurance and pension. Take the time to calculate what bills you will continue paying during your sabbatical, as well as how much money you will need for expenses related to any activities you have planned (e.g., tuition or travel expenses).

Is taking a sabbatical a good idea?

When employers offer sabbaticals, they expect that both they and their employees will reap certain benefits. Employees can use the break to recharge, continue their education, learn a new skill, or undertake new experiences—all of which will make them better employees when they return to work. Offering sabbatical leave also helps companies attract and retain high-quality, long-term employees. The company demonstrates how much it values its employees and that it understands the importance of work-life balance.

If you simply feel fed up with your job, a sabbatical might not be the best idea. In that case, you may not be addressing the real problem. Take some time to figure out why you want a break. How do you feel about your job, and what is contributing to negative feelings? A sabbatical might change you, but it won’t fix any actual issues you have with the company, your coworkers, or your job responsibilities.

A sabbatical may be a good idea in the following situations:

  • You used to love going to work every day, but lately you feel burnt out.
  • You want to take some continuing education classes or earn a new certification.
  • You are working on a graduate degree and need some time to focus on your thesis.
  • You need a break after a busy season of life, such as after finishing your doctorate while working full time.
  • You have a lifelong goal you want to fulfill or a bucket-list item you’d like to cross off.

In the most basic terms, a sabbatical tends to work best when you are running towards something — even if that something is simply rest — rather than away from something. Your sabbatical plans don’t have to be directly tied to your career, either. Personal fulfillment often leads to professional advancement, even if your experiences during sabbatical have nothing to do with your job.

Before you take a sabbatical

Once you’ve decided to take a sabbatical, you have a lot of planning to do. You need to come up with a solid plan and set your affairs in order.

Consider your reasons

The first thing you need to do is decide why you want to take a sabbatical. What do you hope to accomplish? Will a sabbatical actually help you achieve your goal? These questions need to be taken seriously. If you go on sabbatical for the wrong reason, you can easily find yourself right back where you started when you return.

A sabbatical may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so make the most of it. Ask yourself big, open-ended questions. If you could take a few weeks and do anything — without having to worry about financial and professional repercussions — what would you do? What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do but never had the time or money for? What kind of story would you like to be telling your kids (or grandkids) this time next year? Once you have a clear goal in mind, you can work towards making it a reality.

Take care of business

Next, you need to take care of all the little administrative details that make a sabbatical possible. Talk things over with your employer and figure out who will take over your workload while you’re gone. If you have clients, you may need to inform them of your upcoming absence and let them know what to expect while you’re gone. You may also need to train a temporary replacement.

If your employer doesn’t offer sabbatical leave, you will need to pitch the idea to your boss. When you do, choose your words carefully. You want your job to be waiting for you when you come back, so you need to explain how your sabbatical will benefit your employer and avoid saying anything negative about your job. Instead, focus on the positive aspects.

Plan your time away

For your sabbatical to be a true success, you need to plan your time away. You don’t need an hourly itinerary, but you do need to know roughly where you’ll be, what you’ll be doing, and how long you’ll be gone. If possible, it’s best to keep your employer up-to-date throughout the entire process (even while you’re gone) so they can plan accordingly.

You also need to address your finances. Find out whether your sabbatical will be paid or unpaid leave. Start a savings account or lay the groundwork for some side income, such as from a website or rental property. Finalize your plans — whether that means booking a plane ticket or signing up for a graduate course — and work out a budget. Take a look at your regular monthly expenses and decide which bills you’ll still need to pay and which you can put on hold, then figure out how you’ll pay for everything.

The idea of taking several weeks, months, or even an entire year away from work can be daunting — especially in our work-driven society, where employees are often made to feel guilty about taking a single sick day. However, this mindset is exactly what makes a sabbatical so rewarding. Breaks are important for your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Rather than derailing your career, a sabbatical can actually be a stepping stone to personal and professional growth. It’s up to you to make the most of it.

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