What is a sabbatical? Take time out from your job in 2020

By Anna Brech

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What does a sabbatical mean? Here’s everything you need to know about taking time out from work for personal development

In an age where we work longer and harder than ever before, the idea of pressing pause on the grind is tempting indeed. But what does it really mean to take a sabbatical?

Arranging an extended period of time away from full-time employment takes careful planning. You need to save up enough money to cover yourself, and arrange to use your break in a way that makes it meaningful. Not to mention getting permission from your boss to take sabbatical leave, and planning all the details.

Yet, the working world is changing. Employers are more receptive to the concept of work-life balance, and taking a sabbatical is often seen as a sign of verve and proactivity. Taking a career break is your chance to press reset and fire up your creativity – you may even learn a new skill and change careers completely.

Here’s everything you need to know about taking a sabbatical in 2020:

What is a sabbatical?

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First things first: what does sabbatical mean? A sabbatical is a period of time away from work. When you take sabbatical leave, you pause your job for several months or a year to focus on other projects, before returning again to full-time employment. A sabbatical from work is agreed in advance with your employer, who will keep your job open for you on your return. Sabbatical leave is typically used for personal development, travel, voluntary work or simply as an opportunity to take time out and reflect. A sabbatical is also known as a career break or a grown-up gap year.

How long is a sabbatical? 

A sabbatical can last anything from three months to a year. The length of a sabbatical depends on how much money you have, what you plan to do with your time and what terms you have agreed with your employer. Around four months is a typical length for a sabbatical, and more than a year is rare – not only for the money involved, but also the logistics of job cover while you’re away.

Do you get paid on sabbatical?

It’s quite rare to be paid on sabbatical. Many people self-fund their sabbatical time by budgeting and saving enough cash to cover their day-to-day costs, along with the loss of their salary. In this case, their employer will pause their salary and associated benefits for the period covering the sabbatical leave.

However, some companies do have policies in place for paid, or partly paid, sabbatical leave. This often takes the form of a job benefit that employees can access after a certain number of years in service at a company. A paid sabbatical may involve volunteer work with a charity or foundation that your company has partnered with. Or it may be entirely free time that you can use as you choose.

Paid sabbatical leave typically lasts around one to three months, and can usually only be accessed a set amount of times (say, every three years at the same company). 

How to take a sabbatical year

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There are two stages to taking sabbatical leave, and they overlap with one another. You need to get approval from your work to take sabbatical leave. And you also need to prepare and plan what you will do, and how you will pay for it.

It’s worth doing some preliminary research around your sabbatical (what you will do, and for how long) before you approach your work; but equally your plan cannot fully take shape until you’ve negotiated time out with your line manager or boss. Remember, it’s worth starting as early as you can, to give yourself plenty of room to plan and save.

How to request a sabbatical from work

Any plan for taking a sabbatical requires the support and cooperation of your boss: and that’s easier said than done. Here’s how to negotiate sabbatical leave with your work:

1 – Check your company policy on taking a sabbatical

Start by checking with HR to see if your company has a policy on taking sabbaticals. If they do, this will form the basis of your negotiations.

2 – Go in with a plan and be purposeful

Before you meet with your boss to request time off, it’s crucial that you have a clear idea of how long you’ll be off and what you want to do. Taking a sabbatical can be disruptive for employers: they may have to arrange cover, or work out how to hand over projects you’re working on for the period of time you want off. So, you need to have a strong argument in place. It’s not enough to be vague, or simply ask for time out. 

How can your employer benefit from you taking a sabbatical? Maybe you can use the time off to develop a new skill set, such as learning a language, that will help your company grow in a new direction.  Even if you’re just planning to travel, you can make the case for how fresh energy and perspective will boost your job performance.

It’s not all one-sided, either. With more and more companies recognising the need for a better work-life balance, many employers are now more open to the benefits of taking time out. Approving a sabbatical also allows businesses to motivate and retain key talent: no small thing in a fickle job climate. 

3 – Be confident and present solutions

Like any negotiation, you should go in confident and strong when asking for sabbatical leave. Anticipate and meet any hassle that taking a break might create, by presenting your boss with a series of solutions. For example, who will cover your work while you’re away? Maybe this is an opportunity for an ambitious junior colleague to step up into the role and flex their skills. The more you can preempt any problems, the stronger your case will be.

Be prepared to compromise. Unless your company has a set policy in place, there’s no guarantee that your request for a sabbatical will be approved. You may have to be flexible in terms of the amount of time you take off, or when you take it. Bear in mind that your boss will probably need some time to consider your request, too. It’s a good idea to craft a follow-up email outlining key points, but don’t push your case too much – give your employer the space they need to make a decision.

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4 – Give plenty of notice and be mindful of timing

Timing is key when it comes to taking a sabbatical. You need to plan well ahead in asking for leave – ideally, at least six months before your intended departure date. This will allow you and your employer plenty of breathing space to prepare and handover your work.

Also, be strategic about when you take your sabbatical. Try and time it at a point of natural pause in your workflow, e.g. at the end of an important deadline or launch. If your work is always full-on, at least aim to avoid taking a sabbatical during a major project that you’re heavily involved in. Getting your timing right shows your employer that you are being responsible and intentional with your sabbatical request. 

 5 – Get it in writing and stay in touch

Make sure you get any agreement for sabbatical leave in writing. In a perfect world, this will take the form of a contract that’s approved by your boss and HR department. Anything less formal means you’re not fully protected when it comes to returning to your job. No matter what reassurances your boss gives, a lot can change in six months, so you need to ensure you’re covered.

Then, when you’re away, don’t be a stranger to your team. You don’t need to tune in every day (that would defy the point of a sabbatical) but you can send regular updates and photos, so that you don’t disappear completely – tempting as the thought may be.

Also, offer to be available to deal with urgent requests if needed: even if you can’t respond straight away. Plan re-handover meeting a few weeks before your return date, read up on industry news and book in for any relevant training to make sure your skills are fresh. Be as proactive as possible in handling a smooth transition. 

Find out more on why your boss may say “yes” to a career break.

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How to prepare for a sabbatical

You need to get the outline of your sabbatical in place before you request permission from work. Then, assuming you get approval, you need to start fleshing out the details. Saving money will be a major part of this process. Here’s how to tackle everything:

1 – Work out what you want to achieve

People take sabbatical leave for many different reasons. Below are some common motivations. Working out what you want to achieve with your sabbatical will help determine where you go and what you do. You may well choose a combination of these reasons, or have others of your own to add to the mix.

Find headspace: You might want a break after a particularly hectic year, and a chance to focus your attention on something other than work. A sabbatical is a great opportunity to switch gears, and recharge your batteries.

Learn new skills: Taking a sabbatical gives you the time and space to expand your skill set, whether you’re learning to snowboard in Banff or volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Myanmar.

Gain fresh perspective: Travelling the world, or volunteering, allows you to switch up your perspective – and this is especially helpful if you tend to become over-invested in your job. It’s a chance to step away and discover new things about yourself, outside the context of work.

Expand your career: Taking a sabbatical may be a chance to develop your career in a new direction, for example by completing a PHD, or enrolling on a year-long creative writing course.

Press reset: You might be at a crossroads in your career: you don’t hate your job, but you wonder whether there’s something else out there. Sabbatical leave lets you pursue that instinct.

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2 – Do your research in detail

Once you’ve worked out why you want to take a sabbatical, it’s time to draw up a plan of what you will do. You’ll find more in the „what to do on sabbatical leave“ section below, but the main thing is to really do your homework. There are so many options out there, it’s worth taking your time to decide how to make the most of your sabbatical opportunity. Put a few evenings a week aside to work on this as an exciting side-project, and consult your friends and family along the way. The more research you do at this stage, the better the experience will be.

3 – How to save money for a sabbatical

Taking a sabbatical requires savvy financial planning and some serious penny-pinching, but it can be done. First, work out a grand total that will cover your entire sabbatical. Account for everything from big costs (flights, course fees) right down to the details (everyday food and transport costs) and allow leftover room for a few extras. This sum – your escape fee, if you like – will dictate how much you need to save, and for how long (another good reason to plan well ahead). 

Any attempt to budget involves some amount of sacrifice, so next, you need to work out where you can cut back. Take a long hard look at your spending: you’ll be amazed how much you can save just by getting rid of luxuries such as your daily latte or gym subscription fee. Costly nights out and restaurant meals are also likely take a backseat while you save: but just imagine the Colombian beach views you’ll get in return.

Your mortgage or rent will take up a big chunk of monthly outgoings: how can you negate this cost? Maybe you can take on a roommate, move back home, or rent out your home while you travel. You can also raise money on the side, by eBaying your wardrobe or taking on an evening freelance job. And don’t forget you can make money as you travel, too, either through a permanent position (say, being an au pair in Paris), remote working (negotiate to work part-time for your company) or with casual, on-the-go jobs.

Find out more on how to fund an adventure

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4 – Make your bookings (but leave room for spontaneity) 

Once you have a sabbatical plan in place and are making good progress with saving money, it’s time to nail down the details. Book your flights, courses, homestays: now’s the point to finalise any and all the major elements of your sabbatical leave.

It’s always a good idea to leave a little flex room when you do this. If you’re teaching English in Kathmandu, for example, factor in a few extra weeks at the beginning and end of your stay. This will give you time to get to know your setting and hang out with the friends you’ve made post-placement. If you’re travelling between place to place, give yourself some extra leg room in-between stops. Some of the best things that happen on the road are unexpected, so avoid the mistake of over-scheduling.

5 – Take care of last-minute logistics

If you’re going away for any period of time for your sabbatical, you’re going to need to tick off a few last-minute essentials.

Home – Who’s looking after your home when you’re away? Leave instructions for mail/plants/security etc., or prep your space if you have a lodger moving in. Give your neighbours a spare set of keys for emergencies.

Money – Cancel all home bills and subscriptions that you don’t need. Let your bank know that you are travelling, and sort a good credit card without overseas transaction fees. Make sure you have some local currency and pack your cards/cash in a few different places to cover yourself in case of loss. Consider using an RFID blocking holder, to keep your cards safe from contactless fraud.

Insurance and healthcare – Make sure you’re insured for all destinations and activities, including comprehensive healthcare coverage. If you have a specific medical condition, order ahead on any medication you’ll need and get a doctor’s note that you can take with you when travelling (along with your prescriptions). Research your destinations to check for vaccinations and/or things like malaria medication, and visit your local health centre at least six weeks‘ prior to travel to sort these.

Phone –  Pre-order or arrange to collect a local SIM card at your destination airport, so you can use data without the sky-high prices. Shop around for the best deals and networks: bear in mind these will vary from destination to destination.

Passport and visas – Make sure you have a valid passport and visas for all destinations you are travelling to. Some places require you to arrange visas in advance. You may need a working visa if you are planning on getting a job at any point in your travels. You should store photos of the inside ID page of your passport and visas in your phone and on email, in case you lose it. Also store a list of emergency numbers on your phone and in your email including local emergency, embassy and insurance numbers. 

What to do on sabbatical leave

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There’s no one answer on what to do with your sabbatical – the world is your oyster. The main thing is that whatever you choose should help with your personal development in some way, as well as providing fresh perspective and a different rhythm from your 9-5. 

Your sabbatical should also be purposeful, and look good to prospective employers (consider that you will need to explain it in future job interviews). Here are some popular options for things to do on sabbatical leave:

1 – Travel

There are few times in life where you have a licence to explore the world on a whim: but a sabbatical is one of them. This is a rare chance to get footloose and fancy-free, without answering to anyone. The great thing about travel is that it ties in with so many other areas of life, too.

Maybe this is your cue to pursue a major physical challenge, like hiking in the Everest foothills. Perhaps it’s about regaining headspace, with beachside yoga in Kerala. You could head to Colombia and enrol in Spanish school while you’re there. Or you can simply hop from place to place, exploring downtown Havana one minute and sailing around the straits of Zanzibar the next. If this seems daunting to tackle alone, you could always join up with a group of like-minded travellers.

2 – Work and travel

Obviously, travelling the world is not cheap – so you may choose to combine it with work placements. This comes with the added advantage of really getting to know a place, and live it like a local.

If your work can be done remotely, you could grab a taste of the digital nomad lifestyle in hubs such as Ubud in Bali or Colombia’s Medellín. You might take a TEFL qualification and teach English anywhere from Guatemala to Hong Kong.

Jobs such as babysitting and bar work offer scope for casual work on the move, so you can make money as you go (make sure you have the relevant checks and references in place beforehand if you plan to do this, so you don’t slow things up). You could also pick up resort or summer camp work.

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3 – Volunteering

Volunteering is another great way of really getting under the skin of a place during a sabbatical – and crucially, you get to give something back at the same time. You might choose to partner with an organisation that utilises your professional skills (e.g. Médecins Sans Frontières), and/or in an area that you feel passionate about. Animal rescue, conversation, child welfare and teaching are all popular placement options. Sites such as Go Abroad have a good selection of projects to get started with.

4 – Further training

A sabbatical is also a chance to develop your skill set, either at home or abroad. You could do anything here, from learning how to landscape paint in the hill towns of Andalusia to qualifying as a dive instructor in Thailand, or completing a Master’s degree back home. You could also learn a language abroad, or study at a foreign university. Training like this could just be for fun; or it may signal the beginning of a whole new career.

5 – Fulfil a lifelong ambition

It’s so unusual that we have unscripted time to do as we please. So, one way of maxing out your sabbatical could be to fulfil that goal you’ve always dreamt of. Perhaps this is something physical, like climbing to the summit of North Africa’s highest mountain. Maybe it’s more indulgent, like learning the art of Cordon Bleu cooking in Paris. Or it could be that you use your sabbatical to write that novel you have simmering away in the background of your mind. Whatever your ambition is, a sabbatical could be the time to honour it.

Where to go on sabbatical

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Where you go on sabbatical depends on what you want to do. Some destinations naturally lend themselves better to different goals. Also bear in mind the price of living: big cities such as Cape Town or Singapore will be more expensive to live in than more remote destinations; South-East Asia will be cheaper that North America, and so on. In a digital age, it’s easier than ever to set up options for homestays, home-sitting, and even job exchanges to cut costs along the way.

Finding headspace

Look to the open landscapes of India and South-East Asia, e.g. yoga in Kerala, hiking in Everest or taking a slow-boat down the Mekong in Laos. Africa is also a good bet for this, whether you’re on safari in Zimbabwe, or hanging out on the beaches of Morocco.

Learning a language

Let destinations in Europe, Central and South America be your guide. Often, this is a good chance to party and make friends at the same time – so a lively town or city could be your starting point. Check out places like Santiago, Havana, Naples or Berlin.

Volunteering

Africa, Asia, Central and South America: there are a lot of options here, it all depends what you want to do, and where your skills will be best matched.

Living and working

The States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe are all good for English-speakers who want to pick up contract work on the move. If you want to teach English, you can throw the net wider to places such as Japan, China, or really any major city where the demand will be high. Remote working, can, of course, be done anywhere – but some places such as São Paulo in Brazil, or the Portuguese capital Lisbon, have thriving remote communities with readymade support networks in place.

A fresh perspective

If you really want to shake things up, opt for a destination that delivers a bit of a culture shock. This might mean heading somewhere quite off-radar, e.g. Oman: the new adventure capital of the Middle East. Or it could involve immersing yourself in a sensory overload, in a city such as New Delhi or Beijing. Keep an eye out for opportunities that open up an entirely new way of living, whether that’s a spiritual pilgrimage to the temple valleys of Bhutan, or living with Dukha reindeer herders on the plains of Mongolia.

Why take a sabbatical year?

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There are many great reasons to take a sabbatical, which we’ve outlined above: from taking time to rest and reflect, to learning new skills.

But not many people think of the long-term benefits of taking a sabbatical. In a world where we’re forever taught to push for more and better, sabbatical leave is a rare chance to step off the career ladder. With extended time away from the rat race, you might see your life in a whole new light.

Be prepared for your creativity to skyrocket, and your energy to go into overdrive. You really have no idea what you are capable of until you give yourself the chance to try. Untethered from the demands of everyday life, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.

Used wisely, taking a sabbatical is attractive to future employers, too. If you can show you’re the kind of person who is proactive, curious and courageous, that can only be a good thing. Try it and see.


 

Images: Unsplash, Flash Pack, Shutterstock

 

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