We’ve all faced those dreaded conversations with the boss. Whether it’s asking for a pay rise, handing in your notice or giving negative feedback, it’s only natural to feel some confrontation anxiety. If you’re considering a career break to travel or pursue other interests, it’s likely you’ll already be worrying about the moment when you’ll need to discuss it at work. We’ve been there and done it, and I promise you it’s really not all that bad! Drawing on our experiences, this guide covers everything you need to know about how to ask for a sabbatical from work.
In this article:
What is a sabbatical?
First of all, let’s get our definitions straight. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a sabbatical as “a period during which an employee can take time away from work to study or travel”.
There are other terms you will come across that are often used interchangeably with sabbatical, such as ‘career break’, ‘career gap’ and ‘adult gap year’. Our ultimate career break guide includes some more background on the nuances of the different terms. Essentially, a ‘sabbatical’ is set apart by the fact it refers to a fixed period of leave after which you return to work with the same employer. While the other terms may share this meaning, they can also apply to a situation where you quit your job with an intention to find alternative employment after taking a break.
In this article, we’re talking specifically about the process of requesting sabbatical leave from work, that is, an agreement for a period of time off for travel (or another kind of personal development) after which you hope to return to the same job.
A sabbatical can be paid or unpaid. The number of companies offering paid sabbatical leave is on the rise, but it’s still rare. So unless you’re one of the lucky ones, you will need to self-fund your career break travel adventure.See our new ebook: how to take a year off work
Sabbaticals in the Covid-19 era
While we are still seeing the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic play out across the world, it is not clear how it will shape the future of our working lives. However, several commentators have suggested that sabbaticals could rise after the pandemic, and there is good reason to believe this is true.
With office work in decline, greater opportunities for working remotely, a growth of resources for home-schooling, and quarantine creating complications for short-term trips, the concept of taking a longer break from regular working life is gathering pace. And now that business owners and managers have seen that operations can be run smoothly – in many cases even more effectively – without everyone in an office, there is even more weight to the argument.
There is another reason why the present moment could be the optimal time to take a step back from your career. With the world’s economies in transition and many sectors under existential threat, opportunities will emerge for those who take the time to reassess and reimagine. A sabbatical could be an opportunity to reflect on your overall career direction, or to retrain for something new and exciting.
How long is a sabbatical?
A sabbatical can be for any fixed period of time agreed between you and your employer. For a travel career break it will typically be six months or a year, but there’s no hard and fast rule on this.
The length of your sabbatical may depend on your employer’s policy. For example, in the UK, the BBC has a policy that it will discuss career break requests between three months and three years, depending on the reasoning and the circumstances. Other companies have sabbatical policies for as little as a month. If your employer has no policy, don’t worry – this could be an opening to frame the discussion on your terms.
Why take a sabbatical or career break?
There is a growing body of evidence that shows taking time out of work to travel or pursue other personal development opportunities not only benefits individuals, but also businesses. We’ll come onto this a bit more later when we talk about making the case for a sabbatical to your manager.
Extended time off work gives you space to reflect on your career trajectory and establish a clearer perspective on your long-term goals. At the same time, it provides an opportunity to learn new skills and develop existing ones.
A travel career break can make you more confident, a better communicator, more resilient, adaptive to change and a more effective planner – just a few examples. Read our article on seven ways travelling will make you better at your job for more.
You can also use the time to gain a new qualification or skill. Learning a language is perhaps the most common, but we’ve met many people who have developed their portfolio in other ways. For example, a preschool teacher who retrained as a culinary nutrition expert.
Before taking a sabbatical, you can discuss potential areas for development with your boss, and come up with a plan for how you will use the time effectively.
It’s often assumed that people take career breaks as an escape from a bad situation. This may be true in some cases. However, many people who take time out to travel are perfectly happy in their jobs. If you are in a positive place in your life and have a clear idea of what you want to get out of a sabbatical in terms of personal development, it’s more likely to be a rewarding experience.
How to ask for a sabbatical in 6 simple steps
The following steps lay out a simple and effective strategy for applying for a career break or sabbatical. At the heart of this approach is a commitment to honest, open dialogue, but before broaching the subject it’s important to do your research.
1. Check your employer’s policy
It’s possible that your place of work already has a policy in place for sabbaticals or career breaks. As I mentioned above, the BBC is one of many examples that has a written policy.
If you haven’t broached the subject of a sabbatical yet with your line manager, it may not be best to ask them directly about whether the company has such a policy. It will be out in the open soon enough, but if you can find out this information before opening the conversation with your boss, it will help you to be better prepared.
Instead, think about information you can already access. There may be an employee’s handbook, staff guidelines or similar document that will give you the answer. If not, then perhaps there’s another member of staff you can ask, who would keep your query confidential – an HR officer, for example.
2. Find out if there is a precedent
Whether or not your workplace has a sabbatical or career break policy, it’s useful to know whether any past or current employees have taken an agreed break.
This is something you could find out through informal chatter, perhaps at a work social event or lunch gathering. Try to ask in a way that won’t make it obvious you’re asking for yourself – rumours have a habit of travelling fast in offices, and you don’t want to set that in motion before you’ve spoken with your manager.
If you discover that somebody has taken a sabbatical before, and they’re still working in the organisation, take time to ask them about it. How they made the agreement, what they did on their sabbatical, how it worked out for them. Make note of any clearly demonstrable benefits to the organisation from your colleague’s experience – it could be a strong back-up to your own case.
This insight can come in handy in later conversations with your manager. While we wouldn’t recommend any whataboutery tactics – “they had a sabbatical, so why can’t I?” – it’s good for your manager to know you’re aware of the precedent, and for you to be able to highlight the positives.
3. Prepare the case: the value of a career break
Now you’re up to speed with company policy and any precedent for sabbatical leave, there’s still some groundwork to do before you open the conversation.
This is the most important part: demonstrating the value of taking a sabbatical. Not just for you personally, but for the organisation as well. You can begin by reading up on some of the research into how organisations benefit when employees take sabbaticals.
Preparing this case should be a gradual and thoughtful process. Whenever you have appraisals or one-to-one meetings with your manager, take stock of any constructive feedback you’re given, and write down ideas for how a sabbatical could help.
For example, maybe you’re not very strong on networking or building relations with other teams in the office. Travelling on a career break and being exposed to unfamiliar environments could help you develop much better people skills.
While it’s important to think about how you will benefit, when preparing your case for a sabbatical, focus on the advantages for your employer. For example, you will return a better and more rounded employee. They won’t have to pay for this development, and they may even make savings in your absence. And so on.
Also consider whether Covid-19 scenarios could make a sabbatical beneficial to business. Would it be useful for your workplace to lighten staffing costs for a while during the recovery period? It could be a win–win arrangement.
For some extra inspiration, read our interview with a higher education librarian and researcher who took a six-month travel career break and returned as a much more effective professional.
4. Consider how you will demonstrate your value to the organisation
It probably goes without saying that you are more likely to be awarded sabbatical leave if your employer values your contribution highly.
When it comes to approaching your employer about sabbatical leave (don’t worry, we’ll get there soon!) you should be able to point to the factors that show why you are a valuable part of the team.
A list of achievements and attributes on its own won’t cut it though. Be conscious of how you are demonstrating your value in your actions and results. In the months, weeks and days leading up the initial conversation, make sure your manager knows what you’re bringing to the table. Go the extra mile.
I’m not talking about working extra hours or taking on more projects. You don’t need to overwork to be a good employee. Instead, give thought to how you are communicating your effectiveness in the workplace. Reply to emails from your manager and colleagues. Prepare frequent reports. Contribute ideas in meetings and be willing to chip in to help with other people’s projects. Make sure your contributions are visible.
When you go into that initial conversation, your manager should already be well aware of the value you’re bringing. Any case you make verbally should simply be a reinforcement.
Also give some thought to demonstrating your loyalty. Is there a way that you can time your career break plans to have the least impact on the organisation? Plan your departure for a period of down-time, not just before that big conference, for example. This may seem like a small factor, but it will show your employers that you care.
5. Come up with a plan for cover
Before approaching your boss, there is one final – but very important – thing to consider. What’s going to happen with your job role while you’re away?
As soon as you broach the subject of a sabbatical, the practicalities around cover arrangements are likely to be at the forefront of your employer’s mind. If you come in with ideas ready to contribute, you’re giving more reasons for them to be open to the idea.
There are a few options to consider for cover. First of all, is there a colleague who would be able to step up and cover your role? Or could the responsibilities be shared around? This would mean that you would not only gain personal development yourself, but it would also open opportunities for other people in the team to develop too.
Alternatively, could the organisation bring in someone to cover on a fixed-term contract? You could offer to manage the process, or at least contribute to it by drafting a job specification and participating in the hiring process. This option may be cheaper for the organisation than recruiting a full-time replacement were you to leave.
Whatever the circumstances, your manager will likely appreciate that you’ve given thought to the organisation’s wellbeing and that you have some constructive ideas.
6. Have the conversation
When it comes to a major request at work like sabbatical leave, it can be tempting to avoid direct conversation and write a letter or email instead. While this is an option, you’re more likely to get the best outcome through an open, face-to-face discussion.
If you really don’t feel confident enough to have this full-on conversation upfront, you could send an email or letter to frame your position in the way you want, and then follow up in person immediately after. It’s likely your manager will want to speak directly anyway, and being proactive will help your cause.
If you’ve followed the steps in this strategy, then you’ll be going into the conversation prepared. It’s best to be organised as well. Don’t begin a big conversation like this with a surprise knock on the door; ask to schedule a one-on-one chat, or use a structured meeting such as an appraisal.
Before you go into the conversation, take some time to think what your manager’s biggest concerns are likely to be, and prepare some responses. For example, will they worry about how it could set a precedent for more staff to make requests like this in future? Our ebook How to Take a Year Off Work comes with a free sabbatical negotiation cheatsheet that lists ten of the most common concerns of managers about sabbaticals, and how you can answer them.
It’s possible that you don’t have a great relationship with your boss; many people don’t. This isn’t something you can change overnight, but check out this Fast Company article on fostering a better dialogue with your manager.
When the time comes, it’s best to get straight to the point. Say that you’re planning to take some time out of work to travel, to study, spend time with family, or whatever it is you plan to do, and you’d love to discuss a possible arrangement to return to work with them afterwards. You can then lay out the case you’ve already prepared about why this will benefit the organisation, and how the practical arrangements might work.
You don’t need to recite all this from memory. Take in some notes to refer back to whenever you need them. This is not a stage performance; it’s more important that you get all the vital points across.
Finally, once you’ve talked through your request, listen and observe. Try to gage the reaction and take stock for the next steps. This almost certainly won’t be the last meeting on the matter; your manager will need time to consider it, and HR will probably need to be involved.
If you walk away from this first meeting with a positive dialogue and a commitment to follow up with regular catch-ups, that’s a great result.
One last thing: don’t worry about it!
When Lisa and I approached our respective employers about our career break, both of us were incredibly nervous. Guess what? We both ended up having pleasant, positive conversations. As it turns out, Lisa was awarded a sabbatical and I wasn’t, for various reasons. But in my case, having an open approach and assisting as much as I could in my departure has enabled me to maintain a positive relationship with that organisation, and keep open possibilities to work with them again in future should the circumstances arise.
When is the best time to ask for a sabbatical?
There is no right or wrong answer to this, but in general you should allow plenty enough time that you won’t cause your employer problems. If you ask for a sabbatical a few weeks before your planned trip, with scant time for arrangements to be made, it probably won’t go down well.
Our travel career break took about five years of planning and saving, and we approached our employers with around one year to go. This felt about right for allowing plenty of consideration time and being able to give clarity on our plans.
The best timing for you may depend on your working circumstances and the nature of the career break you’re planning. Make a judgement call, keeping in mind that you give yourself the best chance of a good outcome by respecting your employer’s interests. Don’t procrastinate too much!
Planning your travel sabbatical
Feeling inspired to start planning your career break travels? Check out more of our articles and resources to help you achieve your goals:
- Travel planning 101: how to plan a round-the-world trip
- Career break travel insurance
- Your essential guide to saving money for a travel career break
- The ultimate long-term travel checklist | get ready for your career break
- A woman’s perspective on taking a travel career break
- Finding a job after travelling the world: a winning strategy
- What do do with your stuff before long-term travel
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