How to Take a Sabbatical in a Way That Doesn’t Kill Your Career


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Kiyomi Appleton Gaines316
SHRM-CP, Nonprofit Culture, Writer, Storyteller
April 12, 2024 at 9:21PM UTC
Are you looking to recharge? Want some time away from work to tackle side projects? Or hoping to further your skill set to make you better at your job? then a sabbatical could be the right move for you.

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical usually refers to a full-time employee's extended leave or career pause of at least two months. In general, employees use it to complete some body of work, such as research or writing. Sabbaticals may be paid or unpaid, but they usually involve the guarantee of a position being held open with the stipulation that the employer will allow employees to return to work at the end of it.
Some companies offer sabbaticals, while others may be open to the idea of sabbaticals if employees make propositions.
Sabbatical actually started as a biblical term from ancient Hebrew culture, which decreed that every seventh day should be a day of rest, and every seventh year should be a year of rest, to forgive debts, free those in bondage and servitude, and let the land fallow. Sabbatical comes from the word Sabbath, which literally means “rest.”

Why should I take a sabbatical?

There are many benefits to taking a sabbatical.
  • Taking time away from work can lead to great boosts in creativity, productivity, and engagement.
  • Sabbaticals can be used to invest in some work-related activity, like expanding your network and gaining new skills, or to pursue a side hustle or bucket list item, like global travel or launching your passion project.
  • The intentional pause from your typical day to day can really pay off not only for you but for your company as well. Many CEOs and executive directors report that their executive teams grow considerably by taking on new tasks, developing new skills, and having to rely on each other without the boss there. When they return, these leaders may leave those new tasks in the hands of their direct reports who are succeeding in those expanded roles and find their own time freed for more strategic engagement in long-term visioning, building partnerships, and connecting with investors.

What can you do on a sabbatical?

Sabbaticals provide countless opportunities for you. Your activities don't even need to be related to your job. Here are some ideas for how to spend your sabbatical:
  1. Go abroad.
  2. Work on a side project such as a book.
  3. Hone your startup idea.
  4. Volunteer.
  5. Take a course that's related or unrelated to work.
  6. Start learning a new language.
  7. Enjoy a staycation at home.

What are common myths about sabbaticals?

Many people think that you need to be at a certain level in your career or age to take a sabbatical, but that's because there are myths surrounding sabbaticals. Let's clear those up.
  1. Sabbaticals don't actually ruin careers or make others in your workplace assume that you’re lazy or don't take your job seriously. Instead, taking a sabbatical can help you to recharge your batteries so that you can come back to work full force and ready to go. Sabbaticals help beat burnout, and boost productivity and morale, which, ultimately, makes companies more money.
  2. You don’t have to be in the corner office to take and benefit from a sabbatical. You could try a 40-hour sabbatical, or just take an old-fashioned vacation to recharge and gain some perspective.
  3. Some of the best times to consider taking a break is actually when you're very busy — when you need an extra boost of clarity and creativity, once the dust settles after a period of transition or the completion of a big project, when you need to map the next steps for yourself and your team, before a retirement or departure to test out a succession plan and identify development needs for your protege, or when your organization is facing a slump, stagnation, or slowed growth, to reinvigorate and inspire key team members.
  4. Your sabbatical activities don't need to be directly related to your job. If you're a vet, you don't need to take time off to volunteer with animals. You can go travel the world, take culinary classes, take up music more seriously or anything else.

How do you take a sabbatical without killing your career?

As with any perk you may request, it’s best to present the benefits and contributions your sabbatical will bring to the company, as opposed to the personal benefits it will provide you.
For companies, sabbaticals can be a great investment in key personnel, counter burn-out, or serve as an alternative to more traditional compensation package options; it can cut costs, if the employees are unpaid or receive partial pay for the duration of the leave; and it provides a great training ground for executive team members and junior staff or can serve as a test case of succession plans. Since the typical job tenure now is much shorter than in the past, sabbaticals are also a great way to reward a tenured employee for years of commitment to the organization. Go to your boss or board with a clear plan of how the work will continue in your absence and a description of the value this investment of time in one of its star performers will bring to the organization.
To make the most of your sabbatical, think about what you want to gain beyond a much-needed change of pace by disconnecting from work. If you're looking to expand to new markets, perhaps traveling and learning a new language is the way to go. If you're positioning yourself as a thought leader, develop that book idea. Whatever you decide, having a plan for your time away and for your transition back will assure the greatest gains for yourself and your company.
We're all struggling to find that mysterious balance between our work and personal lives. If you have this option, take it, use it, be enriched by it. When you return, advocate for the other women on your team and in your organization and community.

How to ask for a sabbatical without burning bridges

Broaching the conversation about your sabbatical can be intimidating. Start by researching and determining how you'll spend your sabbatical before creating a proposal in writing. Then schedule a meeting to discuss your idea. 
You might begin the conversation by saying:
  1. "I've been thinking about how I can bring more value to my work and the company and believe taking a sabbatical can give me time to [learn X skill, work on my research, etc.]. I've drafted a proposal I'd like you to review."
  2. "As you know, my goals for my position include [X, Y, and Z]. I believe that the best way to meet them is by taking a sabbatical. I'd love to discuss my ideas and proposal and hone a plan."
  3. "One challenge this company is facing is [X]. I believe I can help address it by taking a sabbatical. I've outlined some of my thoughts in this proposal."
  4. "After accomplishing [X achievement], I could use some time to recharge. I think it would benefit both the company and myself since the time away will give me a chance to rest and reset my creativity."

Sabbatical Resources

There are many resources, grants, and funding opportunities available for professionals looking to take a sabbatical. Look into government fellowships, scholarships and grants from private foundations or professional societies, and programs for people working in your industry. Here are other resources to help facilitate your sabbatical:

Grants and Funding

  1. John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships for scholars and artists
  2. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Fellowships
  3. Louisville Institute Sabbatical Grant for Researchers
  4. Professional Fellows Program for emerging leaders
  5. Fulbright Specialist Program
  6. Russell Sage Foundation funding opportunities for social science research
  7. The Marshall Memorial Fellowship for leadership development

Kiyomi Appleton Gaines writes about work, life, culture, and fairy tales. Read more at a work of heart and follow @ThatKiyomi on Twitter.

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