What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a period away from work, agreed with your employer. The word is sometimes used interchangeably with 'career break' or 'adult gap year', but the specific feature about a sabbatical is that you will come back to the same job.

The word 'sabbatical' comes from 'sabbath' - when academics would take every seventh year out.

About unpaid sabbaticals

Unpaid sabbaticals are by far the most common form of sabbatical. Organisations which offer unpaid sabbaticals tend to be large corporations or big public sector employers. Smaller companies do offer unpaid sabbaticals as well, although it's a little less common.

Usually, if you want an unpaid sabbatical, you will have to have worked for your organisation for a minimum period of time. 2 years is the standard. Your pension and salary will usually be frozen. Although your company may guarantee to hold your job open, sometimes they will only offer a similar job at the same level. Your employer will also usually stipulate that you can't do paid work for another company on your sabbatical (exceptions are sometimes made for charities). They might also have other restrictions - for example, some specify that you can't come back early.

If you've got a sabbatical, or are thinking about applying, you can start looking at career break options here

Paid sabbaticals are quite rare. This is when you take time out from your job, but your employer continues to pay your salary. They are sometimes available to academics for a particular purpose (eg research) but in the corporate world, they are generally given for a long period of service - such as 25 years. 6 months is the standard length for a paid sabbatical.

How can I get a sabbatical?

If your company has a formal career break or sabbatical policy, find out how to apply by asking your line manager or HR manager. Or look in the company handbook or on your work intranet.

Even if your company has not offered sabbaticals before, it could still be worth asking for one. To test the water, mention the concept casually and see how your boss reacts. You might choose to drop in some facts that you've recently read about, eg that it costs around £8,500 to recruit a new member of staff, which is why it's cheaper to let an employee take a sabbatical.

If you want to go ahead and formally request a sabbatical, it is vital that you tell your boss what benefits your career break will bring to the company (apart from your unswerving loyalty!). Things like the fact you are learning skills which you can't learn in your current job, eg becoming proficient in a particular language, or learning leadership skills. You may also like to point out that you have developed relationships with colleagues, clients, and/or suppliers which any replacement will take years to build up. Try to be specific when putting the business case to your employer - saying 'I'll be more confident' is vague, whereas 'I'll develop the confidence to handle our most difficult clients' is more useful.

It's also important to be flexible. For example, you might want to go away in the summer, but your company's quietest period is over the winter, so they'll be better able to manage without you. You might want to be away for 6 months, say, but it's more convenient for the company if you are back after 5. It's up to you to decide how much to compromise of course, and your decision will be affected by how much you like your job, and how easy you think it would be to get another one if you quit.

It's vital that your sabbatical is constructive. All the sabbatical opportunities on this site are verified to ensure they provide sufficient professional and personal development. You can see them all here

What if they say no?

You have 2 choices here. The first is to wait and try again in a few months - this is an option if you think they might change their minds, there's a new manager or boss coming in, or if things in your company change rapidly.

The second is to quit your job. This is obviously riskier than taking a sabbatical but if a career break is something you really want to do, you might feel it's your only option.

The golden rule of sabbaticals

The most important thing you do when it comes to your sabbatical is get the agreement in writing. All the details, as agreed by you and your company, need to be written down and you both need to take a copy.

When you agree your sabbatical, you need to ensure you think through all the things that might happen - especially the things you don't want to happen. For example, you might run out of money and you want to return to your job early, but you're not allowed to. You could end up wanting to extend your sabbatical - is there a provision for this? What if you're enjoying your new life in Australia you don't want to come back? What if the company makes you redundant?

It's useful to talk this over with a sensible, critical friend or relative outside the office - someone who can think of what might go wrong. Whatever happens though, with your sabbatical agreement in writing, and your employment contract, you've got some protection if things go pear-shaped.

Do bear in mind though, that most sabbaticals end up being a positive experience for both the employer and the employee. So bite the bullet, make your application, and enjoy your sabbatical!

Click here to find the perfect career break.