Do you dream of a year off to do something completely different and escape the routine of your daily life? Perhaps you know someone who’s done it and wondered how you could do it to.

What is a sabbatical?

Described in several ways, a ‘sabbatical’, ‘career break’ or period of ‘extended leave’ is a great way to step off the treadmill of daily life. This type of leave can range from a period of three months to twelve months, but a year is typical.

The term sabbatical stems from biblical times where scholars took a year off every seven years for rest and recuperation. In more modern times some academic staff in schools, colleges and universities have enjoyed sabbaticals every six years.

A study of faculty members across ten universities in Israel, New Zealand, and the United States, found that those who took a sabbatical reported less stress, greater life satisfaction and improved well-being. Even greater levels of well-being were reported by those who had taken a sabbatical outside their home country. 

While not as common outside of academia, sabbaticals (paid or unpaid) are offered by some employers, typically after a period of two to ten years of service. Your employment contract will outline your entitlement to sabbatical or extended leave and state the conditions.

Whether you are paid during your sabbatical depends on your employment contract. Sabbaticals can be paid, unpaid or part-paid with unpaid sabbaticals being common outside of academia. You are more likely to be paid for your sabbatical if your planned activities are career focused.

What to do during your sabbatical

There are many possibilities for your sabbatical ranging from travelling, volunteering or studying to broadening your work experience or spending the time working on a personal project. Here are some ideas for inspiration:

Career development: Is there experience you’d like to gain or a skill you’d like to master? If your sabbatical contract allows, you could take paid work in another organisation either locally or abroad to develop your knowledge, skills and experience. Alternatively, if your contract prohibits you working for another organisation, you might choose to undertake work experience placement instead.

Volunteering: There are many websites that can help you identify volunteering opportunities at home and abroad. It’s important to be aware of any associated costs as some agencies charge a fee on top of living expenses etc. Typical volunteering opportunities abroad including helping with community development projects, environmental and conservation causes and teaching English in developing countries. Activities range from hands-on help building a school in a remote village to providing care to rescued wildlife for a charity in an animal sanctuary. 

English teaching: A great way to live and work abroad is to gain a teaching qualification (such as CELTA) and head off to somewhere like China, Korea and Japan or continental Europe. Think about whether you would prefer to teach children or adults and if unsure, get some experience to help you decide. There are a growing number of online English language learning platforms that require qualified and native English speakers which can be a good way to gain some initial experience.

Working abroad: The prospect of doing something completely different is extremely appealing to many. The kinds of work you could do abroad no matter what your background includes fruit picking, farm work or helping at a summer camp. If you have hospitality skills, you could find work in most parts of the world where you could use your skills. Likewise, if you’re a talented skier, ski resorts around the world often hire seasonal ski instructors. If sun and surf is more your thing, think about your interests and talents and seek out roles in the areas in which you’d like to spend some time.

Studying: Most master’s degree programs are an academic year which makes it difficult when you are already working full time. Instead of trying to fit study around your job and having to opt for distance learning instead of face to face, using your sabbatical for study makes good sense. Employers are more likely to fund or part-fund your sabbatical if you are doing something that contributes to your professional development and that will ultimately be of benefit to the organisation.

Personal project: Your sabbatical doesn’t have to see you flying off across the globe to volunteer in an elephant sanctuary in south east Asia. You might want to take time off to get things done at home like a renovation or a new build project. If you’ve used all your family leave but crave spending more time with your family, a sabbatical can be a great way to allow more time to be with them.

The benefits for employers

If your employer doesn’t already offer sabbaticals, career breaks or extended leave, you could put together a case to convince them of the advantages. There are many benefits to employers including:

Staff retention: In industries that struggle to retain talent, sabbaticals are increasingly being used to keep staff on board for longer.

Staff development: While on sabbatical leave, it’s inevitable that staff will grow and develop as individuals both personally and professionally. If the focus of your sabbatical is to develop your knowledge, skills and experience, this will benefit your employer greatly. Gaining work related qualifications also benefits both employees and their employers.

Engagement: Staff who feel valued, respected and supported are known to feel a greater sense of loyalty and engagement with their work and employer.

While there is no legal obligation for employers to offer sabbaticals to their employees, many organisations are realising the benefits and introducing it as an option in a variety of ways. Google for example, launched its Fellowships where employees can apply to spend six months working on special projects with non-profits. Other companies like Nike, Deloitte and Microsoft offer sabbaticals of varying lengths.

If the idea of taking a sabbatical interests you, here’s the next steps:

  • Find out if your company has a policy that allows for a sabbatical
  • Think about what you would like to do during your sabbatical
  • Put together a case to present to your employer outlining what you intend to do and how it will benefit them
  • Once approved – go do it! Don’t forget to gather evidence of your sabbatical experience (photos, documents etc) for your career portfolio

I wish you all the best and am here to help should you need guidance. 

Lisa LaRue aka ‘The Career Happiness Coach’ is a registered Career Coach with more than 20 years’ experience helping people plan, manage and find happiness in their careers.

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