Everyone needs a break once in a while—yourself included.

Taking a big block of time off is especially useful if you’re going through a tough time, you’re feeling stressed at work, or want to do something you can’t fit into your regular annual leave allowance.

There are two types of leave to consider in this case: a career break, or sabbatical leave.

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an extended break from work. It’s often between two months and a year in length, and during this time you’re still employed. You’ll go back to your day job once your sabbatical comes to an end.

Sabbaticals are useful when you want some time away from work, but still have the security of a job to come back to. You can use that time off to do something out of reach of your regular holiday allowance:

  • Take a round-the-world trip
  • Learn a new skill
  • Improve your work-life balance
  • Write a book
  • Get a new qualification

What is a career break?

A career break is also an extended period of time away for work. It’s usually longer than sabbatical leave, it could be years in length.

The biggest difference between the two is that a career break is effectively a resignation from your job. Granted, you might have the option to return in the future if you wish—but there’s no promise. If it’s not workable for your company to have you back after the career break, you’ll be unemployed.

People tend to take career breaks for big life events like:

  • Exploring alternative careers
  • Relocating
  • Raising a family

Shall I take a sabbatical or career break?

If you’re unsure which is right for you, here are six questions to help decide:

  1. Does your company offer both?
  2. Do you want to return to the same job?
  3. Do you want a gap in your CV?
  4. How long do you want to be off work for?
  5. Why are you taking extended time off?
  6. Do you want to get paid?

1. Does your company offer both?

The first thing to think about when deciding between a career break and sabbatical is whether your company offers both.

Despite the many benefits of sabbaticals, not all companies offer them. Sadly, only 15% of employers have a policy in place.

If yours doesn’t have a formal sabbatical policy, you could always ask your manager if they’d consider it. They might say yes if you’ve got a good relationship with them, and you’ve been working there for a long time.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get, right?

If your company doesn’t allow sabbaticals, a career break might be your only alternative.

2. Do you want to return to the same job?

One of the biggest differences between career breaks and sabbaticals is that during the latter, you’re still employed. Your current job is available for you to walk back into when it ends.

With a career break, you’re effectively resigning from your job. You may have plans to return, but it’s still a resignation.

Judging whether you want to return to the same job is tricky. If you’re taking some time off to relax, a sabbatical might be the best option. You could take six weeks off to spend time with the kids over the summer holidays, and have no need to job search once it’s over.

What if you’re unsure you want to return to the same job (or industry!), and fancy some time off to think about it? In that case, take a sabbatical and give yourself the space to ponder a longer, more permanent career break.

You might discover that once back from sabbatical, you want to drop from full-time to part-time.

If you’re still thinking of quitting after your sabbatical, a career break is probably your best option.

3. Do you want a gap in your CV?

Because you’re still employed whilst on sabbatical, there’s no gap in your employment history.

With a career break, however, this isn’t the case. You’re technically resigning from your job. If you take some time off work, there’ll be a gap on your CV.

(Don’t worry too much about this. You can always explain a career break on your CV to future employers. It’s actually a great opportunity to talk about all the fun things you did, and the skills you learnt, whilst having a career break!)

4. How long do you want to be off work for?

The amount of time you want to be off work plays a huge part in your decision.

Your employer might offer sabbaticals up to a full year. For example, Buffer offers six-week paid sabbaticals after five years of service. It’s the better option if you know how long you want to take off, and the thing you’re doing during takes less than a year (like climbing a mountain or going travelling.)

Career breaks are often longer. They’re better for people who don’t know how long they’ll be off work for. If you’re caring for a sick relative, or are retraining in a new career altogether, you’re not limited to a year of sabbatical leave.

5. Why are you taking extended time off?

If it's because you want a break from routine, and you want to do something new, a sabbatical is the better choice. You can take a sabbatical to:

  • Travel the world and get more life experience (like taking a gap year to explore South East Asia)
  • Work towards a personal goal (like writing a book)
  • Learn new skills (like a new language, or skiing and snowboarding)

Career breaks, on the other hand, give you the chance to think more about your career and explore a new direction. You might want to use one if:

  • You need to recover from burnout and improve your work-life balance
  • You want to start your own business
  • You want to ditch working life for a few years to start a family

Although other types of leave might be given in some of those situations, a career break lifts the pressure on returning to work anytime soon. It’s completely your choice on if (and when!) you want to go back.

Plus, if you’re using the career break to start the business you’ve been dreaming of for years, a career break might be the only option. Some companies don’t allow you to take on paid work whilst on sabbatical. You’re completely free to do whatever you want on a career break.

6. Do you want (or need) to get paid?

Money makes the world go round, right? For most of us, it’s the only reason we work!

While it’s rare and only 5% of companies offer them, paid sabbaticals do exist. Explore whether your company would pay your full salary if you took a sabbatical. They might allow paid sabbatical leave if you’re doing something good—like volunteering, or to spend time on work-related projects away from your daily responsibilities.

If not, it’s still worth chatting with your manager to see whether other perks are stopped when on an unpaid sabbatical. That includes:

  • Pension contributions
  • Stock in the company
  • Profit sharing

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for career breaks. You won’t get any income since it’s a clean cut, rather than a continuation of employment.

Toss up whether you can afford to take unpaid leave for that period of time. If you’ve saved enough money for a year-long adventure around the world, a year-long sabbatical would be great. But if you’ve saved enough cash for two years off whilst you start a family, an unpaid career break might suit you better.

(Remember: even if you can’t afford to take any type of unpaid leave, you’ve still got your holiday allowance to use up! Batching your holiday allowance into one big four-week holiday will act like a mini paid sabbatical.)

Still unsure which is best for you?

It’s a tough decision to make, but you’ll probably feel one is more “right” than the other.

The key is understanding the differences and being honest about which is right for you. Don’t take a sabbatical if it’s really a career break you need (and vice versa.)

If you have no idea, take a sabbatical to discover the answer. That way, you can spend time figuring out whether you want to leave your job altogether.