Everything you need to know about sabbaticals

We've all had those days where we'd rather stay in bed instead of going to work. It’s times like these that our thoughts drift to the idea of getting away for a bit, especially on a bleak and rainy commute.

Have you ever thought about taking a sabbatical?

While it can seem like a major step, it might be more doable than you think. Here are a few answers to common questions about sabbaticals we hear from both employers and workers.

What is a sabbatical?

First of all - it’s not a holiday. Well, not quite. More like a career break.  

A sabbatical (from the Hebrew word Shabbat, which Sabbath comes from) is simply a long voluntary break away from work, usually unpaid, that a worker takes with permission from their boss.

Usually unpaid, but not always - some people manage to negotiate partial or full pay, or the keeping of some of their benefits, while they're on sabbatical. Often, they're offered to employees who've been with the company for a certain number of years.

The aim of a sabbatical isn’t particularly to rest (although that can be a part of it). They’re all about taking a break with a certain objective in mind.

More and more businesses are offering sabbatical programs these days, as both a recruitment benefit and a retention tool to promote staff loyalty. Almost a fifth of companies on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For have paid sabbatical programs.

How long can a sabbatical be?

There’s no universal agreement on this. Companies and workers have different opinions, and timeframes will be discussed between them before agreeing. Conventionally, sabbaticals have usually taken around a year, but they can be as little as a month. It totally depends what you want to do, and where you want to go.

Take any longer than a year, though, and you might find your skills get a bit rusty - and your company might figure out how to survive without you!

Why take a sabbatical?

There are plenty of reasons for someone to give it a go:

  • Career development - gaining experience and education in different walks of life is valuable and rewarding, especially when stuck in a rut, or if promotion isn’t a possibility.
  • Discovering other cultures - travel, volunteering, and meeting different kinds of people can open one’s mind and bring a new perspective and creative spark.
  • Improving health - stressful jobs can put a strain on employee's physical and mental health, and some recovery time can be massively beneficial.
  • Working on a project - in the age of the side hustle, a few months tinkering with an invention or writing a book can be deeply rewarding, both spiritually and financially.

What’s in it for the employer?

If you’ve got staff to manage in your company, you might not be keen on seeing them disappear for an extended period. The need for business continuity is critical, and this can be especially important in SMEs.

But sabbatical programs offer numerous advantages for employers:

  • Staff come back refreshed and motivated
  • Staff come back with new skills and experience
  • They foster a personal development culture within the company
  • They give other staff something to aim for if they know it's a possibility for them too
  • Attracting talent is easier with sabbaticals as a benefit
  • Encourage long tenure and staff retention if sabbaticals are available for long-term employees

How often can you take a sabbatical?  

Designer Stefan Sagmeister takes it literally, and  closes his entire studio every seven years for a whole year. He gave a fantastic TED Talk on the subject, 'The Power of Time Off'. This idea clearly resonated with people, and has had millions of views in the last few years.

"These sabbaticals would change the trajectory of the studio, and I did not dare to imagine that they would be financially successful. But they were."

There’s no set limit on sabbatical length. It depends on what the relationship is like between employee and employer, and what they agree on. Traditionally, every seven years, a sabbath year gave farming land a break. Lying fallow for a year allowed it to recover and come back able to produce more. The same idea can apply to people.  

Sabbaticals are an extraordinary commitment for everyone involved, and therefore can’t be done too often. Taking a sabbatical more than once every five years for example would probably be a bit indulgent, but if the time is used productively, why not?

What are the alternatives to a sabbatical?  

Rather than a year-long break, you could try a different approach. Some prefer to mix mini-breaks - for example, business owners or contractors. They may work 6-day weeks for a while and stuff as much money in the bank as possible, before taking a break.

Or you could just quit, find a new job, or start your own business. Those are big, scary steps though, and of course, come with an entirely new set of challenges.

It's important to not view sabbaticals as an 'escape'. If times are tough at work, it's worth exploring other options such as changing positions, or your working hours, or even your location. Transferring to a different office for a few months could be refreshing if you're stuck in a routine.

Should you take a sabbatical?


If your career would benefit from a bit of a refresh, and you could do with a new perspective, we say go for it.

Sabbaticals are a significant step in any worker’s career. They can be fulfilling, scary, and amazing. It takes determination to prepare for one, and courage to actually make it happen.

We can’t lie - not everyone will have the ability do it. Having a healthy fund stashed away is pretty important if it'll be unpaid, and this isn't possible for everyone. You do need determination to make it work, and a supportive employer. But leaving work for a bit could be the best thing you ever do for your career.

Photo credits:  Arnel Hasanovic on Unsplash and Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash