We've all had those days where we'd rather stay in bed than go 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.

If you’re seriously thinking about taking an extended break from your job, it’s worth looking into sabbatical leave. It’s a special type of career break that allows you to take time away from your normal job and do something different— safe in the knowledge you can return to work after.

It sounds like a big step, but it’s probably more doable than you think.

In this guide, we’ll share answers to common questions about sabbaticals we hear from both employers and employees, including:

  • What is a sabbatical?
  • How long can a sabbatical be?
  • How often can you take sabbatical leave?
  • Are sabbaticals paid?
  • What are the benefits of sabbatical leave?
  • What are the  downsides of taking a sabbatical?
  • What benefits does an employer get?
  • Are there any sabbatical alternatives?
  • How do you take a sabbatical?

Ready? Let’s dive in.

What is a sabbatical?

First of all, sabbatical leave is not a holiday. Well, not quite. Think of it more like a career break or gap year.

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

The aim of a sabbatical isn’t particularly to rest, although that can be a part of it. We take sabbaticals with a certain objective in mind—long-term travel, spend time with family, learn something new, or maybe write a book.

How long can a sabbatical be?

There’s no universal agreement on how long a sabbatical can be.

People have different opinions on how long a sabbatical should be. It depends what you want to do, and where you want to go. It’s down to you to figure out what works, and what you can agree with your employer.

As a guide, sabbaticals are usually between one month and a full year. Anything shorter than a month is usually your regular annual leave. Take any longer than a year though, and you are into career break territory, either that or you might find your skills get a bit rusty—and your employer might figure out how to survive without you!

How often can you take a sabbatical?

Again, this is another tricky question that depends on your company’s sabbatical policy.

Designer Stefan Sagmeister 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', in which he said:

"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 how often you can take a sabbatical. It depends on what your relationship is like with your employer, what they'll alloow. If they agree to one sabbatical every two years, that’s awesome! But even if they agree to one every seven years, at least you’re being given the option to take an extended break from your job every once in a while.

Are sabbaticals paid?

Another one with no definitive answer. From our experience we see sabbatical leave is usually unpaid, but not always, there are some great companies out there who'll pay you during sabbatical leave.

You might also see partial pay schemes, or schemes that pay different rates based on duration or the kind of activity you are doing while on sabbatical e.g. paying you while you are on a charitable, volunteering role.

You also have supplementary benefits to consider, some employers allow you to keep some of your benefits (like their pension and health insurance), while away on unpaid leave.

Buffer is a good example - to help combat burnout they allow a 6 week break once every 5 years, fully paid. Kudos, that's a company who value their people 👍

The employee benefits of taking a sabbatical

Now we know what a sabbatical is, you might be questioning why anyone would want to take such a long time off work. We are after all, creatures of habit and routine.

Truth is: there's a host of benefits you can earn from taking a sabbatical leave, and they depend on your current position, your motiviations, what you want from life.

  1. Career development: Gaining experience and education in different walks of life is valuable and rewarding, especially if you are stuck in a rut, or if promotion or role change isn’t a possibility. You can use sabbatical leave to take new courses or study for a qualification without putting your job at risk.
  2. Learn new skills: You can use sabbatical leave to do something fun and exciting—like travel the world, do voluntary work, or write a book. Each of these experiences helps you build skills you might not have had the opportunity to in your day job.
  3. Improving health: Stressful jobs can put a strain on your physical and mental health. No one wants to burnout, so some recovery time—in the form of sabbatical leave—can help you recover from burnout and improve your work-life balance.
  4. Refresh: It might be that you just need a change of scenary for a while, to help refocus, to step away from your day to day, to recharge and come back to work all fired up.

The downsides of sabbatical leave

Taking sabbatical leave sounds incredible, right? Let's throw in a little balance before you decide to jet off round the world for 12 months. There's a few things to think about:

  1. The first thing to note is that returning to work can be tough. If you take a year out of work to travel the world, coming back to your old routine might feel depressing—especially if you’re used to waking up in different hotels every week.
  2. Plus, things can change during your time off. You’ll have to play catch up with new processes, learn to use new tools, and maybe even get to know new team members that your colleagues have brought on during your sabbatical.
  3. It’s also worth noting that when taking a sabbatical, you might have a 'gap' on your CV. You’ll technically be employed during sabbatical leave, but future employers might want to know the minutiae of your career history—extended periods of leave included. It shouldn't be a big deal, it's just a case of explaining why you took sabbatical and what you gained from it.

What’s in it for the employer?

We know that sabbatical leave can be a superb way for employees to change their routine, recover from burnout, and work on a new exciting project.

But what do you, as an employer, get out of sabbaticals? After all, having people on extended periods of absence could cause resource issues. The need for business continuity is critical, but not always easy to attain—especially if you’re running a small business.

Well, sabbatical programs offer a number of advantages:

  • People come back refreshed and motivated: When people take time off work, escaping their 9-to-5 routine, and embracing something new, they come back refreshed, reinvogorated, more motivated. Try it.
  • New skills and experience: Sabbaticals taken for long-term travel, for example, teach patience and communication skills, people become more resiliant with a greater depth of life experience.
  • They foster a personal development culture: 76% of people want opportunities for career growth. It might be that the regular day to day of work is prohibitive for learning new skills or qualifications and that a sabbatical leave might open the door.
  • Staff retention: If you can keep your staff fresh and motivated they'll stay with you, if they feel like you support them in all their goals (work and outside work) they'll stay with you. LinkedIn’s data shows 94% of people would stay at a company longer if it simply invested in helping them learn.
  • Attracting talent is easier: Sabbaticals aren’t often listed as a perk on job listings. But if you have a sabbatical policy it will help you snap-up top talent looking for a job with flexibility.

It’s these benefits why you’ll see an increasing number of sabbatical programs these days—both a recruitment benefit and a retention tool to promote staff loyalty.

Still not convinced? Consider this: almost a fifth of companies on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For have paid sabbatical programs.

How to offer sabbatical leave to your team

So, you're on board with offering sabbatical leave. That's great! We’re sure that your team will love this included as a job perk.

Let's briefly run through the next steps to actually launching your sabbatical program:

  1. Create a sabbatical policy: This document shares everything your team needs to know about sabbaticals—who can take one, how long for, how often, and whether they’ll be paid. Don't be affraid, policies needn't be difficult to draft.
  2. Ask for enough notice: It’ll cause issues if someone can vanish for a year with only 2-weeks notice. At minimum, ask for one month’s notice. That way, you can plan for this properly.
  3. Create a sabbatical request process: You want to do this properly, so set-up a new holiday type in Timetastic for sabbaticals. So requests can follow a fully recorded approval process.
  4. Think about a return to work program: It can be tough to get back into the swing of things after a long break. A return to work program, including refresher training, will help them settle back in.

What are the alternatives to a sabbatical?

Taking (or approving) a sabbatical is a big decision. Someone will be away from their work for months, and sabbaticals don’t necessarily work for everyone or all situation.

There are other types of leave that are worth looking at:

  • Annual leave: All employees in the UK get a minimum of 5.6 weeks paid holiday each year. If you want to take a short break off work, this is where you start.
  • Sick pay: You don’t need to take a sabbatical if you’re unwell, sick, or attending hospital appointments. That’s what sick leave is for.
  • Compassionate leave: Good companies will allow compassionate leave where appropriate. If you’re grieving the loss of a family member, attending a funeral, or dealing with a family emergency - check whether this is available to you.
  • Parental leave: Welcoming a new child into your family is fun, and you’ll probably need a break from work whilst you do it. This is where parental leave, and extended maternity and paternity leave come into play.

And 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.

Or, if you’re completely done with the job you’re doing, maybe it’s time to look for a new one rather than sabbatical leave.

Should you take a sabbatical?

Tough question! If your career would benefit from a bit of a refresh, and you could do with a new perspective, if there's something you want to achieve or do outside of work, want to travel and see the world, want to learn something new, we say go for it.

Sabbaticals 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 to do it. Having a healthy fund stashed away is pretty important if it'll be unpaid (and you have grand plans to travel the world). Unfortunately, this isn't possible for everyone.

You do need determination to make it work, and a supportive employer. But leaving work for an extended period of time could be the best thing you ever do.