What is a sabbatical?

Andrew Fennell Andrew Fennell

If you’re thinking of taking a long break from work, but still want to remain employed by your current employer, then a sabbatical could be the perfect choice.

But what is a sabbatical exactly? Who can ask for one? And how do they work?

Find out all of these answers and more in this complete guide to sabbaticals.




What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a long period of leave from work, granted to a person by their employer, which is usually much longer than their standard annual leave allowance.

Most sabbaticals are taken for many months and are also referred to as a “career break” and allow the employee to pursue interests which their work schedule won’t allow for. For example a person might take 6 months of to travel the world, or a 3 month break to train for a sporting event.

Whilst taking a sabbatical, the person remains employed by their employer, and returns to their job once the sabbatical is over.


Who can ask for a sabbatical?

Technically anybody can ask their employer for a sabbatical, but it will largely depend on the employment contract of the individual, as to whether or not their request will be granted. Employers may have an interview process in place to asses every sabbatical request before making a decision.

Usually, employers will only offer sabbaticals to employees who have worked for in the company for a number of years.

Employers will not normally offer sabbaticals to staff who have been with the company for less than a year.

Some employers will offer their staff a fixed amount of extra leave for every year they work at the organization. For example, 1 month of extra leave offered for every year worked, would mean that an employee who had worked with the company for 5 years would be entitled to take a 5 month break.


“Anyone can ask for a sabbatical, but it may not always be granted by the employer, and will rarely be paid for”


Will I be paid for a sabbatical?

Due to the long-term nature of sabbaticals, they are usually offered as unpaid leave by employers. Some employers may offer paid or part-paid sabbaticals, but this is quite rare in the UK job market.

Before committing to a sabbatical it is best to check your employment contract along with your employer handbook, to be clear on your employer’s sabbatical policy.


How long can a sabbatical be?

Sabbatical can be any length of time that is agreed between the employer and the employee.

Sabbaticals tend to be relatively long periods of time to allow staff the a sufficient break from their work.

Typically, sabbatical lengths are

  • 3 months
  • 6 months
  • 1 year

It is very uncommon for sabbaticals to be offered for more than one year because employers will find it hard to guarantee a position for the employee to return to if they have been away for longer than a year.


How does a sabbatical work?

A staff member will need to request a sabbatical or extended leave period from their employer via their direct manager. The employer will then decide whether or not to grant the request and if successful, they will agree the start date and return date in writing, along with any pay details.

The employer will agree to leave the job position open, so that the employer can return to the job once they return.




How to ask for a sabbatical?

When asking for a sabbatical, it helps to be well organised and tactful in your approach. For the best chances of securing your sabbatical, follow the guidance points below:

  • Check your employer’s stance – Before thinking about taking a sabbatical, check your employment contract and company policies to ensure that you are entitled to request a sabbatical leave, and what the rules on time and pay are.
  • Plan something significant – Ideally you should have something important planned for your break, such as dream travel trip or the chance to work on a big personal project. If you’re just planning to take some time off to sit at home scrolling through social media, your employer will be less inclined to grant your sabbatical request.
  • Pick a good time period – Although you will always be needed at work, try to avoid booking a sabbatical during exceptionally busy periods at your workplace.
  • Book a meeting – Don’t just shout across your desk to your boss and ask them for a year off. Book in a formal meeting where you can sit down together and make your request.
  • Highlight the benefits – Although your boss will undoubtedly be sad to lose you for a few months, do your best to explain the benefits the break will bring to you (e.g. happiness, fulfilment, lower stress levels) and also the benefits you can bring to the company when returning (a refreshed mindset, new skills etc.)
  • Be flexible – In many cases your employer may be willing to grant your sabbatical, but may want to move the start date or reduce the times slightly, so you may have to move the goalposts of your original plan to secure the leave.
  • Stick to the plan – Once you’ve got the go-ahead, be sure to stick to the agreed timeframe with your employer and complete any handover work necessary before you leave.


Can I be refused a sabbatical?

Employers are not obliged to offer staff sabbaticals by law in the UK, so any request for a sabbatical can be refused if the employer does not wish for it to go ahead.

Common reasons for sabbaticals being refused by management or HR are:

  • The employer does not offer them – If your employer has a blanket policy of not offering sabbaticals, you will be unlikely to get one
  • The staff member has a poor attendance record – Employers will not be trusting enough to offer leave to staff with bad attendance
  • The staff member has not been with the company long enough – Most companies will only offer extended leave to long-standing staff members
  • The employer cannot find cover – If the company cannot find somebody to cover your work while you leave, they may not be able to release you for that time period
  • The leave is requested during a busy period – If leave is requested during exceptionally busy times, it may be difficult for the company to grant it
  • The staff member is going through disciplinary measures – Employers are unlikely to offer leave to employees who have been behaving unprofessionally


Benefits of taking a sabbatical

There are many advantages to leaving work for a while and taking a sabbatical, such as:

  • Hitting the reset button – Taking a few months away from a busy job and hectic work environment is the perfect way to de-stress, unwind and come back with a strong, healthier mindset
  • Seeing the world – Travel is good for the soul, but often our careers get in the way of our travel dreams. Taking a few months off will allow you to check some big countries off of your travel bucket list.
  • Making an impact – Taking time out to volunteer for a charity and do some valuable work for those who need help, is a great way to give back
  • Achieving a personal goal – Perhaps you want to run a marathon or write a novel? Taking a sabbatical will give you the time and energy to do finally do it
  • Connecting with nature – With many of us spending our days indoors with our eyes glued to a computer screen, a sabbatical can allow you to get our doors and reconnect with nature.
  • Learning new skills – Often the activities you do during a sabbatical will take you out of your comfort zone and open your horizons to new things


Benefits of offering sabbaticals (for employers)

Although sabbaticals are often deemed as negative by employers, there are actually benefits to be gained by companies who offer sabbaticals to their staff:

  • Offering sabbaticals to senior staff can increase their chances of staying with the company long-term by giving them a chance to try something new, but still have the security of returning to their job.
  • Staff members who embark on sabbaticals often return to the company with new skills and outlooks which can greatly benefit their employers.


What to do if your sabbatical request is denied?

If your sabbatical is denied, there are still a couple of ways which you could achieve the career break you yearn for;

  • Suggest a revised sabbatical – If your employer isn’t willing to give you 6 moths off, why not suggest 3 months?
  • Take a proper career break – If your employer won’t budge then think about leaving them to pursue your passions. If you are contemplating this route, do remember that you will not have a guaranteed job to return to once the leave is over