How To Take A Sabbatical Without Ruining Your Career

Illustration by Elliot Salazar
Taking a sabbatical seems like such a monumental act of faith in one's ability to leave work for an extended amount of time, survive on limited funds, and have a job to come back to, that it can appear like a foolhardy venture.
Doing so is brave, but it isn't necessarily brash. Sure, some people might up and leave at a moment's notice, but those who take the time and then come out on top have likely put a lot more effort into planning their sabbatical journey.
Here's how to make it happen for you.

How To Get A Sabbatical

Advertisement
The answer to this is fairly simple — you either have this benefit at your company, or you don't. The opportunity to take a sabbatical is still a fairly rare employer benefit. Adobe offers employees of at least five years a four-week sabbatical, but most sabbatical policies will generally be found for those working in academia. The 2017 Employee Benefits Survey from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) revealed that only 12% of U.S. companies provide an unpaid sabbatical program, down from 16% in 2013. Even fewer, only 5% of companies, offer paid sabbatical programs.
"Only about 30% of employers in the United States offer or allow sabbaticals. Other employers will allow extended unpaid leave of absence. A few giants of industry will actually subsidize and pay for part of the employee's salary while they're on sabbatical, but that is rare," says Susan M. Heathfield, a human resources expert and HR writer at TheBalance.com.
If you work for the 70% that doesn't have access to this policy, she advises that you see what you may be offered instead, paying special attention to efforts that could benefit your employer. Then, armed with a more comprehensive idea of your benefits, you might have more success.
"If you want to pursue a six-month intensive study to get a degree, many employers offer college tuition reimbursement and you may be eligible for that. [Also], FMLA policies may guarantee an equivalent job once you come back from a break to take care of family member," she continues.
Advertisement
But if you have an Eat, Pray, Love scenario in mind — you want to travel for six months, or are moving with a spouse who has been transferred to a different country, and your family wants to try things out in that new location for a year — you could be out of luck.
"When you look at sabbaticals like that," Heathfield says, "I don't see anything in it for the employer."
Employers that are more amenable to long-term breaks — believing that their employees will come back refreshed, or that they'll be learning skills that can later be recouped through more skilled work — could happily sign off. However, even if an employer values that goal only in theory, enabling it in practice can be more complicated.
"The main reason they might say no is that they’re setting a precedent. If they allow one person to take a sabbatical for whatever reason, others will see this happening and they may ask, too," Heathfield explains. "While one position may work for an employer to allow that person to go on sabbatical, another might not be convenient at all — someone with very scarce skills they can't replace, or that it would take the whole length of the sabbatical to find someone to replace them."
As a result, she continues, the scenario usually plays out like this: An employee requests a meeting with their employer, briefly explaining what they want to discuss in advance. After the request is made in person, "99% of bosses are going to say, I have to talk to HR," Heathfield says, meaning an immediate answer is unlikely.
Advertisement
"Once they talk to HR, you'll get the determination that either you'll get the time, or HR won't want to set the precedent, in which case, you are going to need to quit your job to get the sabbatical."
That isn't necessarily a bad thing!

How To Leave In Good Standing

If you quit your job to leave for a sabbatical, "do it with dignity," Heathfield advises.
Write an official resignation letter, and be as warm as the occasion calls for. For example, she says it's okay to say, "I am leaving your employment to pursue a dream" — making it clear that the employer is not at fault. Give your boss the letter in person, and then ask if they will want to do an exit interview. Just be courteous.
"Don't burn bridges," Heathfield says. "You're not leaving because you're unhappy with the employer [and] you may want to come back to this employer someday."
Give at least two weeks' notice, and make the transition as easy as possible. Kelly Marinelli, the president and principal consultant of Solve HR, Inc., says that involves "thinking ahead by the same amount of time you plan to be away." In other words, if you're leaving for a year, think through all of the responsibilities you would have been expected to assume in that time so that your replacement is as prepared as possible.
"Make a project plan for all of the critical work you will need to allocate to others during your absence, and build your back-up team," Marinelli adds. "Ensure that you share the important reasons behind your decision to take a sabbatical, and show appreciation for the teammates who will be helping hold down the fort during your absence."
Advertisement

What To Do While You're Away

You don't want to gloat about hitting the road, but don't feel like you should be completely silent about your trip when you're gone. In fact, Heathfield and Marinelli both suggest keeping your employer and colleagues (current or former) in the loop about your travels.
"I recommend that those who are away from work for an extended period of time check in on a regular basis to reiterate their intent to return to work, and to provide updates on the unique experiences that would not be possible but for the sabbatical," Marinelli explains. "Appreciation for the opportunity is always welcome. Allowing employees extended leave for personal reasons has a substantial impact on an organization, so providing this opportunity is no small thing and reflects that the company strongly values employee development and growth."
Additionally, keeping things friendly will make it harder to forget you — and easier to get your job back if you want (or need) to do that when your travels are over. "Say you're in Tahiti or something," Heathfield says. "You absolutely want to correspond with your former coworkers [and] your boss; you may even want to send them pictures, depending on what you're doing."
Again, if you moved with family in the event of a transfer, she says you should "absolutely" send pictures of what you all are up to in your new city. If you simply saw or did something that made you think of them, share that.
"What you're doing is reminding them that you exist, so that your absence does not make you forgotten," she continues. "It's the same with professional associations or relationships you might have across the industry. Don't just leave them for a year; keep them potent and fresh. That will make your reentry 1,000% easier when you come back."
Advertisement

How To Make A Solid Comeback

If you quit your job before leaving and are wondering what you'll do for work after you return, Heathfield says "the very first person" you should contact is your former boss. Send them a note shortly before, or shortly after, you return and let them know you're back in the job market. Ask them if there are any open positions they might need you for.
"If you stayed in touch and kept your bridges built when you left, if the boss has an opening that you could fill, you're a known quantity. He or she would rather have you back than someone else," she explains. "Also, he or she knows you just took this sabbatical. Unless you worked little jobs while you were on sabbatical, you've plowed through your savings. They know you need the money and you're not going to be [taking another sabbatical] any time soon again!"
If that sounds awkward, it is! But it can be an effective strategy.
If you're returning to a job you took an extended break from (but didn't completely sever ties with), Marinelli suggests planning a return-to-work meeting with the people who served as "critical backups" during your time away.
"Solicit status updates on everything that took place during your time away. Hold on to any urges to complain about 'Monday Morning Quarterback' decisions made in your absence," she advises. "Take careful note of things you will need to address right away, and create a re-onboarding plan for yourself, with 30, 60, and 90-day milestones to help you make sure nothing falls through the cracks."
Advertisement
In addition to that, she says, work with your HR resources and ask them for help getting back into your regular routine. There might be administrative or personnel changes you should know about.
Finally, talk about your experience!
"Don't be reluctant to share what learning and growth you achieved during your sabbatical," Marinelli says. "Part of the reason behind a sabbatical is that it provides opportunities for new experiences and a renewal of your passion for your work. Share those things with your teammates, and create a positive ripple effect."
Being extraordinary is about living a life of purpose. The Unconventionals is our celebration of extraordinary women who know there is no right way to follow your dreams, and are creating their own roadmap for success. These women recognize that progress comes from the urge to stir up the conventional in order to change the world.
Advertisement