Taking a sabbatical from work

Itching to travel or volunteer – spotted a course you’d love to do? Perhaps you just need a break that’s longer than two weeks? If so, a sabbatical could be just the ticket…

What is a sabbatical and why do people take them?

A sabbatical is a break from work, lasting anywhere from a couple of months to a year. Crucially, you’ll have a specific purpose for taking sabbatical leave and your employer will hold your job open for you while you’re away.

Reasons why people take sabbaticals vary enormously, but they usually involve one (or more) of the following:

  1. Travelling: choose a three-month or six-month sabbatical to travel somewhere meaningful, or just to take a well-earned longer break.
  2. Upskilling: use your sabbatical time to develop work-related skills (paid sabbaticals are often used in this way) or to study something entirely new.
  3. Resting: sometime two weeks in the sun isn’t quite enough, and you may feel like you need a longer rest to fully restore your physical or mental health.
  4. Volunteering: some people use sabbaticals to volunteer for a charity or an NGO. If your company has a CSR policy and works with a particular charity, this could be another route to a paid sabbatical.
  5. Taking a break: if you’re feeling bored or uninspired in your role, but don’t necessarily want to leave it, a three-month break from work to do some DIY, take up oil painting or spend more time with your family, might be all that’s needed to help put the spark back into your job.


And if you’re wondering what a sabbatical means, it’s derived from the Greek word Sabbatikos, meaning “of or suitable for the Sabbath”.

Unpaid vs. paid sabbatical

Paid sabbaticals are rare but do exist! If you’re not sure, simply ask your manager and check your employment contract. And if you’re fortunate enough to work for an employer who does offer a paid sabbatical policy, then it’s down to you to check the conditions and apply if you’re eligible.

Even if your employer doesn’t offer paid sabbaticals, it may still have an unpaid sabbatical policy that you’ll need to look up and check out.

If your employer has no such policy either way, all is not lost. Once you’ve determined what sort of unpaid sabbatical you’d like to take and the principle ‘whys’ involved – so why you’re choosing to take one and why it will benefit your employer – you have every right to ask.

What to do on a sabbatical?

It’s the million-dollar question: what to do? First, ask yourself why you need the break. It is because you’re overworked, stressed, bored, uninspired – and need some time out? If that’s the case, you’ll need to think clearly about how much time out you need, what you’ll do in that time out and how you’ll fund it (assuming you’re not eligible for a paid sabbatical).

People looking for more restful career breaks often opt for backpacking trips, sometimes with a volunteering element involved. Make sure you research thoroughly where you want to go and the costs of the trip.

Perhaps you want to take a sabbatical to further your career? If that’s the case, do plenty of research and choose a reputable course or work experience that provides good value for money.

As already mentioned, be sure to check whether your employer has a sabbatical policy; you might find that your company offers paid or unpaid sabbaticals under certain conditions only. 

How to prepare for a sabbatical?

Once you’ve decided what it is you want to do – whether that be cycling across Europe or volunteering for Red Cross in Nepal – you’ll need to prepare. Financial planning should be your top priority: you don’t want to run out midway through your sabbatical, so budget carefully.

You’ll also need to inform all necessary parties in the workplace, a process your manager should help you with.

How to ask for and write a sabbatical letter?

So you’ve read up on the company policy, done your research, and know what kind of sabbatical you’d like? Then all that’s left is to ask! And as with most things that are asked for, timing is everything. Choose the moment you broach the subject with your manager carefully, and be sensitive to any upcoming issues or challenges your company faces.

Make sure you prepare your case clearly and outline the benefits to the employer, which are: you’ll return to your role refreshed, energised, rested, more experienced and, if you choose to study or train, more skilled.

That said, be prepared to negotiate, and for your manager/boss to say no. Remember that unless stipulated in your work contract, your employer has no obligation to grant you a sabbatical. If you’re not granted a sabbatical this time, take it graciously and do your best to keep the door open. Ask if there’s a time in the future when perhaps your boss could reconsider?

If all goes well and your boss agrees to your sabbatical leave request (hurrah!) then you just need to confirm it in writing.

A good sample of a sabbatical leave letter is one that’s simple and to the point. You’ll need to include when the sabbatical will take place (start and end date) and any necessary details regarding the agreed cover.

Should you take a sabbatical or a career break?

Despite often being used interchangeably, sabbaticals and career breaks are not one and the same thing. As discussed, a sabbatical implies that you’ll return to your job (though you don’t have to return), while a career break is much less formal, and doesn’t imply returning.

Some reasons why you might choose a career break over a sabbatical include:

  1. Not being granted a sabbatical
  2. Not know knowing if you want to return to your job
  3. Not knowing how much time you’d like (or need) to take off


As with an unpaid sabbatical, you’ll need to prepare financially for your career break and you’ll need to research what it is you want to achieve in your break – even if that’s just getting plenty of rest.

If you’re concerned about how the gap might look on your CV, don’t be. So long as you explain the gap on your CV – that you took a structured career break to focus on X,Y or Z – it shouldn’t be a problem.

So should you take a sabbatical?

Hopefully you’ll now have a much clearer idea as to what a sabbatical is and whether it’s right for you (and your employer). But before you rush off to STA Travel or book yourself on to that Open University course, do some more research! Think long and hard about what you want to take from the sabbatical and how it will improve your situation for when you return to work (because if it won’t, then you might need more than a temporary break).

Talk to your friends and family too, who knows, you might have a long-lost aunt in Papua New Guinea that your dad would love to track down. Or perhaps your best friend thinks now’s the time you should take your love of fine wine to the next level by enrolling on a wine tasting course? Whatever it is, now’s the time to start researching…

Related Articles

Taking a career break from work

The sabbatical – fresh perspectives for long-term employees