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Blog Insight & Commentary

Why You Should Be Taking a Sabbatical & How to Ask

Sabbaticals aren’t about doing nothing—they’re actually more about doing *something*

Stephanie Olsen
Contributor

Woman traveling

Working full-time at full speed for years on end is a recipe for burnout. Sure, you’ve got that annual vacation, but most people coming back from their week in the sun complain that they need a vacation to recover from the return.

Still, time off is highly valued and does provide rejuvenation. Sabbaticals aren’t new, of course, and are especially common in the academic world. So, why isn’t it a more frequent practice in private business? Let’s take a look.

What exactly is a sabbatical?

More than a vacation, a sabbatical is a paid or unpaid leave of absence from work, with the employee’s job held for them until they return.

Usually offered by larger companies as part of a benefits package, long-term employees can go on these periods of leave at regular intervals over the years. Sabbaticals vary in length, from four weeks to a year or more. Shorter sabbaticals are typically paid, but they’re a benefit separate from paid vacation or accumulated personal days.

Are sabbaticals really beneficial?

The short answer is an emphatic yes, sabbaticals are beneficial to employee and employer alike.

But they’re still rarely used, which doesn’t make sense to human resource experts. "The strategic use of sabbaticals can greatly enhance an organization's competitiveness," says Maurice Mazerolle, a professor in Human Resources at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management. "I think they are making a serious mistake if they don't see the benefit." 

A sabbatical can be an alternative to exhausted employees looking for a career change in order to recharge, writes Caroline Forsey at HubSpot (4.3 stars). Employees returning to work after a leave are rested, happier, and more productive. They might even have gained new ideas and perspectives, which they bring back with them, she adds.

“Perhaps they'll observe new potential markets, learn a new skill, or observe how a competitor in another country is successfully solving a problem with which your company has struggled.”

Turnover is expensive, so anything that retains high-level employees is worth looking into. Millennials—the generation that comprises the largest percentage share of the U.S. labor force—are also the least engaged. They tend to leave employers after no more than three years, and cite work-life balance as a high priority. Offering sabbaticals may increase retention, and that could be extremely valuable to companies, says DJ DiDonna, founder of The Sabbatical Project. He’s seen venture capital firms, law firms, and tech firms do just that.

How to ask your employer for a sabbatical

Your boss may not even know you’re burning out. In fact, you may be the high achiever you’ve always been in your role, but you’re noticing that you’re not quite as passionate about work, and it’s actually become a bit boring. You’re feeling cynical and disillusioned, among other symptoms

When you’re at that point, it’s time to ask for a sabbatical. Presumably you know what the company’s policy is: if sabbaticals are part of your benefits package, then the next step is easy. But before you tell your boss you’re off, do speak to the human resources department to find out what the actual procedure is and how much notice you need to give.

You may qualify for leave under FMLA

If sabbaticals are not offered where you work, you’ll need to make the case to your employer. First, do some research. Find out if your company is considered a covered employer under the The Family Medical Leave Act. If so, you may be able to obtain FMLA leave, if your burnout spirals so that stress and depression become such that you have a “serious health condition” that makes you unable to do your job. The maximum time is 12 weeks, and it is unpaid; however, your job is protected upon your return.

Next, you need to broach the topic with your boss. Explain that you are experiencing burnout and need to apply for leave under the FMLA. If your employer doesn’t think burnout qualifies as a serious health condition that can keep you from doing your job, the World Health Organization says otherwise. It defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” One of its three dimensions is “reduced professional efficacy.”

If FMLA isn't an option

If your employer doesn’t qualify for FMLA, then you’ll need to make the case on your own. And it is possible. Set a face-to-face meeting (or video call, if you’re remote) with your employer to discuss the possibility of taking a sabbatical. 

Outline your accomplishments, backing them up with numbers whenever you can. Propose a specific amount of time you’d like to take for your leave, and specific dates if possible. Show them a plan for your absence, including the work you will do to prepare for your time away and documentation for all your tasks and responsibilities

Lastly, discuss what you hope to do with your time. Perhaps you’d really like to take your kids on a trip from coast to coast, research the history of a foreign country and find your family roots there, finally sit down and write that book, or take photography classes. Let them know how you plan to use your time to enrich yourself and your experience.

How to prepare to go on sabbatical

Planning is crucial for a successful sabbatical.

“Sabbaticals are no longer defined by the absence of work—in fact, they are defined by the presence of it. Sabbaticals aren’t just another word for vacation. They’re the new word for an active pursuit of purpose,” writes the team at Remote Year

Graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister agrees. He’s been closing his New York studio and taking year-long sabbaticals every seven years for two decades. He knew it was the right move after the first sabbatical saw him rejuvenated and refreshed. In fact, everything he designed in the seven years following his first sabbatical had originated in that year off.

A common mistake people make when going on sabbatical, DiDonna says, is going from 100 mph intensity to zero, just sitting on a beach for a month. Instead, he says, put that intensity into something you’re passionate about and that is meaningful to you. 

It can be anything from an immersive foreign language course, or getting back into an old hobby like painting or pottery. Then you can step down the intensity to reading, getting coaching or therapy, and exploring what else is out there and what else you’d like to do. Once you’ve integrated what you’ve learned, you’re ready to go back to work.

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