How to take a sabbatical
About 2 years ago we decided to take a year-long career siesta in Spain after leaving Zambia, and liked it so much that we stayed. Although there’s a lot less siesta involved these days. Some close friends asked recently how they could take a sabbatical.
A sabbatical is a break from work. Its based on Jewish tradition, where every seventh day is a rest day. Similarly, land was given a break every seventh year, with no crops planted.
Sabbaticals are often between 3 months and a year, and usually unpaid unless you have a really generous / gullible employer.
They are not to be confused with vacations or retirement. I’d also differentiate them from part time, flexible and nomadic working arrangements. These can be great, but that’s a different conversation.
And FYI, never refer to a new mom’s maternity leave as a sabbatical.
Depending on the length of break and your job, some employers may hold your role open for you. Our sabbatical involved me postponing my search for my next job when we left Zambia.
Employers are increasingly flexible, but those that allow extended career breaks are still in the minority. So if you decide to take a career break, you may have to quit and find a new job at the end of your sabbatical.
There are a ton of obvious advantages to taking a sabbatical. Describing these would be like explaining the benefits of ice cream.
Start with ‘why’
But the reason you might want to take a sabbatical will have a big impact on decisions like where, when and for how long. Like many things in life, understanding your ‘why’ is crucial.
One of the drivers for our family was to recharge batteries after an intense and stressful season in our lives in Zambia. We also wanted to spend more time with our kids and each other.
We have some cousins who took a career break to travel the world with their elementary-aged kids because they wanted to travel with their kids before high-school. I’ve commissioned a guest post in exchange for a deep fried chocolate bar (they’re Scottish).
I also know people who have stepped back to pursue a passion project or to go back to school.
If the whole family is considering a sabbatical then it should be a joint ‘why’.
Your ‘why’ will be unique to you, but its important to have this pinned down as a first step in the process.
Should I really take a sabbatical?
Once you have your ‘why’, I think its worth evaluating whether a sabbatical is really the right solution given your circumstances.
Can you afford it.
Are there other ways of achieving the same goals without a sabbatical.
In our situation, both Mrs C and I needed some time to recover from a really stressful few months. We had not been as present for our kids and each other as we wanted to be. And when we were present, it wasn’t the best versions of ourselves. Taking some time out from work to hang out as a family, whilst less stressed and less tired, was the sensible choice whilst the kids still want us around.
If you are struggling to evaluate whether a sabbatical is right for you, it may be because you don’t have a ‘why’.
If you do decide on a sabbatical, what comes next?
Where, when and for how long?
Once you’ve figured out your ‘why’ for taking a sabbatical, that will help you consider where to take your sabbatical, when to take it, and for how long.
Often your ‘why’ will drive which one of these questions you answer first. If you want to travel the world with your kids, then you will already have some thoughts on which countries you want to visit.
A few factors to consider in deciding on the ‘when’:
- school timetable if you have kids (or if you’re a teacher)
- timing of specific things you want to do / see on your sabbatical (e.g. no point going on a sabbatical in the first 6 months of the year if your big plan is to attend Oktoberfest)
- notice and approval period required by your employer
- timing your sabbatical around seasonal workloads to make it easier for your employer to approve your time off
What should you consider in deciding ‘how long’:
- what will your employer allow (assuming you intend on returning to your job)
- the amount you have saved for the sabbatical
- what you want to accomplish
We initially committed to taking 6 months off for our sabbatical, with the expectation that we’d probably stretch that out to a year.
However long your initial estimate is, it will probably not be long enough.
Factors to think about for ‘where’:
- passport / visa / COVID restrictions
- the amount you have saved
- school for your kids
- if you want to recover from burnout, then accessing a good counsellor may be a priority
- if you’ve been in a stressful situation, then taking a break from a place that may trigger a relapse would be wise
- location of a support community
We decided to take our sabbatical in Spain for a few reasons, such as the added benefits of a second language, a new culture, and of course, jamón. We wanted to have a home base during our year to avoid our kids feeling untethered after leaving Zambia. From a visa perspective, the UK or somewhere else in Europe were the simplest options. And unless you are particularly fond of rain, your option will always be somewhere else.
What am I going to do all day?
A lot of the ‘what’ will be driven by your ‘why’.
One mistake I made early on was to pull out my ‘to-do’ list of the things that had built up over the years that I’d never been able to cross off. If I didn’t ‘achieve’ something every day, I felt like I had not been productive.
When friends asked me how we were filling our days, I felt like I had to justify my time. About three months in, Mrs C and I made a pact to get rid of our ‘to-do’ lists for the next 6 weeks. That felt incredibly liberating. We didn’t feel guilty about going out for leisurely breakfasts whilst the kids were in school. Or picking up a fiction book and reading it one sitting. This coincided with feeling significant reductions in our stress levels.
But what are the downsides of taking a sabbatical?
Will I be at a disadvantage when I return to work?
A big concern for sabbatical-ers is that they will be further down the pecking order when it comes to promotions and pay rises. And this probably depends on your employer.
One analogy is women returning to the workforce after maternity leave in Europe. Maternity leave in Europe can often be 6 – 12 months (vs only 6 – 12 weeks in the States!). Mrs C and friends who I’ve spoken with have had mixed feelings about this. Some feel like they’ve had to take a couple of steps back when they returned to work. It’s a risk.
What if I have no job to return to?
For those that give up work completely, the worry is that they will not be able to find a job when they finish their sabbatical. Or that they’ll have to take a lower level position to get back into the workforce. They are also concerned that prospective employers may look at the gap on their CV / resume and assume they are work-shy.
I have spoken to several people who have been in this position. The split was roughly 50:50 between those who stepped back onto the treadmill without losing ground and those who felt they had to take a step back. For those that had taken a step back, almost all felt they’d made up the ground within a couple of years.
I’ve had a couple of opportunities to take on a full time role after finishing my sabbatical. During the ‘interview’ processes, no one seemed concerned that I’d taken a year out. There are a few things you can do to minimize this risk, including:
- add a consulting role to your CV during the gap, even if the consulting is limited. My ‘consulting’ was helping the school my kids go to with their finances on a pro bono basis
- being able to talk about demonstrable new skills that explain what you’ve been doing with your time. Especially if these could benefit a new employer – like a second language
Any other downsides?
A slightly less common concern, mainly from those in pursuit of financial independence, is that a sabbatical will significantly delay their ‘retirement’ date. If you’re pursuing financial independence, I think a sabbatical may be just what you need. Especially if you’re not sure what your post-retirement life will look like. Perhaps a topic for a separate post.
This is more than enough for one day on sabbaticals. But after covering the big picture questions around a sabbatical, we haven’t yet touched on some of the more detailed practicalities. Like how do you manage your finances for a sabbatical. Or what have we learned from our sabbatical.
Let us know in the comments if there are aspects of a sabbatical you’d like us to cover in more detail.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.Mark Twain