What Is a Sabbatical? Meaning, Types, Examples & Planning

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A sabbatical is a period of (usually) unpaid time off of work between 3 and 12 months, though some companies offer paid sabbaticals as a reward for long service. In most countries they are a company perk, not a legal right, so taking one is not guaranteed.

Sabbaticals have become somewhat of a personal obsession of mine. I’ve taken three of them, signed them off for others who’ve worked for me, and now run one of the biggest sabbatical websites in the world.

Sabbaticals are used to travel the world, pursue a passion, volunteer in a developing country, or even just to avoid the burnout of a busy life at work.

This post covers off exactly what a sabbatical is, both is historic and modern contexts, includes examples of people who’ve taken one and links out to a wealth of resources to help you start planning your own break.

What is a Sabbatical?

Sabbatical Meaning: The History and Origins of Sabbaticals

challah bread with candles on the sabbathca depositphotos 64425169 l

The word sabbatical has its origins in the word sabbath, meaning a day of rest. In both Judaism and Christianity, one day a week is set aside as the sabbath day, a day of rest and worship.

The word sabbath is also used to refer to a sabbath year. This is the seventh year of the agricultural cycle set out by the Torah. In this sabbath year, the land is left to fallow, so it has a chance to rest, and the nutrients go back into the soil. This sabbath year was also known as a sabbatical year, and this is where the origin of sabbatical came from.

The use of the word sabbatical year then evolved into the academic world, and it became a period of paid leave given once every seven years to a university teacher, which allowed grow their knowledge through travel, study or undertaking a pursuit such as helping out at an archaeological dig.

Sabbatical has now become a general term, used for either paid or unpaid leave given as a benefit to employees by their company.

Sabbatical Defined: The Modern Rise of Sabbaticals

The modern sabbatical definition is a period of paid or unpaid time off that offers you the chance to return to your job role or a close equivalent at the end of it. They are a benefit offered by many companies to increase loyalty and allow employees to build space into their careers to do everything from spending time with family to learning a new skill.

A sabbatical is generally seen as more than four weeks, and up to a year, with companies having different policies as to what is allowed. In most countries they are not a legal requirement (such as sick or maternity pay), but some (such as Australia) have made long-service leave mandatory, though this is not technically classed as sabbatical leave.

Whilst on sabbatical, your benefits are normally frozen (for example pay, pension payments and share earnings), though you can usually continue to accrue pro-rata related benefits, for example:

  • Annual leave allowance will continue to be earned. If you cross the end of the ‘holiday year’ arrangements should be made to pay you for outstanding holiday you have accrued
  • Length of service will increase
  • Sick pay allowance will continue to grow if it is pro-rata based on length of service.
Different types of sabbatical leave

Extended breaks of up to five years are uncommon but not unusual, but these tend to be classed as ‘career breaks’, and often involve a break of service.

When you come back after a career break, you have essentially left the company, so you won’t be guaranteed the same role. Make sure you consult all documentation available to you from your company to understand what type of break (if any) is available to you.

RESOURCES

Sabbatical 101 Resources

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Why Are Sabbaticals Becoming More Popular?

Sabbaticals have become more popular as workplace pressures have increased in our ‘always on’ modern society. Employees are no longer staying in career-long jobs, and more are now willing to take risks as they move through their life.

Alongside this, we have also seen the rise in remote working, accelerated by the Covid pandemic. As the internet age has dawned, the ability to work away from a typical office environment has given workers more freedom and autonomy. This taste of freedom has given people time and space to think, and also allowed them to realise that work doesn’t always have to mean a workplace.

This is far from being a global experience, there are some industries that will always need people in traditional roles, such as bobbies on the beat, and nurses at the bedside. It would be pretty hard to justify working from home as a fire officer! But if you are in an industry where there is more freedom, then your possibilities are increasing by the day.

Why take a sabbatical? 4 Hour Work Week

In April 2007 Tim Ferriss released ‘The 4 Hour Work Week‘. Given it spent more than four years on the New York Times bestseller list, it clearly captured the imagination of a generation of people keen to try something different, and rebel against the ever-increasing demands of modern-day corporate life. The book talks at length about ‘mini-retirements’ and building travel into your career rather than waiting until the end of it. For many people, this book was an inspiration and kick-started a different way of thinking about work-life balance.

Reasons For Taking Sabbatical Leave

There are lots of reasons why people take a sabbatical from work, but I generally see them fall into five buckets:

  1. Spending time with a loved one
  2. Travel
  3. Achieving a life goal
  4. Learning a new skill
  5. Avoiding burnout

It is rare that your sabbatical falls into a single bucket.

For me, my first big sabbatical was a combination of wanting to travel, wanting to spend time with Mrs TSG before we started a family and to put in a firebreak after a tough few years in at work. This falls into three, if not four of the buckets above.

Whatever your reasons, you won’t be the first, take comfort in the fact there are lots of others who have done the same thing.

Sabbatical Benefits

There are lots of benefits of sabbatical leave, and these can be different person to person, but here are some examples of what a professional sabbatical could do for you.

It could:

  • Allow you to learn a new skill that will further your career.
  • Give you the opportunity to travel to parts of the world, embrace different cultures and meet people who will stick long in the memory.
  • Allow you to make a small difference in the world by completing conservation work, teaching a language or helping build a school.
  • Give you space and time to think about a big event that’s happened in your life and how to tackle it. A perspective you couldn’t have gained if you hadn’t taken the time to break from the norm.
  • Allow you to spend more time with a loved one, travelling the world and making up for lost time.
RESOURCES

Sabbatical Benefit Resources

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Types of Sabbatical

There are lots of different types of sabbatical leave.

At a top level, there are the two types – traditional academic sabbaticals for research or the most recent corporate sabbatical.

Within that though, the variations are endless. Some sabbaticals are paid, others aren’t. Some are used for creative reasons, some more like an extended vacation.

Academic Sabbaticals

a scholar in a blue jacket sitting in front of a green chalkboard depositphotos 178885894 xl

An academic sabbatical is a type of leave that is granted to scholars, researchers, and educators to pursue a specific project or area of study. During a sabbatical, individuals are given the opportunity to take a break from their regular work responsibilities and focus on a particular research or creative project that they may not have had time for during their regular work schedule.

Examples might include a history professor going to spend time doing detailed research at a library in Rome, an archaeology scholar helping out at a dig in Egypt or a chemist spending time working on a hypothesis without the distraction of teaching.

Sabbaticals are typically reserved for tenured faculty members or researchers and are usually allowed after every six or seven years of service. They are often granted for a period of six months to a year and can be taken either as a full-time break from work or as a part-time leave that allows individuals to balance their project work with their regular responsibilities.

One of the key benefits of sabbaticals is the opportunity to pursue a specific research or creative project that is of personal interest to the individual. This could include conducting fieldwork, writing a book, or developing a new curriculum or teaching methodology. During a sabbatical, individuals are given the time and space to fully immerse themselves in their work and make significant progress towards their goals.

In addition to individual projects, sabbaticals can also be a chance to engage with other scholars and educators, attend conferences and workshops, and collaborate on interdisciplinary research. Many universities and research institutions encourage sabbatical recipients to share their work with others and contribute to the broader academic community.

While academic sabbaticals can be incredibly rewarding, they do require a significant amount of preparation and planning. Individuals must develop a detailed proposal outlining their project and goals for the sabbatical and secure funding and resources to support their work. However, for those who are able to take advantage of a sabbatical, it can be a transformative experience that allows them to grow both personally and professionally.

Corporate Sabbatical Leave

Many employers do offer sabbatical leave or career breaks as an incentive or benefit to colleagues. It is hard to find specific statistics on the number of large companies that offer sabbatical leave as a benefit, however, this article from 2009, states it was 20% of companies and had grown by 36% from 2008.

This suggests that sabbaticals are a benefit that is on the rise amongst large companies as more HR strategists recognise the benefits to both employees and their employers.

This website is mostly based around the idea of a corporate sabbatical, individuals taking some time off from their current role to reset.

If you’re interested in taking a sabbatical from your corporate job, you first need to find out if there are sabbatical policies in place at your employer. From there you can work through the details of how much it will cost, how long you should take and where you should go, before starting the planning process.

Paid vs Unpaid Sabbaticals

Corporate sabbaticals are generally unpaid but are in some circumstances offered as a paid benefit. Paid sabbaticals are most often seen in the academic field, where time is taken off from regular work search as teaching to focus on research, or writing a book. These sabbaticals are often applied for, with a competitive process in place to weigh up the proposed value of the time to the institution.

There are more and more companies now offering paid sabbaticals as a benefit for long service, though you are still far more likely to work for a company that doesn’t than does..

Generally though, sabbatical has become a term more commonly used for an unpaid leave arrangement between an employer and employee.

Examples of How People Use Sabbaticals

Campervanning In Iceland

How an individual chooses to use their sabbatical leave is a very personal decision, and the possibilities are almost endless.

Here are some examples to get the thoughts flowing for you, with a complete list available on my sabbatical ideas page.

  • Travel
    • Overlanding with a group using a specialist company
    • Backpacking and travelling cheap by rail or bus
    • Staying in a single location to learn about a city by housesitting
    • Hiring or buying an RV an exploring an entire country
  • Learn (or Improve) a Skill
    • Immersing yourself in a new language
    • Learning to dive or doing divemaster training
    • Joining a martial arts camp such as Muay Thai
    • Learn to ski or become a ski instructor
  • Achieve a Life Goal
    • Write a book
    • Spend time with family (travel with a child or parent for example)
    • Journey to where your family roots are and learn more about them
    • Take on a physical challenge such as a long trek or ride around a country
    • Follow a sports team, such as an international cricket or rugby tour
  • Volunteer & Work Experience
    • Join a community building project in a foreign country
    • Teach English
    • Join a conservation effort
    • Help out at an archaeological dig
  • Humanitarian Aid
    • Support in a natural disaster zone
    • Volunteer as an aid worker

Planning a Sabbatical

If you’re looking to plan a sabbatical, then you’re in the right place. I have a full list of sabbatical planning guides you can use, and also lots of workplace resources.

Below, I cover the key questions in some brief detail, and link out to resources posts which will help you learn more.

Sabbaticals & Work Policies

office clerk searching files in the filing cabinet

Can I Take a Sabbatical?

Sabbaticals or career breaks are part of the benefits package that some companies offer. The best way to find out if this benefit is written into your company policies is to ask your HR team, or read the appropriate section of their website or intranet.

Often the sabbatical policy will have some conditions attached to it, here are a few examples:

  • You need a minimum length of service
  • You do not qualify if you’ve had a poor performance of absence record
  • You may not be able to take one if there is no replacement for your role
  • A poor disciplinary record or a disciplinary process that is currently taking place

Please note, this is not an exhaustive list, so please consult the HR conditions from within your own company before applying to take time away from work.

How Sabbaticals Compare To Other Types Of Leave

A sabbatical might not be your only option if you’re looking for an extended break.

Here are some other options that may be available to you:

Annual Leave

Yes, I know it seems obvious (or if you’re in countries such as America where leave is limited, then impossible) but saving up your annual leave is a good way to take an extended break from your career. Here in Australia, leave rolls over, so if you have a year when you save on leave (maybe only taking two weeks) the following year you could have enough for a six-week block.

There are obviously sacrifices in this method, taking only two weeks leave in the year before will feel like hard yards (or as Americans call it, normal!) and then taking all the leave in the following year as a single chunk will leave long stretches of work time, but imagine what you could do with a month or six weeks off.

Even in the UK, where you may get four or five weeks of leave a year, but it does not roll over past year-end, you could ask to take all your leave for the year in one block and give yourself a mini-sabbatical.

Long-Service Leave

Some business and countries also offer long service leave.

Australia, for example, offers additional leave for those who stay loyal to the same company for seven years (interestingly, the same period of time that was traditionally given between sabbaticals).

Instead of taking an unpaid break, stay loyal for seven years, and you’ll qualify for a break that could be combined with annual leave and turned into a large block of time away from the workplace.

Whilst I appreciate not every employer or country offers this, it is something to consider.

Gardening Leave

Gardening leave is when an employee has resigned, and is asked not to come to the workplace during their notice period, but is still paid. It is normally in jobs where the employee has high-level of knowledge of the business, that they do not want to be given to their next employer, so they create an artificial gap between jobs.

It is not something that can be really planned for, however if it does happen, it can be seized upon to create a mini-sabbatical. This is what happened to me in one of my first sabbaticals. I was put on gardening leave, and Mrs TSG and I went and lived in Cape Town for a couple of months. It was heaven, and left me fully recharged for my next role.

Leave Salary Sacrifice

This is another option that some employers offer that would allow you to build up more leave to take a sabbatical.

In one business I worked for, ex-pat employers were allowed to sign up for 48/52 leave (with their line manager’s approval), which meant your salary was reduced by four weeks, but you got four weeks extra leave a year. The win-win part of this, was that if you didn’t take the leave, you could cash it out anyway, meaning costs could be recouped if needed.

This meant an employee could move to eight weeks of leave a year, giving more chance for larger breaks to visit family in other countries (hence only being available to ex-pats).

Further Sabbatical Options

There are a couple of other ways you can build in a break to your career, without having to take unpaid leave from your current employer.

Leaving Space Between Jobs

A clever way to take a sabbatical, without the potential risk of pissing off your boss, is to build time between companies. If you have interviewed for one role, and resigned from another, then you could set your start date into the future, leaving a gap for you to recharge between roles.

I did exactly this when moving to Australia, with our eight-week gap used to sort out our house in the UK, say goodbye to family and see a bit of Europe.

This approach still has some risk, especially if your new employer is keen to get you started, but with a little negotiation (sell the benefits of how refreshed you’ll be!), it can prove to be the reset you need.

Quitting

This is the most extreme version of getting a break. Quitting your current job, without another one lined up, with the intention of escaping for a while.

It’s not something I’ve ever done, so I don’t feel qualified to talk about it, but have a read of 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Quitting Your Job to Travel for some practical advice.

Sabbatical Leave Steps

Can I Afford a Sabbatical?

Once you’ve figured out you want to take a sabbatical, this is probably the next question that comes up.

How much does it afford?

It’s actually fairly easy to calculate.

  1. Calculate any costs that cannot be cancelled while you are away (such as your mortgage)
  2. Calculate any big one-off costs associated with the sabbatical (flights, jabs, visas etc)
  3. Calculate your daily cost of living while you are off(use a website such as nomadlist.com to do this if you plan to travel)

This should give you a rough estimate of how much your sabbatical will cost (or download my free calculator which does the same thing)

When To Take a Sabbatical

Working out when to take a sabbatical is the next step.

There are two parts to this.

The first is when is it right for you to take the sabbatical? You’ll probably already know this, and it will be guided by factors such as weather in the places you are looking to visit, festivals, when family are free and so on.

The second, and less frequently considered, is when is it right for your company? If you want to return to your job at the end of the sabbatical, building in their needs is an astute move. Examples of this would be an accountant not asking for time off over the end of the financial year or a retailer not asking for time off over Christmas.

How To Ask For a Sabbatical (& Get One!)

Once you know you qualify for a sabbatical, and you’ve figured out when you want it, there’s no point doing a lot more until it’s been signed off.

In ‘How To Ask For a Sabbatical‘ I set out nine steps to get in front of your boss and get that sabbatical signed off:

  1. Brush up on Sabbatical Leave Policy
  2. Put Together Compelling Reasons
  3. Consider When is Best
  4. Build a Plan for Your Absence
  5. Book The Meeting
  6. Plan The Meeting
  7. On The Day
  8. After The Meeting
  9. Keep Your Foot on The Gas

Sabbatical Leave Planning: A Job In Itself!

Once you get the sabbatical signed off, the real work begins!

From sorting out a home for your pets, to purchasing travel insurance, getting vaccinations to organising for your mail to be forwarded, there is a huge list that needs to be worked through (this of course depends on what type of sabbatical you will be taking, if you’re staying at home to write a book, most of this won’t apply).

I have set all of these tasks into a 12-week countdown checklist for you to use.

The most important thing, is to get all these little jobs into one place and start working through them step-by-step.

RESOURCES

Sabbatical Planning Resources

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What is a Sabbatical? – Final Summary

Here is a final summary of 16 things you should know about taking a sabbatical, and resources which will help you do so.

For more information keep scrolling to the detailed guides further down.

  1. A sabbatical is an extended period of time off of work – usually between three and twelve months.
  2. Sabbaticals are becoming more and more popular so you’re not alone! (check out the increasing trend on this post)
  3. Sabbaticals aren’t all about travel, though often people take them to see other parts of the world. Looking for inspiration? Here are 30 Life-Changing Sabbatical Ideas, from writing a book to learning to dive.
  4. Sabbaticals are generally unpaid though there are some parts of the world (such as Australia) where you earn ‘long-service leave’ that can be taken as a sabbatical.
  5. Most countries have no laws that protect you during a sabbatical they are given as a benefit, not enshrined in employment law.
  6. There is not a lot of difference between a ‘sabbatical’ and a ‘career break’ though some companies use those terms in different ways.
  7. The four main reasons people take a sabbatical are to experience, achieve something, spend time with a loved one or recharge (and sometimes all four!).
  8. In fact many people take a sabbatical with their entire family.
  9. Sabbatical has its origins in the word sabbath meaning ‘to rest’.
  10. One of the key elements of a sabbatical is that it is temporary, with the aim of returning to your job at the end of it. Here are nine examples of people who did exactly that.
  11. It is still possible to take a sabbatical even if your business doesn’t have a specific policy. Find out how…
  12. In interviews I’ve completed, most people said ‘telling the boss’ made them most nervous at work before taking a sabbatical. Learn how to ask for a sabbatical in nine simple steps.
  13. A sabbatical can completely change the course of your life, giving new skills or a new outlook.
  14. Money, loss of income & how will I pay my bills? All answers to the question ‘what is your biggest worry when taking a sabbatical? from my annual survey. Worries about financing a sabbatical always comes out top.
  15. The most popular length of sabbatical is three months.
  16. There are as more than 35 jobs to tick of the to-do list in the months before leaving for a sabbatical.
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AUTHOR – BEN REEVE

Reeves Roam, is a first-hand travel blog. The Reeves have lived in the UK, South Africa and Australia and have travelled extensively in Europe and Southeast Asia.

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