Put down the travel brochures and quit dreaming about Mai Tais. Taking a work sabbatical doesn’t mean going on holiday for six months. Instead, it’s about nurturing yourself, developing new skills, and then bringing those skills back into your company to deliver fresh insights.
The number of people demanding sabbaticals is rising, as more employees than ever demand greater flexibility from their company. The number of freelancers is also increasing, and companies understand that if they don’t consider requests for learning, flexible working, and self-development, they might struggle to retain workers.
What is a sabbatical?
A sabbatical is a break from work. Depending on your industry and how senior you are, it may be paid, and it could last anywhere between one month and a year. Some academics have been known to take five year sabbaticals to finish a book or piece of research that will benefit the university as a whole.
As well as completing projects, you may use a sabbatical to retrain, skill up, develop your knowledge of different areas, write or even improve your health. At any rate, if the alternative to a career break is quitting, then taking some time out to consider all your options is better than simply walking away.
Why are they growing in popularity?
Ivor Twydell of Alquemy, thinks that one of the reasons sabbaticals are increasing in popularity is because young people want their career to offer a meaningful experience, one which is possibly more important than financial rewards. “To be able to have the experience of some time out to get a greater sense of who they are and what they want from life is essential if they are going to continue to be highly motivated. If we think about Maslow’s’ hierarchy of needs, once someone has all the basic needs met, the higher-level need of ‘self-actualization’ kicks in. If this need is met, a person is more likely to be satisfied and able to express their creativity and ability to be innovative both in personal life and business life.”
Caroline Conway was 37 when she took a sabbatical. Her reasoning for taking some time out was slightly different. “I don’t have children, yet pretty much all of my female friends were paid by their companies to take time off to have a child in their 30s. While they were bringing up a child, they also had time to reflect on their next steps. Several started their own businesses, or used the maternity period to write a book, or retrain. I saw the way that time out benefitted them and I decided to ask my work too. They agreed to pay me at half rate for six months while I do some skill-based training, and volunteered in Nepal. I came back with more skills, feeling really refreshed. It was a win-win situation.”
She adds that many of her friends were envious, and asked how she had been able to afford it.
Twydell agrees that taking a sabbatical is about taking stock, but he adds for many it can feel like an unrealistic idea. “The idea of a sabbatical, for many, would be just that – a nice idea but in the ‘real’ world how can I keep my life on track if I take time off for this? Will it mean my job will suffer? Will people criticise me for it? Will they think I am being selfish or weak? For those who do take a sabbatical it is because they realise they need to be able to step back, pause and take stock of where they are in life to be able to find a refreshed sense of purpose about who they are and where they are heading.”
You only live once, so make the most of what you’ve got
Ross McWilliam, founder of Developing Minds, has taken a couple of career breaks, which is only natural as he’s 57. A former physical education teacher, he trained to become a ‘mindset professional’, which means helping people (including kids) achieve the most they can, simply from shifting their perspective. To do this, he took some time out. “I was working in a professional football club, but I decided I wanted to take another direction. I used that time out to network and spoke to about 50 different people who were working in the field of promotional speaking. I wanted to figure out what drove me emotionally, as well as obviously financially.”
He recommends networking because it’s a great way to get insight into other professions. As well as helping you to rule out some specific professions, it’s also a great way to rule other ones in. “I was in my late 40s and I just knew I wanted to do something different. It was a now or never time, and I thought, I have to get it right at this stage. What’s the worst that can happen? And then I thought, what’s the best that can happen too?”
Is it always a good idea to take a sabbatical?
If you think you just need some time out, then that’s what it is - a career break. You might use this time to relax. Take some unpaid leave instead, but this isn’t really a sabbatical.
But if you want to retrain, then they’re usually a great idea. There may be times when it’s inappropriate - for example if your workplace is in the middle of a big project. But most employers understand that it’s never a good idea just to deny workers what they might feel they need. Twydell suggests: “To say no is going to cause those feelings to be suppressed and the employee is likely to become disengaged and demotivated. This will not be beneficial to the business or the individual as it will impact on their energy and sense of worth and may even cause the person to think about leaving.”
When you ask for a sabbatical, make a case for it, like you would any other business proposition. You’re asking your boss to trust you, to give you time, and they want to see that you take yourself and your time seriously.
Will it benefit everyone else?
Conway found that when she returned to work after her sabbatical, she was initially told by everyone how eager she seemed. “I’d really missed everyone in the office. I wanted to get stuck in, meet the new people, and show off the new skills I’d learned. I felt happier and more comfortable in the office.”
Twydell says: “Sabbaticals benefit everyone in the team. For one of the team to return with a greater sense of ease, more motivated, clearer on where they are heading in life, more creative and innovative – how can that not be good for the team? Particularly if it is the team leader.”
Taking time out is positive for everyone, especially if you feel like you’re at breaking point with your current career. Have a think, plan, and make changes to your life.