What can you do when that two-week holiday just doesn’t cut the mustard? When you’re stuck in a rut and need something big to re-energise your life, but don’t fancy quitting your job, selling your possessions and moving to an ashram?
Maybe it’s time for a sabbatical: an extended period away from your job and everyday life, perhaps to explore the world. It may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s easier than you think and potentially one of the most enriching travel experiences to boot.
A sabbatical is an agreed, usually unpaid (unless you’re lucky) amount of time off work, lasting anything from a month to a year or more. The word derives from ‘of the sabbath’: a rest from work. However, these days there’s little relaxation involved – many people use sabbaticals to volunteer overseas, learn a new language, hike a long-distance trail or have a myriad of other epic experiences that are hard to squeeze into a standard holiday allowance.
First you need to find out if the company you work for has a sabbatical policy. There are no laws forcing companies to offer sabbaticals, although a growing number do, recognising that they can help increase staff retention and help avoid employee burn-out.
If your company does have a policy, there will probably be provisos. You will certainly need to have worked for them for a specified time. There may be a limit to how long your break can be; your pension and salary will likely be frozen; you may be banned from doing paid work for anyone else while away. If you don’t qualify, or agree with the terms, you may have to wait – or resign.
If your workplace doesn’t have a specific sabbatical policy, you can still raise the idea. Perhaps mention it casually at first, to gauge reaction. If you want to make a formal request, arrange a meeting with your boss, armed with a strong case. You need to think about what you want to get out of the experience and what you will achieve, because you need to convince the boss that taking time off will benefit both you and the company. Perhaps start with the fact that it can cost around £8,000 to recruit a new member of staff! But also stress how your break will teach you new skills; how it will invigorate your colleagues, who may have to step up in your absence; and how you will return with fresh ideas and motivation. The more you can show how good it will be for you personally and professionally, the more likely it is you’ll be granted the time away.
Taking a sabbatical isn’t risk-free – you could still be made redundant while you’re away and your pension contributions could be affected. If possible get some kind of job assurance down in writing before you go.
Deciding what to do on your sabbatical is the fun part: the possibilities are almost endless. You could teach English in Japan, learn to cook in Tuscany, build a school in Mozambique, unicycle across France. If you have a passion, or an ‘I’ve always wanted to...’, now is the time to indulge it. That said, consider how it will appear to your employer and on your CV. Three months spent drinking cocktails on the beach in Thailand is less likely to convince a sceptical boss than the same period spent helping conserve coral reefs. You may even want to consider doing something that will directly enhance your career; for example, will becoming proficient in Chinese get you a promotion when you return?
So, get planning. “I did quite a bit of research,” says Rebecca Franks, who took a three-month sabbatical from her job in Bristol. “There were so many different things I wanted to do that narrowing it down took a lot of (very enjoyable) research – looking at maps, magazines and pictures, and talking to lots of people about places they’d been. Once I’d decided to go to Florence for a month to learn Italian, and then to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the logistical planning seemed easy.”
If you’re planning to take school-age children, there are extra considerations. You could choose to travel during the summer holidays, put the kids into a foreign school for a term or take on the challenge of homeschooling them.
Finances are a key aspect of planning a sabbatical. Can you afford not to be paid for months? You’ll need money not only to fund your adventure but to cover continuing at-home expenses. Or can you take a mortgage holiday or rent out your home?
Go through everything. How much do you have saved? How much do you need? Think about how much you’ll spend while you’re away (which will vary greatly depending on the destinations and activities you choose), and set a daily budget, factoring in extra for emergencies. Be prepared to live frugally before you go, to bolster your savings.
Note, some companies won’t let you return from a sabbatical earlier than the date you’ve agreed – don’t assume that, if you run out of money, you can automatically go straight back to your job.
Taking a break, doing something new and gaining a different perspective can have a profound effect. TV producer Petra Shepherd took an active sabbatical in South America, and found it was a chance to alter her lifestyle: “My job was very social with lots of parties and events – and lots of food and alcohol. The sabbatical was a detox of both mind and body! I did lots of treks, giving me time to reflect, and get fit too.”
For CEO Tilly Boulter, who took a sabbatical with her two children, it changed her career path: “I’m about to leave the publishing company I run with my business partner to set up a company running children’s nurseries.”
It might just be a welcome boost. Rebecca Franks says, “I came back to work with more energy and enthusiasm, with fresh ambition and confidence, and wider horizons." Seeing the world away from your desk can recharge your life in myriad ways. It might inject life into your old career, or even inspire a new one.
Why did you decide to take a sabbatical?
I love to travel so when the chance to take a three-month sabbatical [learning Italian and climbing Kilimanjaro] came up after five years in my job, it seemed too good to ignore. There wasn’t a specific reason; the timing just seemed right for a break.
What were the biggest challenges?
The thought of climbing Kili was pretty daunting. Buying all the kit I needed was a mammoth task as well. My last month in work was hectic, but they were really supportive of what was I doing, which made everything easier.
What did you get out of it?
Great memories, new friends, a new language (well, a few words!), time away to think, a new-found love of Africa – and lots of photos. And I was so chuffed to make it to the top of Kilimanjaro. I’ll never forget walking on the snowy summit at sunrise.
What were you hoping to achieve?
I hoped to do something completely different from everyday life, to learn something new, to see more of the world and to have an adventure.
How did you feel when you returned to work – was it difficult?
More strange than difficult. Three months can slip by quite uneventfully at work, whereas it felt like so many new and unexpected things had happened in my three months away.
Would you do it again?
Yes, in the right circumstances. It was really valuable both personally and professionally but it might have been harder if my work hadn’t been happy for me to come back to my job.
What tips would you give others?
Do it! Decide what you want to get out of your time off – I wanted to learn something and do something challenging – and then prepare. If everything’s in place before you go, there’s more time to enjoy it when you’re there. That said, the feeling of freedom was part of the joy.
Be serious about saving. Pay off any debts before you leave; forgo meals out, weekends away and new clothes; create a separate savings account for your sabbatical fund; create budgeting spreadsheets.
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