What’s a sabbatical and how does it work?

If you’re part of the 9-to-5 world, you may sometimes wonder what it’d be like to step away from your work responsibilities, just for a while. For lots of people, that’s not an option. But it could happen for you if your employer offers sabbaticals.

A sabbatical is an extended leave from work that’s often taken to allow time and space for professional development. How long does a sabbatical last? Is it paid? And how can you start planning for one?

Key takeaways

  • Sabbaticals can look different from industry to industry and company to company.
  • Institutions dedicated to academics and science are well known for offering sabbaticals.
  • A sabbatical can be paid, partially paid or unpaid, depending on an organization’s policy.
  • Sabbaticals offer advantages for both employees and employers. For example, they can give employees a renewed sense of purpose at work, and employers a tool for attracting and retaining talent.
  • Sabbaticals are different in key ways from standard paid time off (PTO), vacation, sick time and furloughs.

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What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an extended leave an employee takes from their job. They’re still employed during this time but they’ve stepped away from their daily work responsibilities. The duration of a sabbatical typically depends on an employer’s policies. 

A sabbatical is different from a furlough, which is a mandatory, temporary leave of absence an employee is required to take from their job. That’s because a sabbatical is agreed upon by an employer and their employee. Sabbaticals can also differ from other types of leave, like PTO, since they’re often longer and come with more variation in pay and benefits. 

Employees may use sabbaticals for a variety of reasons. They may want to pursue professional development or improve their work-life balance. At colleges and universities, where sabbaticals are common, professors and other academics use sabbaticals for activities like writing and research.

How does a sabbatical work?

Not all organizations offer sabbaticals as part of their benefits. But if your company does, it may help to know these additional details. 

Who qualifies for a sabbatical?

The requirements for qualification are ultimately guided by the organization’s policies. And requirements may differ widely between employers.  

To help your employer see the value of your taking a sabbatical—and increase your chances of qualifying for one—an honest discussion with your manager is recommended by the job website Indeed. 

Indeed suggests making a list of how your time away could help the company. For example, you could include that it might: 

  • Benefit from the new skills you’ll gain while you’re away.
  • Have a more productive and energized employee return to the company.
  • Save money that would normally go toward your salary.

Indeed also recommends scheduling a talk with your HR representative. You could cover, for example, company benefits such as paid leave for a number of weeks that could help you during your time away.

How long is a sabbatical?

Like eligibility, the length of a sabbatical varies based on the organization.

According to Indeed, “A sabbatical can range in length from several weeks to a year or more, though most range from four weeks to a year.”

Sabbatical: paid or unpaid?

Sabbaticals fall into 2 broad categories: paid and unpaid.

  • Paid sabbatical: Paid sabbaticals offer compensation during the leave. Sabbatical packages vary by employer. Some sabbaticals will offer employees full pay throughout their leave while others may offer a percentage of their salary. 
  • Unpaid sabbatical: Unpaid sabbaticals permit workers to take time off from their job but don’t allow them to continue drawing their salary. 

Benefits of a sabbatical

Sabbaticals can be beneficial to both employees and employers. 

Sabbatical benefits for employees

Sabbaticals can help employees by offering:

  • Increased well-being  
  • Educational growth 
  • Renewed professional enthusiasm

Sabbatical benefits for employers

Sabbaticals can benefit employers in these ways:

  • Increased employee satisfaction and retention 
  • Improved talent acquisition
  • Enhanced organizational reputation 

How to take a sabbatical

If you’re considering taking a sabbatical, you may want to start with the following actions: 

  • Discuss your idea with your employer. Having an honest conversation with management can lead to a plan that works for you both. 
  • Evaluate your finances. Your organization may offer your full salary during a sabbatical. But if it doesn’t, it may help to consider how your finances will be impacted. And if your organization doesn’t offer you full benefits, you might want to explore whether you can do without them for a period of time. 
  • Plan your sabbatical. Once your employer has signed off on your sabbatical, it may be time to start thinking ahead. For example, how can you help your employer provide coverage for your job while you’re away? And what will your reentry plan look like? You can also plan the sabbatical itself: What do you hope to accomplish? How will you spend your time? 

Sabbatical FAQ

Here are a few common questions about sabbaticals.

A major difference between a sabbatical and PTO is length of time. A sabbatical is an extended period of time away from work while vacation time is generally shorter and spread throughout the year. Another key difference is pay. When an employee takes PTO, they generally receive their full salary during that time off. But a sabbatical may or may not be paid leave. 

People take sabbaticals for a variety of personal and professional reasons. The opportunity for professional development is a common one. Other reasons for taking a sabbatical include the desire to:

  • Travel
  • Gain new skills
  • Go back to school
  • Spend more time with family

If your employer offers paid sabbaticals, affordability may not be an issue for you. But if it doesn’t, you may want to plan ahead. For example, you might want to open a savings account dedicated to your sabbatical right away. The funds you save could help cover things like your living expenses and the cost of training and education. 

Sabbaticals in a nutshell

Sabbaticals typically benefit both employees and their employers. They can help contribute to everything from a new sense of purpose for employees to an enhanced reputation for their organizations. 

Sabbaticals can be an important part of an organization’s benefits package—one that could help attract and retain talent. Learn about other employee fringe benefits, like tuition assistance, PTO and more, that can be attractive to prospective employees.

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