Sabbatical Planner Series Part I: Considering a Sabbatical

Where Do I Begin?

Ah, the dream of taking a few months off from work to research, rest or even plan a new career direction may seem impossible for most people. A few companies have a sabbatical or extended leave policy and, if your organization is one of them, your quest for a sabbatical may already have a path to follow. If your organization is not familiar with the sabbatical concept, there is still a possibility to take an extended leave of absence to achieve your goals. With careful planning and a little discipline, you may be able to realize that dream. 

People want to take sabbaticals for a variety of reasons. Some want to use the extended time away to do research related to their work. Others need a break from the constant stress of their jobs. And still others need to step back and assess where they have been, where they are, and where they are headed.

The idea of taking an extended leave from your career can be daunting or exhilarating depending on your situation. If you are focused on research for your work the planning snags will probably come in making arrangements rather than what you will do during a sabbatical. Many institutions based in research or education have sabbatical policies in place, so presenting your goals may be your primary concern.

On the other hand, if your reason for a sabbatical leave is about preventing burnout or assessing your career, then your challenges will be justifying your absence to your employer. They will want to know how you will use the time to improve your work and how you will delegate your responsibilities in your absence. 

There are a few questions you need to answer to determine what kind of sabbatical you should take, how long you will need, and how this time off will benefit your career and life. Being able to articulate why you want to take a sabbatical will go a long way to helping you justify it to your family and your organization. The following questions should help you clarify your thinking and, perhaps, help you begin planning. 

  • Why do you need time off?

Be specific and be honest with yourself. These answers are for 'your eyes only'. In the case of burnout, are you merely escaping a difficult situation that you will return to, or will the time off help you to resolve the situation? If you are assessing your career and considering alternate future paths, how will taking time off help you in that endeavor? If you are doing research, how will the results enrich your work and career?

  • What will you do during your sabbatical?

If your sabbatical is research-oriented, you will want to list the resources you need to consult as well as how you will process the resulting information. If you are escaping burnout, activities that help you heal are important as well as those that help you learn skills to mitigate the burden of stress. For those planning for their career, you might want to identify a mentor to guide you, and activities to clarify your career journey thus far. For any sabbatical, make time for rest, relaxation, and reflection. 

  • How long do you think you need away from work?

We all would love to take a year off to reflect, research or rest, but realistically that may not be possible. The negotiation for your sabbatical may determine its length. Yet, it is important to identify the goal of your sabbatical and how much time it will take to conduct the activities leading to the achievement of that goal. If your organization offers less time than you need to achieve your goal, can you divide the work into discreet parcels to be accomplished during a sabbatical, subsequent vacations, and holidays to complete it?  For research purposes and career evaluation, this is a real possibility. For burnout, you may have to work a little harder to persuade your organization that the extra time you want is truly necessary. Otherwise, can you reign in your expectations to fit the time offered? If not, will you try to re-negotiate the terms?

  • Is there any other way to achieve your goal? If not, what might be the impact of your absence?

Sometimes taking a short break can make all the difference. Have you considered taking a short break to test the impact of an extended leave of absence? Taking a short break may help you to plan how you will use your time during a sabbatical. You might consider it a "test run". This test run can also help you plan how you to delegate your work during your absence, and assess the impact on your colleagues. Ask yourself if there is any way to achieve your goal within your normal time off, such as weekends, holidays, or vacations? Could you combine any of these to get a longer chunk of time-off? If not, what plans will you have to put in place to distribute your work to others?

  • When you return from sabbatical, what changes do you expect in your attitude towards work, your colleagues, your future career plans, and/or your life goals?

Here is where the rubber meets the road. Taking time away from work must have a benefit to either your life goals or your career goals. What do you want to get out of this time off? If you are burned out, you might expect to rest as well as work through activities to help re-ignite a passion for your work. Consider the impact this time off will have on your career performance and in your life. If you are planning your future, how will you measure the return on investment for this time for you and your employer? As a research sabbatical, will the results move you forward in your work and bring significant personal satisfaction? And, no matter what your reasons for a sabbatical, consider how this time will enrich your personal life and relationships.

Imagine yourself at the end of your sabbatical. How are you different as a result of this time spent away from work? Consider your work, career and your personal life in the equation. 

The answers to these questions will help you to determine why you need a sabbatical, how long it should be. Additionally, you might develop an idea of the goals for the time away, and consider its impact when you return to work. 

Ready to learn more about planning a sabbatical? Get the next worksheet Preparing for Your Sabbatical here.

Robin North