Take a Sabbatical Without Derailing Your Career

Take a Sabbatical Without Derailing Your Career

Are you feeling burned out at your job and in need of the sort of profound refreshment that a two-week vacation can’t begin to achieve? Maybe it’s time for you to go for a career sabbatical, an extended break from your career that can give you the space to explore new directions in your life -- personal or professional.

It’s not easy to get a handle on how likely you are to be granted an extended leave from your employer, even if you’re willing to forgo pay.

The consensus of surveys is that about 20 percent of employers offer what they call a sabbatical, mostly unpaid. Some prestigious firms, including Nike and Newsweek, have offered months-long leaves at full or partial pay. Small firms like Imre Communications of Baltimore, Maryland, offer two weeks extra paid time off every few years, really more of a bonus vacation than a sabbatical.

But when most professionals think sabbatical, they have an extended leave of three or six or 12 months in mind, not just a few weeks, and these career breaks are still rarely granted by US corporations. To take yours, you may need to quit your job with no guarantee your employer will welcome you back.

Certainly, interest in sabbaticals is high among American professionals. Sixty-eight percent of women and 58 percent of men said they would consider taking an extended leave from work, according to an online survey and straw poll by creative staffing firm Aquent and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.

Here’s how to plan and take a sabbatical while reducing the chances you’ll derail your career.

Learn About Your Company’s Sabbatical Policy (If Any)

It’s something of a long shot, but look through your employee manual for mention of sabbatical benefits or ask a trusted human resources representative. “Employers are more open to people coming in and out of the workforce than we think,” says Denise Nash, director of work/life initiatives at Aquent. “But at many companies, the formal policies aren’t in place yet.”

Prepare a Positive Pitch

Before you mention your notion of an extended leave to even one colleague, carefully formulate your upbeat story of what you want to do, why and when you’ll return. “The word ‘sabbatical’ has a certain strength to it,” says Hope Dlugozima, a vice president at WebMD and coauthor of Six Months Off. “Sabbatical sounds like a plan; it implies a certain amount of time and thoughtfulness. Because the word has power, you have to live up to it.”

Think Creatively with Your Boss

If you intend to return to your current employer after your sabbatical and your employer doesn’t officially offer an extended leave, be prepared to brainstorm. “If your boss offers you a raise or bonus, ask if you can have two months off instead,” says Dlugozima. Some firms will even give you money for a creative travel sabbatical that could bring the company good press, Dlugozima adds.

Keep in Touch While You’re Away

Once you’re on sabbatical, whether it’s based in your hometown or on another continent, consider occasionally taking on a small freelance project to keep involved. “If you can do a project once in a while, you can stay out on sabbatical for a longer time,” says Nash.

Just keeping in touch with your coworkers or other professionals can boost your chances for a smooth and successful reentry, according to Ken Montgomery, director of corporate communications for LogicalApps in Irvine, California. “I took an 18-month career sabbatical to go to Malawi and teach in an orphan care program,” says Montgomery. “I was in this incredibly remote village, but we had electricity and a phone line, so I was able to hop online every three or four weeks and send a dispatch with digital photos. Part of this was, I didn’t want people to forget about me.”

Keep Your Skills Honed for Reentry

Sixty-one percent of hiring managers said that an updated skill set was the top factor in hiring workers who had been on an extended leave from the company or workforce, according to the Aquent study. It’s easy to neglect your professional memberships and licensing while your mind, and perhaps body, are elsewhere, but you do so at your own peril.

Next, “be in touch with the company months before your planned return,” says Cali Yost, president of Work+Life Fit in Madison, New Jersey, and a collaborator with Aquent and Tuck on the study. “And be prepared for the fact that you might return to a different job.”

If you do want to take a sabbatical without changing employers, the trend may be in your favor. Says Yost: “Companies are beginning to look at sabbaticals as a way to retain people.”