What is a sabbatical leave? Everything you need to know

What is a sabbatical leave? Everything you need to know

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Taking a sabbatical is something that you may have heard of.

But, what is sabbatical leave? Many of us aren’t aware of its meaning or the benefits it can bring us. Put simply, a sabbatical is an extended period that you can take away from work for personal development. Doesn’t that sound good already?! Well, we’ve put together a complete guide on sabbatical leave to help you in deciding between whether a sabbatical will help your professional life and personal development. So, read on to find out exactly what a sabbatical leave entails and how you can spend yours wisely.   

What Is A Sabbatical Leave?

two women leaving work for sabbatical leave

The definition of a sabbatical leave is ‘a period during which an employee can take time away from work to study or travel.[i]’ The employee agrees this voluntary period of time away from work with their employer, whose permission the worker needs to take a sabbatical. During this break from work, the aim isn’t usually to rest or go on holiday as we do with our annual leave. Instead, a sabbatical should help employees reach a desired goal or long-term objectives, such as long-haul travel, a return to education or more time with family. 

So, rather than a holiday, a sabbatical is a career break, in a similar way to gap years for students.

How Does Sabbatical Leave Work?

person walking up staircase with black suitcase on sabbatical leave

Usually, an employer will offer a sabbatical, or an employee can take it, after they have worked with the company for a certain amount of years. Legally, there’s no minimum requirement for this, but generally it’s at least five years. Then, in order to take your sabbatical, you will have to request it months in advance. This gives your company time to process your request, approve it and arrange a replacement for you. 

Additionally, many companies have their own rules about sabbatical leave. For example, you may be required to take your sabbatical leave during a certain period of time after you become eligible for it or you may lose the opportunity. Plus, you may need to commit to staying with your current organisation for a specified period of time when you come back from sabbatical leave. 

Once you have confirmed the length and start date of your sabbatical leave, you can expect to have to take on some new duties at work before you leave. Since a sabbatical leave isn’t simply a short break, you may have to train a replacement who will cover your daily tasks while you are away, cover duties, complete new tasks, or a range of other things that you don’t need to consider when going on a short break. 

While you are on sabbatical leave, you are still employed by your company. This means that you are still bound to that organisation’s policies, including their stance on data protection, harassment, confidentiality and other schemes. 

How To Spend Your Time Wisely On Sabbatical Leave

Now you know all there is to know about taking a sabbatical, you may be wondering if it will be good for you. Well, generally, the answer is yes! Taking a sabbatical leave gives you a break from your regular routine and allows you to work on yourself, both personally and professionally. But, taking a year out of work can be incredibly daunting. If you’re considering taking a sabbatical, here are just some goals you can work towards in your time away from work. 

1. Take An Educational Course

You can use your sabbatical leave in many ways, but professional development may be one of the most helpful. During your break from work, you can develop your skills in any range of sectors. Whether you have a burning passion you’ve wanted to explore since high school or feel that there’s a part of your work life that you could do with developing, taking an educational course during your sabbatical leave can help you. 

For example, you could boost your growth and presence at work by exploring a range of HR courses, or choose a specialist subject from a range of career related courses to set up the perfect side hustle and fund your sabbatical leave. Plus, you can align many of these courses with your new out-of-work schedule, no matter what you find yourself doing! 

2. Go Travelling

One of the most common reasons for taking a sabbatical is travelling. The extended period of time off will give you the opportunity to take long term trips and really immerse yourself in the different cultures and experiences. 

Leaving on sabbatical can give you the chance to travel the world, go globe-hopping around the places that have always been on your bucket list or go backpacking around a more exotic continent. Alternatively, you could use your time to go on a road trip and find the hidden gems in your own country. 

Sabbatical leave allows you to really explore the places you travel to, soaking in the cultures and learning new things without the stressful reminders of returning to work as soon as you find yourself on home soil. So, take the opportunity and explore!

3. Start A Side Hustle

Since many sabbaticals are unpaid, you may need to find a way to support yourself during your absence from work. So, why not start a side hustle?! If you have a skill you’ve been dying to develop or an activity you’ve wanted to try for a long time, you can use your sabbatical to expand your skill set and start a small side hustle while you rest.  

Here are some of our favourite side hustle ideas you can start from the comfort of your own home: 

  • Start a blog
  • Create a digital zine 
  • Sell handmade goods
  • Teach or coach online
  • Start a dog walking service
  • Try freelancing
  • Work as a virtual assistant
  • Become an Uber driver
  • Start a YouTube channel

4. Try Volunteering

Volunteering is one of the best activities you can do; you get to help other people while contributing to your personal development. Well, while you’re on sabbatical leave, you’ll have plenty of time to devote yourself to volunteering. 

How you go about volunteering is up to you. For example, there are no doubt charities in your hometown that could use your assistance, such as in charity shops or during events. On the other hand, there are plenty of travel and volunteer programmes that you could enrol yourself on. 

Find a cause that you feel strongly about, and there will most definitely be something you can do on your sabbatical to show your support for it. Not only will doing so be of great help to the organisation you’re working with, but it will also give you the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made a positive change. Then, you can use these feelings to motivate and influence you throughout your sabbatical leave and beyond. 

5. Pursue Higher Level Education

A year out of work is the perfect time to seek next-level education. Whether you jumped into work straight from college or want to work towards earning a master’s degree, you’ll have all the time to do so. Perhaps you want to join a course that allows you to work to your own schedule, such as the Open University. Or, maybe joining some local college classes will help you reach your next steps in education. Whatever you’d like to do to pursue a higher level of education, you can do it!

Of course, you don’t just have to focus on traditional pursuits. Maybe you could start teaching at a local yoga studio to earn your teaching training certificate, or gain experience from people experienced in a specialist field, or leave time to read more diverse books. Use your sabbatical leave to boost your education however you’d like. 

6. Relax

woman on sabbatical leave relaxing

Of course, using your sabbatical leave for personal development and experiences is vital. But, among all the fun activities and educational gains you have planned, don’t forget to take some of your sabbatical leave to relax! A 9-to-5 working life can be stressful, and 50% of UK employees take sabbatical leave to escape this stress[ii]. So, make sure you take some time to really relax without the pushing pressures of work and other factors to increase your stress levels. In addition, make it a goal to work on your mental health so you are in a much better place to enjoy your sabbatical leave and return to work fully motivated.


How Long Is A Sabbatical?

The length of sabbatical leave depends on your employer. There is no legal agreement on the length of a sabbatical, and there are differing opinions on how long it should be. So, it’s up to you and your employer to settle on a suitable amount of time. However, as a general guide, sabbaticals usually last between one month and a year. Anything less than this is considered annual leave, and anything more a career break.

Do You Get Paid On Sabbatical?

There are no legal requirements for pay during a sabbatical leave. So, this depends on your employer and company. However, the majority of sabbaticals are unpaid. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. Some organisations may offer a fully paid sabbatical, while others may provide partly paid schemes. To confirm whether

Is There A Difference Between A Career Break and A Sabbatical?

Yes, there is a marginal difference between a career break and a sabbatical. Simply, a career break means that you quit your job and have no job to come back to. During a career break, individuals usually take time out from employment to work on themselves personally or professionally. On the other hand, a sabbatical is a period of time away from work that will eventually culminate in that individual returning to the same job or employer.


Taking A Sabbatical Your Way

The decision to take a sabbatical is a big one. However, if you have the opportunity, we would definitely recommend you take it! A sabbatical is the perfect way to take a break from your regular routine and gear yourself up for experiences that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Use our guide to help you start your sabbatical journey and try some of the activities we’ve discussed to get the most from your sabbatical leave. 


[i] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/sabbatical

[ii] https://employeebenefits.co.uk/issues/october-online-2017/50-uk-employees-take-sabbatical-escape-stress-working-life/

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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