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How to ask for a sabbatical in 2024: 5 easy steps

How to ask for a sabbatical is a question that often comes up when I’m talking to people about planning a grown-up gap year.

And it’s a really important thing to consider. While it may feel like deciding should I quit my job or take a sabbatical is the most difficult part of making this life-change, actually the hurdle can often be getting the company you work for to agree to it. 

That’s why it’s really important to be strategic in the way you go about asking for a sabbatical. Sure, you could just march up to the person in charge and demand one. However, you’re much more likely to have a successful outcome if you go about it in a more thoughtful way.

The main thing you’ve got to bear in mind when asking for a sabbatical is keeping things as straight-forward as possible for your organisation. Bosses and HR teams are busy people. The last thing they need is employees who make spur of the moment requests to take a sabbatical, without thinking through any of the implications.

But with a little bit of thought and planning it is really easy to make a strong case for a break from work.

So here’s my five easy steps to ask for a sabbatical: 

1. Check your company’s policy before you ask for a sabbatical

Before you ask for a sabbatical, it’s important that you check your company’s career break policy. Nowadays many organisations, such as the BBC, have clear policies for employees. However, if you are not able to find them in the contract you signed or on your staff Intranet, speak to your HR team.

Sabbatical policies will vary, depending on different businesses and industries. Some companies offer their employees the opportunity to take a sabbatical after they have been with the business for a certain number of years.

This may be something worth thinking about when you accept a job offer, if asking for a sabbatical is something you know you would like to do in the future.

If you have fulfilled the time requirement of working for the organisation, then speak to HR to find out what the next steps are. Do you need to make a formal application to ask for a sabbatical? Do you need to speak to your line manager? Whatever the process is, make sure you follow it correctly. Keep things in writing where possible, as this will ensure that any agreements made are understood by all parties.

If there is no formal sabbatical procedure at your company, then you can still request one. Just because nobody has asked for a sabbatical before, doesn’t mean that they will say no. But again, you need to make sure you build a strong case for taking one. 

2. Think about what you want from a sabbatical

Ahead of asking for a sabbatical, ask yourself why you want to take one? Is it because you’re feeling stressed and you need a break from work? Is it because it’s something you’ve always wanted to do and you think you’ll regret it if you don’t? Or do you want to mark a certain stage in your life, like when I decided to take a grown-up gap year ahead of my 30th birthday?

Alternatively it might be to take time off to carrying out some caring responsibilities, to study or to take some time to focus on your mental health.

Whatever the reason, be clear in your head about why you want to ask for a sabbatical. Also, consider why now is the right time to do it.

Another thing to think about is how long you want to be off work. This could be affected by many things, such as what you’re planning to do during your grown-up gap year and how much money you have saved.

You also need to find out whether your sabbatical is paid or unpaid. Companies offer both kinds of sabbaticals and some will do a mixture of both. This may depend on how long you request (for example, the first month paid and then up to two months unpaid).

3. Make your case when you ask for a sabbatical

Making your case when you ask for a sabbatical is important. Once you have decided exactly what it is you want from a sabbatical, put everything in writing. How long are you requesting? How could your job be done in your absence? What skills do you feel you will learn while you are away? When do you plan to return to work?

Be reasonable about the time-frame when you ask for a sabbatical. Give your organisation plenty of notice so that they can plan for your cover. If you’re just intending to go away for a short spell, think about when would be the most convenient time for your company to do that. If there is sometimes a lull or quiet time during the year, this would be ideal. Whereas requesting time off at your busiest time is unlikely to win you many fans.

This step is particularly important if your company doesn’t usually offer sabbaticals. Basically make sure your case includes anything that you feel supports your decision to ask for a sabbatical.

4. Speak to your boss about your sabbatical plans

Once you feel like you have a strong case for asking for a sabbatical, approach your boss. Speak to them about your plans. Include why you want to take a sabbatical and why you feel like now is a good time. Explain how you see your role being handled while you are away. Plus, add any thoughts about how you could help to make the transition smoother.

Getting your boss onside is really important. They can then support your case with HR and also help you to explain it to other members of staff.

5. Help to organise your handover and plan for your return

These aren’t so much tips about asking for a sabbatical. However, they will help to make the process of you leaving smoother and will make your return easier. 

Speak to your boss about who is best suited to help out with your workload while you are away. If your sabbatical is just going to be a few weeks, there might be some projects that can be put on hold. But there may be some day-to-day stuff that needs handing over.

However, if you are taking a longer break, then it is likely your work will need to be covered by someone while you are away.

If your company regularly allows sabbaticals, there might already be protocols in place for this. But if not, you may be required to help put some in place.

Once it’s been established who will cover for you, do whatever you can to help them. Organise a meeting to explain the job to them and to give them a chance to ask any questions. That way there will be less resentment than if someone just gets everything dumped on them.

Remember, these people will still be your colleagues when you return from your sabbatical. So it’s nice not to drop them in the deep end. 

Likewise, try to talk to other colleagues about your sabbatical and explain why you’re taking it. It’s good to get them on side with your plans, so that it doesn’t cause any awkwardness.

What to do if your sabbatical request is turned down

Hopefully if you follow these five easy steps, you’ll be well on the way to getting that sabbatical you dream off.  However, if you’re not entitled to take a sabbatical, or your request for a sabbatical is turned down, there are still options available to you.

You could take a quit your job, if you’re happy to step away from your career for a while. Or if you don’t feel comfortable with that, you can work out how to maximise your annual leave.

Don’t forget to also check out how to plan a career break or sabbatical and how should I set a budget for my trip?

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