Today you’re going to learn how to ask for a sabbatical, and get detailed information to help you plan the process from start to finish.
It’s the exact 9 step list I’ve used to get sabbaticals signed off in two different companies, and builds in the lessons I’ve learned from interviewing dozens of people about their sabbatical experiences.
- Brush up on Company Policy
- Put Together Compelling Reasons
- Consider When is Best
- Build a Plan for Your Absence
- Book The Meeting
- Plan The Meeting
- On The Day
- After The Meeting
- Keep Your Foot on The Gas
So let’s get stuck in….
There was one thing I worried about more than anything on the run up to taking my last sabbatical – approaching my boss.
Whilst my company had a policy that allowed employees to take unpaid leave, I was in a job with a lot of responsibility and was really worried it would damage my credibility, and even worse, that he’d say no.
If you’re feeling the same, then this guide is the perfect place to start.
Whether your company has a policy or not, this post will take you through the process step-by-step, using my experiences and the help of others I’ve interviewed in the last few years.
Quickly navigate this post using the links below:
1. Brush up on Company Policy
Before you even start to think about booking a meeting with your boss it’s time to brush up on company policy.
Unlike maternity or sick leave there is no legal entitlement to a sabbatical or career break, so checking your company policy is key.
Because of this at this stage we’re keeping things quiet, so if you can, look for a way to find out without letting anyone know.
Most companies have an employee intranet or website which you can check. If not there is likely to be an employee handbook or list of policies somewhere.
You may have to confidentially approach someone in HR. In smaller businesses this might be a person in the office, so you need to make sure you can trust this person first. In a bigger company I worked for we had a confidential colleague helpline, so I called to find out exactly where I stood.
Here are a few things you’ll need to check:
- Is the policy dependant on length of service? My company only allowed a sabbatical if you’d been with the business for 2 years.
- Are there different types? My first company treated anything up to 3 months as a ‘lifestyle break’ meaning you were entitled to return to your old job at the end. You continued to accrue long service benefits during this time. Anything between 3 months and 5 years was a ‘career break’ and was not alot different to resigning, though you were guaranteed a job at the end, it was counted as a break in service.
- How do you inform the company of your intent to take one? Some business will have a form to fill out, others may just say ‘book a meeting with your line manager’.
- Is there any other small print? You may not be able to take one if you’ve just changed jobs roles for example, or if you’re on a secondment. It’s always worth double checking the small print!
What if there is no policy?
This might well be the case, especially if you work for a small business.
It is not a reason to give up though, it just makes the preparation work even more important.
There are hundreds of examples of people taking a sabbatical when there is no precedent, but your argument will need to be even more compelling, so following the upcoming steps with extra care.
FURTHER READING: What is a Sabbatical & 8 Reasons to Take One
2. Put Together Compelling Reasons
Making a case for a sabbatical should not be taken lightly. You are about to walk into the person who ultimately pays your bills and tell them you don’t want to be around for a while!
You’d be foolish to turn up without a clear idea of the benefits for both you AND them.
But what should you consider?
Firstly, think about your ‘why’
Why do you want to take a sabbatical, and why is it important to you?
My reasons were as follows.
My dad had been in a serious accident the year before, and it had made me think hard about where I was going in life. I’d worked very hard right the way through my twenties, but there were so many things I’d sacrificed along the way, travel being one of them. My wife and I were both early thirties, and planning to have a family soon, so we really wanted to travel now while we were young and didn’t have children with us.
When I spoke to my boss this was how I opened up, speaking passionately and deeply about how
Secondly, think about the value to them
There are often benefits to the employer in you taking a sabbatical, but it’s important to note them down so they are clear in your head.
Some examples that might be relevant:
- Saving them money. If the company is going through a tough time or it’s approaching the end of the financial year they might be glad to free up so cash for a few months.
- Learning new skills. If you are taking a course while you are away you will come back with new skills that they have not had to pay for.
- A new employee. Coming back to work after a break can be like starting again. You’ll return fired up and ready to go.
- Avoiding burnout. If you’ve been through a difficult time and are struggling it would be better to take the time to relax then end up on sick leave. You need to be careful not to phrase this as if it’s a threat, but at the end of the day not paying your for the time is better than you burning out and then being off with with stress.
- It’s cheaper than finding a replacement. Again, this isn’t meant as a threat, but if you are so passionate about taking the sabbatical that you would risk leaving your job, then giving you a sabbatical secures you for the future and means they don’t have to pay expensive recruitment costs.
- It will help their succession plan for the future. If you line up someone to replace you (more on this in step 4) then it will help the company prepare for the future by training another person to do your role.
In my example I described how I would come back even more focused than I was, with a new energy and love for the job. I talked about my excitement to learn about other cultures and how that would benefit my team in the long run. I also spoke about how it would help create more leaders for the future, and how I would set up the succession process (more on that in section 4).
Thirdly, be the model employee
At this stage of planning, it might be a couple of months or more before you actually ask for a sabbatical.
Now’s the time to go up a gear.
Make sure you are replying to every email, alert in every meeting and doubling down on exactly what makes you great.
The last thing you need when you get to the final meeting if to have your boss concerned about your performance. You need them to be thinking ‘I want to cling on to this person‘ so that authorising your sabbatical is a way to guarantee your long-term loyalty.
If you have been a a difficult or low performing team member for many years, then a couple of months is clearly not going to change the perception, but if you have been loyal and hard-working then making sure you really show them your value in the weeks leading up to your planned meeting is key.
We’ve all got an extra few percent to give if we dig deep.
FURTHER READING: How to Revive Your Career With a Sabbatical
3. Consider When is Best
So you’ve done your homework, written down the benefits for all, now we’ll think about the timing of your sabbatical.
So what is there to consider when timing your sabbatical?
- When is right for the business?
- When is the right time for you?
- When is the right time to travel?
1) When is right for your business?
There is a reason I’ve put this section first.
Remember, there are no laws that guarantee you a sabbatical. As we’ve covered in this article already, it’s your job to convince them of the benefits….
….because they’re well within their rights to just say no.
Here are some considerations to make:
- Are there times of the year that wouldn’t work? For example, a retailer taking time off at Christmas, or an accountant just before the end of the financial year might put additional pressure on the company and could be a good reason for them to turn you down.
- How long would it take for them to find someone to replace you? More on this on step 4, as it’s definitely something to help with, but even if the policy says ‘give a month’s notice’ it would be good to show you’ve considered them and give more than the minimum timescale. I gave 5 months despite the policy stating only 1 month.
2) When is right for you?
There are a few factors here to consider:
- Can you afford a sabbatical right now? It might take you another six months to save up before you leave (check out my post ‘Can I Afford a Sabbatical?‘ to get more information.)
- Are there any major events coming up that you need to be home for? Big family birthdays, anniversaries etc. You may need to work your sabbatical around these.
- What needs sorting out at home? If you are planning to rent out your house, or need to find someone to look after a set this can take time to set up.
3) When is the right time to travel?
If you are planning to travel whilst on sabbatical, you will need to think about the countries you are visiting to make sure you get the best experience (not that it’s always worked out for us!).
Her are a few things to consider, but this a non-exhaustive list:
- When is peak tourist season for the countries you’re planning to visit? Costs will be much higher at this time.
- What is the weather like? Monsoon season could ruin your trip in Asia, or winter in Europe. Have you planned to go at a time that makes sense for the season?
- Are there any particular events you want to see that only happen at certain times of year?
4. Build a Plan For Your Absence
You might not consider this your responsibility – and in reality it isn’t – but if you are serious about getting your sabbatical signed off and want to show your value to the business, this is an absolutely crucial step.
Put yourself in your boss’s shoes. Life goes on while you’re away, and (if you’re any good at what you do!), the first thought that will enter their mind when you drop the bombshell is ‘how will I survive without her?’.
If you have the answer to that question ready, you might well remove one of the biggest reasons for them to say no.
For one of my sabbaticals I was an Area Manager covering 18 stores. Before I approached my boss I built a plan of exactly how it could be covered. Two of my team were keen to progress, so I proposed to split the area in two and give them nine stores each. I had planned out exactly how the split would work, how they would be backfilled in they jobs and exactly how I would get them ready for the transition. Needless to say both the idea and the sabbatical got signed off.
In a business that was really keen to grow people and have a great succession plan, I feel this was one of the key elements to getting my sabbatical signed off.
But what if you don’t have a team?
Maybe you could offer to do the recruitment for a temporary employee to cover you in your absence? You could also put together a clear job description and ‘how to’ guide.
Maybe you train someone from another department who could complete your duties whilst you are away?
Maybe you could automate some of your workload, or even offer to work remotely while you are on sabbatical for a smaller amount of money? This would have the dual benefit of funding your sabbatical and keeping your employment. It’s exactly what Maire did, and she shares her experience in this interview.
It’s hard to pinpoint your exact circumstances, but putting having a clear plan for cover will go along way to helping your boss out, and they will (hopefully!) really appreciate the effort you’ve put in to smooth the way.
5. Book the Meeting
This is a simple step, but there are still a couple of things to bear in mind.
Firstly, make sure you pre-book the meeting.
This is not a time for ambushing your boss in the corridor.
Send an email, book some time and make sure they are clear that the meeting is important to you.
Secondly, consider your timing.
Mondays are rubbish, everyone knows that.
Fridays are a day for winding down.
Be clever when choosing a day to book your meeting.
Studies show Thursdays are the best day to ask for a pay rise, so I would imagine the science works for sabbaticals too.
6. Plan The Meeting
Now you’ve got a date in the diary, it’s time to plan the meeting.
You’ve got alot of information together from the first 5 steps, so it’s time to pull it all together in one place.
There are three points we’re going to cover off in this step:
- Write Your Elevator Speech
- Test Yourself With Practice Questions
- Write a Letter
1) Write Your Elevator Speech
Never heard of your elevator speech?
Think of it like this.
You get into an elevator with someone, press the button for the 20th floor and they ask you a question in which you have 30 seconds to answer. This is an elevator speech.
The question to plan for is:
“What can I do for you today?”
This is a likely way your boss will open the meeting. “Hi, Ben. It’s great to catch up. You said this meeting was really important, so what can I do for you today?”.
Well probably not exactly like that, but what I’m trying to get you to do here is get you in the zone where you’re ready to lead the meeting with clarity and positivity.
So pull together all the information you’ve written down so far, and bullet point it in a way you can easily remember and get familiar with.
Here is an example:
- I’m here because I want to have a chat about taking ‘x’ months off of work unpaid as per the company sabbatical policy.
- I would like this to start on ‘x’ date, which I have considered for [INSERT YOUR THOUGHTS ON TIMING].
- I know this might be a bit of a shock, but this is something I’ve taken alot of time to think about
- [INSERT BENEFITS FOR THEM]
- [INSERT BENEFITS FOR YOU]
- [DISCUSS PLAN FOR COVER]
- What are your thoughts?
Now it is very unlikely to turn out this way, and the above bullet points will likely last more that 30 seconds, but it is really important to have an outline of the key statements you want to discuss.
In reality it will be more of a conversation, with your boss jumping in to ask you questions and clarify points
The sooner you write this down the better, as you can take the time to refine it and learn it so well it is completely natural.
2) Test Yourself With Practice Questions
Preparation is about putting yourself into potential scenarios and planning how you will respond.
There may be things that come up in the meeting that are unexpected, but if you take some time to prepare it’s possible to pre-empt some of the more obvious ones.
I like to think about the questions I could get asked, and then act out how I will respond to them.
Here are a few examples of things your boss might ask you:
- Have you spoken to anyone else about this?
- Why now?
- Are you going to upset everyone on the run up to leaving?
- Are you actually coming back?
- Are you planning to work for someone else whilst you’re away?
- Have you thought about the impact this will have on your team?
- Who’s going to pick up your workload?
- Are you just running away because you’re unhappy?
- What will you do if I say no?
All of these can be fairly easily prepared for, so why don’t you write down your own list and start to think through your responses.
3) Write a Letter
Whether your company requires notification in writing or not, I feel it is a good to prepare a letter that you can hand over at the end of the meeting.
This gives your boss something to take away in writing that summarises what you’re asking for, and also acts as a safety net if you don’t make yourself clear enough on the day.
The letter should be really easy to write given all the preparation work you’ve done so, and will show your employer just how much thought you’ve put in to the sabbatical.
Here is an example of a letter you could send
Dear [INSERT NAME],
Thanks for agreeing to meet me on INSERT DATE.
I just wanted to follow up our conversation in writing so you had everything you need to make your decision.
I would like to take an unpaid sabbatical from work, commencing on [INSERT DATE} and lasting for a period of [INSERT LENGTH].
As discussed, I would like to return to my job role at the end of the sabbatical period.
I also want to re-affirm my commitment to the business in the long-term, and that I will do everything I can to ensure handover my responsibilities in a way which leads to the smooth running of the role in my absence.
I hope you understood my rationale for making this choice, and that I feel it will have a benefit to both me and the business in the long-run.
Here are some of the key points I made:
[INSERT BENEFITS OF TAKING SABBATICAL]
If you need any more information to help you make your decision then do not hesitate to contact me on the number above.
7. On The Day
How are you feeling now?
Is this your vision?
STOP THAT CRAZY MONKEY MIND AND RELAX.
You got this!
This is the big moment.
You’ll no doubt be nervous, which is completely normal for such a potentially life-changing event, but given how well prepared you are, don’t let the nerves defeat you.
Have your notes with you to refer to in case you get flustered, and take a bottle of water in case your mouth dries out, or you need to buy yourself some time.
In the meeting it’s a case of working through your points, and stating exactly what you’re looking for and why.
Keep smiling, keep listening, answer all the questions clearly, and regardless of what they say thanks them for their time.
Hand over the letter you prepared beforehand at the end of the meeting so your boss has something to remember the key points. If the conversation has taken a different route than you expected it to, don’t hand over the letter at the meeting, re-write it afterwards and send it through by email. You want to make sure the letter covers everything discussed, so be prepared to change it if needed.
Don’t expect an answer there and then. Unless there have been obvious signs, this will probably be a shock to your boss, so it would be unusual for them to make an instant decision.
They may also have to check with someone else higher up the organisation, so expect a delay before you get a response.
8. After the Meeting
The scary part is out of the way.
Now it’s waiting time.
You will have expended alot of emotional energy on the run up to the meeting, so this bit can be really hard, as it may take them a few weeks before they get back to you.
For me it was nearly five weeks before I got the news. There was a fair bit of bouncing round the company and various levels of sign off before I was officially told. Though I got given the message on Christmas Eve, one of the best presents I could have hoped for!
Chances are you will get a positive response, I’ve known almost no-one get turned down, unless they were doing a very poor job in the first place.
What if it’s a no?
If you do unexpectedly get told no, you still have some options open to you.
You could try and re-negotiate, changing some of the variables. Maybe moving the date, shortening the length or offering to try and find a different way of covering your role could help.
Chances are though, that this would have been discussed with you during the meeting, and if there the answer is a no, you may well have to respect that decision and move on.
If there is no chance for negotiation, you are left with two options – either give up on your sabbatical dream or resign.
Only you can make the decisions on the risk/reward here. Giving up on the dream of a lifetime is a massive blow, but leaving yourself financially vulnerable could be equally problematic. There is a chance that resigning may make your employer realise how serious you were, and they sign off on your sabbatical in order to retain you, but it’s a gutsy move that is likely to lead to a lot of ill-feeling in the workplace.
I want to stress that in my experience of interviewing many people who’ve taken sabbaticals that this is a highly unlikely scenario, I am just trying to give information on every scenario.
9. Keep Your Foot on The Gas
It’s important to keep working really hard right up to the point your sabbatical leave starts.
If you’ve requested your sabbatical a few months in advance it can be hard not to get distracted, but don’t!
Remember, you’re coming back, and they will remember exactly how you behaved on the way out.
If you’ve made commitments to ensure a smooth handover or train someone to cover you, get this absolutely right. Keep communicating with your boss the whole way through to ensure they’re up to date with exactly where you are.
This isn’t a time to ease off, it’s a time to put your foot on the gas. You’re going to have many months to relax, so keep going! You are setting a precedent for the future. You might want to take a sabbatical again in a few years time, or you may even be the first one in your company who’s been allowed one, so be the perfect candidate and deliver everything you committed to.
Make sure you book in a catch up with your boss in the week before they leave and thank them for showing faith in you. This could be a life-changing experience for you, so it’s the least you can do to show your gratitude to the person who allowed it to happen.
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