What is a sabbatical?

What is a Sabbatical? [The Web’s Most Complete Guide]

Sabbaticals have become somewhat of a personal obsession of mine. I’ve taken three of them, signed them off for others who’ve worked for me and now run the biggest sabbatical focused website in the world.

This post is the cornerstone to the whole website, the entry point, starting with the first question I asked myself when I heard about sabbaticals in a travel magazine, what is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a period of (usually) unpaid time off of work between 3 and 12 months, though some companies offer paid sabbaticals as a reward for long service. In most countries they are a company perk, not a legal right, so taking one is not guaranteed.

There are lots of reasons why people take a sabbatical, especially in a post-Covid world where we had to shut down completely for a couple of years.

They are used to travel the world, pursue a passion, volunteer in a developing country, or even just to avoid the burnout of a busy life at work.

For me, the reasons were varied. Travel has long been a passion of mine, and a career break was always something on the horizon, but it took a couple of big events in my life to make me realise the time was now. Having missed out on a promotion at work and then seeing my dad suffer a nasty road accident, I realised that we’d put it off for long enough. Within six months we had a sabbatical signed off and were on a plane to Southeast Asia.

I speak to a lot of people about their reasons for taking a sabbatical and one thing is a constant throughout all the answers though ………. change.

(If you want to read more check out my ‘Sabbatical Q&A‘ where I interview people about their sabbatical experiences).

TL;DR Sabbatical Guide

These are the ‘Too Long, Didn’t Read’ facts about sabbaticals which summarise the key detail from this post.

For more information keep scrolling to the detailed guides further down.

  1. A sabbatical is an extended period of time off of work – usually between three and twelve months.
  2. Sabbaticals are becoming more and more popular so you’re not alone! (check out the increasing trend on this post)
  3. Sabbaticals aren’t all about travel, though often people take them to see other parts of the world. Looking for inspiration? Here are 30 Life-Changing Sabbatical Ideas, from writing a book to learning to dive.
  4. Sabbaticals are generally unpaid though there are some parts of the world (such as Australia) where you earn ‘long-service leave’ that can be taken as a sabbatical.
  5. Most countries have no laws that protect you during a sabbatical they are given as a benefit, not enshrined in employment law.
  6. There is not a lot of difference between a ‘sabbatical’ and a ‘career break’ though some companies use those terms in different ways.
  7. The four main reasons people take a sabbatical are to experience, achieve something, spend time with a loved one or recharge (and sometimes all four!).
  8. In fact many people take a sabbatical with their entire family.
  9. Sabbatical has its origins in the word sabbath meaning ‘to rest’.
  10. One of the key elements of a sabbatical is that it is temporary, with the aim of returning to your job at the end of it. Here are nine examples of people who did exactly that.
  11. It is still possible to take a sabbatical even if your business doesn’t have a specific policy. Find out how…
  12. In interviews I’ve completed, most people said ‘telling the boss’ made them most nervous at work before taking a sabbatical. Learn how to ask for a sabbatical in nine simple steps.
  13. A sabbatical can completely change the course of your life, giving new skills or a new outlook.
  14. Money, loss of income & how will I pay my bills? All answers to the question ‘what is your biggest worry when taking a sabbatical? from my annual survey. Worries about financing a sabbatical always comes out top.
  15. The most popular length of sabbatical is three months.
  16. There are as more than 35 jobs to tick of the to-do list in the months before leaving for a sabbatical.

What is a Sabbatical?

Sabbatical Basic Information

A sabbatical is a period of extended time off agreed between you and your employer, usually between three and twelve months.

Extended breaks of up to five years are uncommon but not unusual, but these tend to be classed as ‘career breaks’, and often involve a break of service.

Different types of sabbatical leave

Will I get Paid for my Sabbatical?

Sabbaticals are generally unpaid but are in some circumstances offered as a paid benefit. Paid sabbaticals are most often seen in the academic field, where time is taken off from regular work search as teaching to focus on research, or writing a book. These sabbaticals are often applied for, with a competitive process in place to weigh up the proposed value of the time to the institution.

There are more and more companies now offering paid sabbaticals as a benefit for long service, though you are still far more likely to work for a company that doesn’t than does.

Generally though, sabbatical has become a term more commonly used for an unpaid leave arrangement between an employer and employee.

What Are the Terms to Qualify For a Sabbatical?

There are no specific laws about career breaks or sabbaticals (see below) so you would need to look specifically at the terms of taking a sabbatical within your individual organisation.

Common terms that can use to determine eligibility for a sabbatical, and may result in its refusal are:

  • A minimum length of service
  • Poor attendance or performance
  • There is no-one available to cover the role
  • A poor disciplinary record or a disciplinary process that is currently taking place

Please note this is not an exhaustive list, so please consult the HR conditions from within your own company before applying to take a sabbatical.

What Does the Law say About Sabbaticals?

Is There a Law?

There are no laws that cover taking sabbaticals or career breaks in most countries.

Is that a shock?

….It was for me too! I just assumed it would be something inshrined in law, but I was wrong.

A sabbatical is a benefit drawn up by employers. It is not a right, such as maternity leave or holiday entitlement. In these instances, the government is specific with statutory entitlements, but with sabbaticals, the terms are left to the employers.

So Why Do Sabbaticals Exist?

Many employers do however offer sabbatical leave or career breaks as an incentive or benefit to colleagues. It is hard to find specific statistics on the number of large companies that offer sabbatical leave as a benefit, however, this article from 2009, states it was 20% of companies and had grown by 36% from 2008.

This suggests that sabbaticals are a benefit that is on the rise amongst large companies as more HR strategists recognise the benefits to both employees and their employers.

How Do I Find out if I Can Take a Sabbatical?

What is a sabbatical? Funny cartoon

The best way to find out if this benefit it written into your company policies is to ask your HR team, or read the appropriate section of their website or intranet.

(and apologies for the MS paint meme!).

Different Companies May Have Different Approaches

You may find that the internal ‘laws’ regarding sabbaticals will vary depending on the amount of time you want to take off.

Tesco thick?
Me in my Tesco days – yes it really says ‘thick?’ above my head!

As an example, when I worked for Tesco you could take anything up to three months off unpaid as a ‘lifestyle break’. If it was agreed, they would keep your current job vacant, and maintain your benefits.

Anything over three months and up to five years could still be requested, but this would be classed as a ‘career break’. This was treated as a break in service and meant any benefits relating to the length of service would be reset. They guaranteed there would be a job available at the end, but it had to be a live vacancy and could be in different departments, hours or even different stores.

But please remember, as this is not a law, your employer has the right to refuse your sabbatical request, as it is them that provide the benefit, not the government. We will cover more about how to request sabbaticals in part three of this series.

What is the Difference Between a Sabbatical and a Career Break?

Sabbatical vs Career Break

In reality, not a lot, but let’s get in to a bit more detail.

Sabbatical and career break are often words that are used interchangeably, however, due to the lack of specifics in UK law, they are used in different ways in different companies. Sabbatical is not a word that is exclusively used in America, it is a term very much prevalent in UK companies too.

In general terms the difference is the following:

Sabbatical Defined

Sabbatical Defined

A sabbatical is a period of paid or unpaid time off that offers you the chance to return to your job role or a close equivalent at the end of it. Whilst your benefits are normally frozen during this time (pay, pension payments, share earnings), you can usually continue to accrue pro-rata related benefits.

For example:

  • Annual leave allowance will continue to be earned. If you cross the end of the ‘holiday year’ arrangements should be made to pay you for outstanding holiday you have accrued
  • Length of service will increase
  • Sick pay allowance will continue to grow if it is pro-rata based on length of service.

Career Break Defined

Career break defined

A career break, however, is exactly what the name suggests – a ‘break’ in your career. The reality of this situation is that it is not a lot different to resigning your position. The company may keep you with a live employee number, rather than process you completely as a leaver, however when you return everything relating to the length of service will be completely reset. Other than the skills you built up before the career break, everything about your career is likely to be put back to day one.

As an example, most companies will build up your holiday allowance based on years of service. However, if you decide to take a career break, this holiday allowance will be reset to zero again, so when you return it will be like your first day with the company.

I have to stress though, the above is not a universal take on the difference between the two terms. You just need to take one look at the Wikipedia entry on career breaks to see there are a number of different explanations for what these terms mean.

My advice would be, to do the research at your own company before you request anything. Make sure you know exactly what you’re asking for, and what those terms mean for the business you’re in.

Why Take a Sabbatical?

There are lots of reasons why people take a sabbatical or career break.

You are searching for something, looking for a different perspective on life, or trying to learn something new. You will replace your normal routine with something fresh, exciting and maybe even a little uncomfortable. Something that will burn off the haze surrounding everyday life, and let you see the bright lights of a new world.

A sabbatical is a precious and purposeful time, which should give you space and time that you just don’t get amongst the hectic nature of modern-day life. 

If that sounds exciting then let’s explore some popular reasons why people take sabbaticals.

Here are my reflections on taking three months off of work.

Why Are Sabbaticals Becoming More Popular?

As the world of work has moved away from the 9-5 and closer to the 24/7, there has been a backlash. Employees are no longer staying in career-long jobs, and more are now willing to take risks as they move through their life. Gone are the days when loyalty was the biggest impact on your promotion, and with regular structure changes and streamlining in big business leading to more frequent redundancies, people are getting more used to moving between different companies.

Alongside this, we have also seen the rise in remote working. As the internet age has dawned, the ability to work away from a typical office environment has given workers more freedom and autonomy. With a rise in population making commutes ever more difficult, employers have allowed people to work from home on a more regular basis. This taste of freedom has given people time and space to think, and also allowed them to realise that work doesn’t always have to mean a workplace.

This is far from being a global experience, there are some industries that will always need people in traditional roles, such as bobbies on the beat, and nurses at the bedside. It would be pretty hard to justify working from home as a fire officer! But if you are in an industry where there is more freedom, then your possibilities are increasing by the day.

Why take a sabbatical? 4 Hour Work Week

In April 2007 Tim Ferriss released ‘The 4 Hour Work Week‘. Given it spent more than four years on the New York Times bestseller list, it clearly captured the imagination of a generation of people keen to try something different, and rebel against the ever-increasing demands of modern-day corporate life. The book talks at length about ‘mini-retirements’ and building travel into your career rather than waiting until the end of it. For many people, this book was an inspiration and kick-started a different way of thinking about work-life balance.

See my favourite sabbatical books here.

There are no clear statistics that clearly define the rise in sabbaticals, but anecdotally the information is there. Most of us now have stories of people who’ve taken extended leave and sit back in quiet admiration for their bravery. Some of us have been bold enough to take the step ourselves and will speak openly about the benefits to others.

Regardless of your views, our time only happens once, and it is our choice what to do with it. If you are happy and content in your current world then crack on, but you’re probably on the wrong website! If you long for something different, then embrace change, make the difficult decisions, and make choices that will help you build lasting memories rather than endless bland days. It’s not easy, there are practical challenges, not least of which are the financial implications, but if you want anything enough then there are ways to bring it to life.

What are the Benefits of a Sabbatical?

This will very much depend on your situation.

  • A career break might be important to allow you to go off and learn a new skill that will further your career.
  • It might give you the opportunity to travel to parts of the world, embrace different cultures and meet people who will stick long in the memory.
  • It might allow you to make a small difference in the world by completing conservation work, teaching a language or helping build a school.
  • It might give you space and time to think about a big event that’s happened in your life and how to tackle it. A perspective you couldn’t have gained if you hadn’t taken the time to break from the norm.
  • It might allow you to spend more time with a loved one, traveling the world and making up for lost time.

More than anything though it’s important because it’s a break away from everyday life. From the second you step into your new world, things will be different. If you travel even the basics such as ordering lunch and getting your washing done can be a challenge. If you head off to learn a new skill, you’ll be away from the daily rat race and punishing commute. 

Whatever you decide to do, make the most of it, don’t waste this precious time, and give yourself something to look back on with pride.

What Does Sabbatical Mean?

The word sabbatical has its origins in the word sabbath, meaning a day of rest. In both Judaism and Christianity, one day a week is set aside as the sabbath day, a day of rest and worship.

The word sabbath is also used to refer to a sabbath year. This is the seventh year of the agricultural cycle set out by the Torah. In this sabbath year, the land is left to fallow so it has a chance to rest and the nutrients go back into the soil. This sabbath year was also known as a sabbatical year, and this is where the origin of sabbatical came from.

The use of the word sabbatical year then evolved into the academic world, and it became a period of paid leave given once every seven years to a university teacher, which allowed grow their knowledge through travel, study or undertaking a pursuit such as helping out at an archaeological dig.

Sabbatical has now become a general term, used for either paid or unpaid leave given as a benefit to employees by their company.

Useful Sabbatical Links

Sabbatical Law (UK)

General Advice

Finishing Up

I hope you’ve found this post useful and feel free to add any opinions or extra thoughts to the comments below, I love to reply to people who have an interest in sabbaticals too.

Happy travels,


For more sabbatical basics check out my page ‘sabbatical 101‘ for more answers to sabbatical questions and links to other useful articles.

Looking for ideas of what to do with your sabbatical? I have a full page dedicated to sabbatical ideas, stories and inspiration.

How Long Did You Take For A Sabbatical or Career Break?

If you have taken a sabbatical or career break (unpaid time off from work) how long did you take?

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