Taking a Sabbatical: Expectation vs. Reality

Sabbatical leave is a very enticing idea that appeals to many. It represents a unique chance to combine a whole bunch of things we all have been putting away for years: rest, reload before burning out completely, train for a new job, write a book, travel the world and kick your productivity which otherwise will kick the bucket, and loads of other unrealistic pastimes like meditation and bird-watching. A sabbatical no matter how academic and vintage it may sound really implements a gainful option to revive one’s career and return to a job freshly motivated – advantageous for both the employee and the employer. Isn’t it exactly what all of us need?

In real life, however, sabbaticals are usually taken as something precarious and unlikely to happen. Most obstacles lie on the surface:

  • Generally, employers are unwilling to let any of company’s staff leave for half a year of longer. As they will have to look for replacements to cover up on tasks and projects, hire contractors or get interns, which leads to additional expenses. Eventually they will have to arrange for astray employees’ return to the same positions and make sure they reintegrate to normal work. What if it something goes wrong?
  • Things may not just go out of hand but also out of budget. An employee will not be contributing to the company for an extended period of time, and it might be the case of a paid sabbatical leave, i.e. education or research. Doesn’t look like a paying option after all…
  • A synonym of a sabbatical for many is uncertainty. What will happen? How to plan time? What if set goals are unreachable? Such questions are common among those taking or thinking about taking a sabbatical, especially in non-academic world, where the concept itself is alien. Here comes fear and doubt.

How to deal with all that if despite all cons you’ve made up your mind and you are into taking a sabbatical?

  • Get inspired. Learn about someone’s successful experience of taking a sabbatical. It doesn’t have to be someone you know, all you need is an inspirational idea and reasoning for attempting such risky affair. One of the most exiting examples we found is set by a New York based graphic designer, Stefan Sagmeister, who has been practicing sabbaticals for years and has acquired a taste for them: “I was very scared when I decided to take the first sabbatical in 1999. Our design studio was 7 years old, the first internet boom was in full swing and everybody was in the business of making lots of money. It just seemed unprofessional to close the studio for a year to try things out. I thought we’d lose all of our clients. This did not happen. In fact, we received much more press for not working than we had ever gotten for working.” At present Stefan’s company is taking a sabbatical every 7 years to get advantage on retirement before it really happens.
  • One of the most difficult aspects is to get the approval and necessary sign-offs from your superiors. Requesting a sabbatical be prepared for a refusal. The reality is so, that not everyone is happy and enthusiastic about such ideas. One of the ways is to start negotiating the idea in advance, thus preparing your management and HR people for the likelihood of it. You need to make sure you understand all the implications of your decision (whether you’ll be paid on not, whether you’ll be able to keep your position or not, and so on). There is also a good trick to secure a sabbatical, especially you are planning to do research or write. The author of the strategy suggests to select a project that has been well worked through and present it as the work you will do on sabbatical. Progress reports will be easy to make. Then move ahead on the research you want to complete. Thus you will have the freedom to work on the real work at your own pace.
  • Make a plan. Think it through. There might be things that you’ve left out. It is very important to consider all tiny details and possible complications. In most cases such leaves are not paid, so create a possibility for income during your sabbatical. Savings would be great, or maybe you can do some freelance work or if you are going to travel – rent out your place. Most importantly it is essential to stay firm on your commitments and not to compromise your time by answering work calls and urgent e-mails. A detailed week-to-week list of targets may help get organized and pursue your prioritized activity when on sabbatical, still some people suggest to leave more flexibility to make your sabbatical more joyful and satisfying.

To sum up, it seems logical to admit that most of us will never opt for a sabbatical, because it’s expensive, complicated and in most cases unjustified. However, if you see a sabbatical as a possibility to revive a dull career, boost you professional and personal growth and simply start seeing the light in the end of the tunnel – seize it! Keep in mind stories of success and get inspired by them. Hopefully, sometime soon it will become a more common practice for businesses. Why? – As Stefan Sagmeister, an expert on sabbaticals, puts it: “I have seen small, medium and large companies doing a version of a sabbatical, always with excellent results. My experience is that it is scary to organize and exhilarating to execute.”


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