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Knowledge Base » Business » All about Sabbatical Leave

All about Sabbatical Leave

Last updated on 24th April 2023

The travel site Opodo asked 2,000 UK employees whether they would consider taking sabbatical leave, and although 71% said that they would, 35% of those who would like to stated that they could not afford to do so if the leave was unpaid.

However, since the COVID pandemic, many people are now finding that they have accumulated a great deal of paid leave, having rolled it over during lockdown, so taking a sabbatical may be more achievable than they previously thought.

Opodo went on to examine the reasons why the UK respondents to their survey take sabbatical leave and found that:

  • 28% of respondents in the UK take a sabbatical to travel with their family.
  • 26% travel with their partner.
  • 17% travel alone.
  • 17% travel with friends.

Travel, however, is not the only reason that UK workers take sabbaticals.

Their survey also found that:

  • 13% of UK respondents undertake a sabbatical to gain experience in a new field of work.
  • 14% take a sabbatical to reassess their career path.
  • 18% go on sabbatical to complete a course or learn a new skill.

Whilst many people in the Opodo survey appear to view taking sabbaticals as a positive benefit, there are others who have concerns about considering it. 13% believe that taking a sabbatical will harm their career prospects with their current employer, and 21% feel it could make them less employable. So, what exactly is sabbatical leave?

Woman taking sabbatical leave

What is sabbatical leave?

Sabbatical leave is extended periods of paid or unpaid time away from work, which are agreed between the employer and employee. It should not be confused with other forms of leave such as career breaks, flexible leave or long-term unpaid leave, where the employment contract will often be discontinued.

With sabbatical leave, however, there is usually an understanding that during the period of the sabbatical, which is typically between 3 months and a year, the employment contract remains in place and the employee returns to a role with the organisation at the end of the sabbatical leave. It should be noted that the role the employee returns to may not always be the role that they gave up.

The employee’s continuity of service with the organisation is preserved whilst on sabbatical leave if the leave is paid. However, the employer may also agree to preserve continuity of service for an unpaid sabbatical and employees may also be able to negotiate continuous ongoing contractual benefits, such as augmented leave allowances or salary increments, which may be frozen if a sabbatical is unpaid.

Whether the sabbatical is paid or unpaid usually depends upon your employer, and on the nature of your work, Most sabbaticals in the UK are unpaid; however, as previously mentioned, many employees may have accumulated a great deal of paid leave because of COVID restrictions, so may be in a position to negotiate with their employers to take this time all together in the form of a sabbatical.

UK employees unfortunately have no statutory right to request or take sabbatical leave, or to continue to receive pay and benefits whilst on sabbatical leave if granted.

So any agreements made, such as to keep a position open on return from a sabbatical, are made purely between the employee and their employer, unless the employer has set out the conditions for sabbaticals in an organisational policy.

Why is sabbatical leave important?

In many occupational sectors, sabbaticals are often seen as an important part of an employee’s career development. Organisations are prepared to grant them to employees for a variety of different reasons, including, but not limited to, study or research, travel, voluntary work or self-development.

The extended time off that sabbaticals provide is a great way for employees to explore the options for new career paths or new ways of life, spend time in full-time study or just to recharge their batteries – it’s a bit like taking a gap year.

Totally disconnecting from work for a period of time, longer than the usual annual leave break, can be useful to reset you mentally and to get a realistic perspective on your work-life balance. Many people use a sabbatical to de-stress and mentally rest, so as to return to work rejuvenated.

Employers may have some reservations about their employees taking even a short period of sabbatical leave; amongst these concerns is the risk that valuable members of staff may not return to work for them. However, in practice, the benefits of sabbatical leave for the employee can often help with staff retention rates; allowing employees to take the leave is a way of retaining talented staff, by showing that as an employer you care about your employees’ personal development and wellbeing. 94% of employees say they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development.

When a valued employee has the opportunity to restore their work-life balance through a period of sabbatical leave, this makes for a much happier, more productive and motivated employee on their return, who feels that they are valued by their employer.

In some cases, where employees have taken sabbatical leave to acquire additional qualifications and/or to gain work experience in other fields, employers will benefit from these additional skills and experiences on their return.

Who takes sabbatical leave?

Historically, sabbatical leave has been associated with academics who take sabbaticals to further their research into their chosen field or to gain additional qualifications. However, people from all walks of life, in all stages of their careers and from all different circumstances take sabbaticals.

A variety of UK employers offer sabbaticals to staff as part of their enhanced benefits packages as this benefit can attract and retain top talent.

Here are some examples:

  • NHS – Sabbatical leave is available in the NHS, where it is called an employment break scheme. Anyone with 12 months’ service can apply, the leave is unpaid and varies in length from 3 months to 5 years (source: NHS Handbook Section 34: Employment break scheme).
  • Tesco – The Tesco scheme is known as Lifestyle Breaks, it comes under their flexible working policies and allows people to take from four weeks to a year out of the business (source: Flexible Working at Tesco).
  • Asda – Asda’s ‘My Lifestyle’ programme allows team members to take up to 12 weeks off work unpaid, either on a no-work basis or working on reduced hours for that period.
  • Department for Education – Pre-COVID, the Guardian newspaper highlighted the DfE’s plan to implement sabbatical leave to improve retention and reward long service for teaching staff. COVID appears to have put these plans on hold for the present.
  • British Army – Their sabbatical policy is called a ‘Career Intermission’ and offers sabbatical leave from 3 months to 3 years.

In Fortune’s best 100 companies to work for, almost 20% of these companies offer paid sabbaticals.

There are also organisations who are currently considering offering sabbaticals as an alternative to making redundancies post-COVID. In uncertain times, redundancy is often an employer’s first port of call as a cost-cutting measure. However, organisations doing the cost-benefit analysis of restructuring are recognising that the organisation will lose trained and effective employees.

They will also have to meet the cost of the redundancy payments in addition to the cost of any change management process in terms of morale and productivity of the remaining workforce. Then there will be recruitment costs when, or if, the economic climate changes.

Therefore, sabbatical leave can appear to be a cost-effective alternative to redundancies. Many schemes offer part-payment of salary, provided the employee undertakes activities during their sabbatical which will benefit their career.

Others are unpaid and simply offer a right to return to a role in the organisation at the end of the sabbatical break. A number of employers are finding that both unions and employees are open to discussions about sabbatical leave as a redundancy alternative to retain jobs. BT used this strategy some years ago during the financial crash.

Organisations retain valued talent during periods of downturn and employees have an opportunity to take a break from their job and return to their organisation, preserving their continuity of service. However, any organisation considering this as an alternative to redundancies should consider all employment issues and any legal implications carefully.

Man in the British army taking a career intermission

How long is sabbatical leave?

The length of a sabbatical is up to the discretion of your employer who, if they are willing to grant sabbatical leave, will set their own timeframes, as well as the terms and conditions of the leave.

Typically, sabbatical leave is between 3 months and 1 year. The period of time taken is longer than an annual leave or an extended annual leave period, as sabbaticals are normally granted for meaningful professional or personal development reasons rather than a longer holiday.

When an employee is taking sabbatical leave, the employer will normally agree a return to work date with the employee. Whilst on an agreed time sabbatical, should the employee decide that they would like to extend the length of time away from the workplace, the employer can refuse an employee’s extension request for a number of business reasons, including inability to find cover or increased demand for work.

How does sabbatical leave work?

If you are considering taking a sabbatical, you should first check out whether your organisation has a policy and procedures in place. If it does, then you should follow the policy’s procedures. However, if your organisation does not have a sabbatical leave policy, you may still be able to approach them about considering the concept.

First you should carefully consider the financial implications for yourself. If they were to grant an unpaid sabbatical, is this something you can afford to do? Next, prepare your case, have clear reasons why you want to take a sabbatical, what you will be doing during that time, how long you want to take away from the workplace, and how this leave will benefit you and your organisation.

Your case will need to show the value of this sabbatical leave to both you and to your employer. You should then think about how your role could be covered whilst you are away; have a few suggestions that would be of minimal cost and disruption for your employer.

Once you have prepared your case, your next step is to approach your employer. This may be your manager or HR. You may choose to do this in a letter or in a face-to-face meeting.

If you decide to put your request in a letter, clearly set out your rationale for wanting the sabbatical leave, the value it will bring to you and to your employer, how your role can be covered and then ask them to consider your request.

If you arrange a face-to-face meeting, then before a meeting, think about what they may ask you and prepare your responses. Explain to your employer why taking sabbatical leave can be of benefit to both you and your employer. Tell them about what you will do with the time and how this will positively impact the organisation when you return.

Explain that you have considered how your role can be covered so that there will be little disruption. Then give them time to consider your proposal. Don’t expect a decision immediately, particularly if the concept is not something they have ever planned for. You do need to keep in mind that sabbatical leave is not a statutory right and the employer does have the right to refuse the request.

When your employer reaches their decision and grants your leave, they should draw up a sabbatical leave agreement with you. This will set out your and their rights and responsibilities, timeframe, and any important contractual information. Always be sure to follow your organisation’s policies and procedures, as you remain an employee even when you are on sabbatical leave.

You and your employer should have set up arrangements for keeping in contact whilst you are on sabbatical leave; however, you should formally contact them shortly before your return to the workplace.

Young couple taking sabbatical leave to travel

What is a sabbatical policy?

A sabbatical leave policy should clearly, transparently and fairly set out the organisation’s position in reference to sabbatical leave. Having a clear policy will help to manage expectations about what is and is not possible, who is eligible, and provisions for such things as contracts of employment and entitlements.

When creating a sabbatical leave policy, an employer should first clearly state that sabbatical leave is non-contractual and that it is a benefit not a statutory right.

Next, consider the eligibility criteria to apply for sabbatical leave:

  • What criteria are you setting to approve or refuse any sabbatical leave requests? These may be such things as performance record, attendance or disciplinary records, availability of role cover, exclusions to certain times of the year such as busy business periods etc.
  • Are there a number of qualifying years of employment to be able to request sabbatical leave? Employers need to consider part-time or term-only staff too.
  • Is sabbatical leave to be offered to a particular role level or will it be a universal benefit?
  • How many people can request sabbatical leave in the organisation or a department in a given period of time?
  • How many times during their employment can people request sabbatical leave?
  • Will you be stipulating certain reasons for taking a period of sabbatical leave such as for study or will you be specifying reasons that you will not grant sabbatical leave for, such as taking up paid employment elsewhere?

Next consider whether the sabbatical leave will be paid or unpaid. Both options will have contractual responsibilities on both sides that will need to be clearly set out in the policy and communicated to employees.

You will also need to consider how far in advance an employee should notify you of their sabbatical plans. Two- or three-months’ notice is common, as this allows time to reassign the employee’s duties, hire any temporary staff if required and perform any necessary training before the employee goes on leave.

You may want to integrate this into a formal application process. These procedures for requesting and granting sabbatical leave should be clearly explained in the policy.

A sabbatical policy should also include details about such things as, but not limited to:

  • Failure to return and/or resigning whilst on sabbatical.
  • Parental leave and benefits whilst on sabbatical.
  • Pay reviews whilst on sabbatical.
  • Redundancy whilst on sabbatical.
  • Employer’s property (e.g. mobile phones, laptops, vehicles etc.) whilst on sabbatical.

Employers should check their legal obligations under employment law for employees on sabbatical leave. They should also carry out an impact assessment against all protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 to ensure fair treatment.

Most organisations draw up a formal sabbatical leave agreement between the employer and the employee taking the leave.

This agreement may set out such details as:

  • Exact dates of sabbatical leave.
  • Continuity of service / status of employment contract.
  • Any limitations of the leave.
  • Accruing annual leave allowance (if applicable).
  • Provisions for benefits (preserving, freezing, etc.).
  • Pay details (if applicable).
  • Return to the workplace.

It is important to remember that an employee on sabbatical leave is still a contracted employee.

Final thoughts

The concept of sabbatical leave, a constructive period away from any job, can give an employee a chance to refresh their mind and enhance their skills, so they can go back to the workplace with a renewed energy and purpose.

Sabbaticals can be as valuable to the employer as they are to the employees. They can provide development opportunities for the remaining staff, as the returning employees often bring additional skills, qualifications and renewed perspectives, and when recruiting, top talent will view organisations who offer benefits such as sabbatical leave as employers of choice.

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.

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