How to Plan a Sabbatical and Give Your Career a Boost

Taking an extended leave from your job requires careful financial planning and goals-driven activities.

Sabbaticals aren't just for academics. High-pressured professionals, entrepreneurs and senior executives could also use a dedicated period to recharge or pursue passionate personal missions — whether it’s to write a book, pursue a hobby, further education, travel, volunteer or mentor.

"A true sabbatical should have an intentional, goal-oriented purpose," says Garrett Buchanan, senior financial consultant at Northern Trust. "Taking a sabbatical should not be reactionary, like taking time off to care for a loved one, go on maternity leave or recover from a disability."

Be very clear about your purpose and what you expect to achieve. "Don't treat your sabbatical as a vacation for sleeping in. Get a start on your goals,” advises Dean DeBiase, chairman of Reboot Partners in Lake Forest, Illinois.

You might include a secondary goal, such as starting to write a book or blog, or becoming a proficient user of technology. “That way, not only will you make personal discoveries but you will establish a project to continue working on when you return to your regular life,” says DeBiase.

Plan a Sabbatical to Reduce Stress, Reassess Life

The balance between your physical and spiritual health can be a key focus of your time away from the office. A sabbatical can provide a chance to reduce stress, reassess your life and realize your aspirations. "If you were to measure stress levels and general health before and after the sabbatical, you probably would find an improvement," says Buchanan.

He cited an example of two clients, both executives burned out from their work and careers. “They ran the numbers, and they stumbled into a sabbatical but called it ‘retirement.’” One of the executives got bored within six months and the other within two years. “Both went back into the exact same profession but with a renewed passion and re-engagement,” Buchanan says.

So how should you set an ideal date and timeframe for your sabbatical? First, forget traditional assumptions.

“Your time off can last a week, a month or a year, as long as you structure it around a beginning, middle and end, with deadlines," says DeBiase. "You could even go to your office occasionally. Or if you plan an extended break, you might leave a little latitude or window of time open in case you truly need to delay the sabbatical."

Once you set the plan in motion, protect it.

If your business or company experiences especially active seasons, you might consider scheduling the sabbatical to coincide with a less busy interval. For instance, if you’re an accountant, client work might wind down after April 15. Or as an entrepreneur running your own business, you may be aware of typical cycles. Alternatively, you might choose your dates to coincide with activities you have in mind, like the ideal travel season in locations you plan to visit.

If your plan includes a partner or spouse, consider how to coordinate with him or her. "If necessary, is he or she willing to suspend his or her own career to align with yours?" Buchanan says.

One client wanted to take a year off to travel the world. “He and his wife left their jobs knowing only one of them was guaranteed re-employment following their sabbatical,” Buchanan says. “But their top priority was to recharge and rethink their career plans so they were okay with that tradeoff.” They lined up their “adventure of a lifetime” to each continent based on the best time of season to visit.

Make Financial Planning a Part of Your Sabbatical

Unless your employer is willing to subsidize your time off, you’ll need to make careful financial plans, both to cover any loss of income and pay for extra expenses like travel and perhaps health insurance. If you have young children, you might require child care; if you’re leaving town, you might need caretaker services for the upkeep of your home. Add up all those charges, and run the numbers with your financial planner, calculating both short- and long-term impacts. Consider implications for your future financial projections, Buchanan says.

Negotiating a Sabbatical With Your Employer

When the time comes to negotiate with your CEO, manager or business partner, consider a strategy for balancing business needs — particularly if you’re asking for paid leave or need confirmation that your job will still be there upon your return. Build a case for how the sabbatical can help you become a better employee, whether by increasing your productivity and engagement, or by addressing burnout and diminishing returns.

Although it may be difficult to create a tangible metric, the bottom line could be linked to the retention of your talent. From your employer's side, if companies in your industry award free-time benefits like sabbaticals after a specified period of service, the industry standard alone may be a compelling factor.

If you decide to take a sabbatical, your re-entry into the workforce should be gradual. “It's not like turning on a light switch. You might benefit from a final few days to reflect on your experience and put into context how it has changed your life,” Buchanan says.