How to take a sabbatical from work

How to take a sabbatical from work

If you?re feeling burned out, have you thought about taking off time off to rest?

I?m not talking about a mental health day. Or a 2-week European vacation. I?m talking about a full-on work sabbatical.

The concept of a sabbatical is rooted in the Bible (and agriculture): it?s the practice of letting land lie fallow once every 7 years to replace its nutrients, become healthy, and sustain growth again.

If that?s not an apt analogy for our work lives, I don?t know what is.

Rest and rejuvenation is a bit of a lost art for this generation, a cohort I think of as ?academic thoroughbreds.? We?re the ones who grew up doing 7 different extracurricular activities, not because we wanted to, but because we thought we had to. We were pushed to pursue top academic programs (as if that validated our worth), and have arrived in adulthood realizing we were so busy following the ?good student? playbook that we don?t know how to call our own shots. We were taught that, if we stopped moving and achieving, we?d die.

And yet?, that pause might be exactly where we?re finally born.

If on the seventh day, He rested, why can?t we?

Sabbaticals are commonly known (and taken) in academia, but they?re a career break option anybody can take. (Yes, even you!) And they aren?t just for the employed: as shared in his famous TED Talk, business owner Stefan Sagmeister shuts down his company once every 7 years to take a full year for creative rejuvenation.

If you?re sensing your body and soul need a sabbatical, here are the steps to make it happen.

1.) Decide what you want to experience

As a career change coach, I?ve had quite a few clients take sabbaticals while we?re working together. There are usually two outcomes: people who are super happy and recharged, and people who never fully let go and aren?t. If you are too anxious to let yourself fully unplug (and thus spend most of your time flipping between Netflix and scrolling through job postings on Indeed), a sabbatical won?t feel restorative at all.

I want you to be one of the super happy bunch, so ask yourself this critical question: what are you running towards?

Most people want a sabbatical because they?re burned out at work and want to run away.

Running away can be okay, but if you don?t have something else to move towards, your sabbatical will be defined by what?s ending instead of what?s beginning. You probably don?t want your sabbatical to be vegging in jammies watching Netflix for 4 months ? but you also don?t want to overfill and overschedule your time off, you overachiever ? so figure out what you?re craving. Your sabbatical will probably contain these elements:

  • Rest and rejuvenation: Give yourself honest-to-goodness time off. No daily alarm clocks. Unplanned, unstructured time. And no numbing out with screen-based distractions! Let yourself be properly, thoroughly bored if you want.
  • Adventure: Pick something that?s been secretly calling you for a long time: finally buying the ticket to Bali, London, or the Outer Banks. Restoring a campervan and roadtripping across the U.S. for 2 months. Doing the ayurvedic yoga retreat in the Appalachians. Going for a mid-afternoon hike by yourself on a work day. Sometimes the simplest adventures are the most satisfying!
  • Learning: Our brains are usually craving something new to help them reset after a long time in a job. If you?ve been thinking about learning Spanish, jewelry making or how to play the piano, this is a great time for it. Learning new skills (especially mastery-oriented ones) is an incredible way to maintain brain health and minimize your risk for dementia as you age. You?re doing both your current and future self a massive favor by infusing your life with learning ? and these new skills may open up additional career opportunities for you, too.

2.) Decide how long it needs to be, and when you?d like it to start

Knowing what you want your sabbatical to contain helps you plan. If you want to see orcas come ashore in Patagonia to feed, you?ve really only got 6 weeks of the year you can make that happen. So figure out how long would feel good, create enough time for your desired activities, and maps to your schedule.

3.) Figure out your finances

Start pricing out your sabbatical, whether you need to cover basic living expenses at home or budget out for a big, juicy international trip.

If you?re staying local, you need to know what an average month of living expenses looks like, and then you?ll need to multiply that by the total number of months you want to take off. You?ll also want to build in price adjustments: if you?re taking ukulele lessons, add in the cost of your teacher?s time. If you?ll be cooking more because you?re at home, you can adjust your ?dining out? budget for those months to squeeze in a little cost savings.

If you want to travel, get on Google Flights, Airbnb, and Yelp to start mapping out the rough cost for plane tickets, accommodations, food and fun while you?re traveling. An estimate of $40/day can completely cover food and hostels in many developing South American and Asian countries, where in places like Europe, you may be looking at $60/day for food plus $100/day for accommodations. You?ll also want to think about any costs you?ll still incur at home, like paying for utilities or rent. It?s just like pricing out a long vacation. (Hell, it IS a long vacay!)

Once you?ve got a rough estimate of what your total sabbatical will cost, take a look at your current financial situation to see if there?s a savings gap you?ll need to cover in order to be able to afford it on no income. Then, look at the target dates you picked, and do some quick math to see if you can have enough saved up by your desired date.

(Want help? Check out my article series on pricing out your dreams.)

4.) Tell work

If you?re not sure you want to leave your job, ask for a leave of absence well in advance ? the further in advance, the better ? or see if they already have a sabbatical policy in place! (My old company, Edelman, gave employees a full month of paid sabbatical time after they?d reached their 10th year with the company. Staying there that long probably would have sucked my entire soul out of me, but I know folks who took advantage of it!)

Talk about your dreams and what you?re hoping to get from your time away. If you go in and end up just whining about burnout and overwork, your boss will go into problem-solving mode and try to find other, less dramatic ways to alleviate burnout. If that?s *actually* what you wanted this whole time, go for it! But if you legitimately want to take the sabbatical, focus on the vision of the experience and how that will benefit you (and them!) in the long run.

If you are definitely leaving your job, you go Glen Coco! You don?t have to tell them you?re leaving any further out than the standard 2 weeks. But if there?s a possibility you might want to come back to your company, it?s worth telling them far enough out that you can ask for (and get!) a leave of absence ? I?d recommend asking at least a couple months prior to your departure date so they don?t feel backed into a corner.

If you?re an entrepreneur, tell your current clients about the sabbatical significantly in advance (I?d recommend at least a month before you leave). Set expectations around how this will affect your clients. Their first thoughts will be: ?Will I still get what I paid for, or are you abandoning me?? So address those concerns upfront. Let them know when you?re are leaving, for how long, how that will affect your work up until that date, and how they?ll be supported during your absence. You?ll also need to look at your business processes to see if you need to pause or slow down any services before you run off to Bali.

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5.) Start planning the logistics of leaving

The logistics of a sabbatical can feel like the most overwhelming part. This is a big place to solicit help and ideas, because all of the questions you?ve got have already been solved by someone else before. So to alleviate your nervousness, start by Googling your logistical questions to see how other people handled them.

Here are a few ideas to help you manage the logistical odds and ends:

Housing: If you own your home and want to travel on your sabbatical, can you VRBO or Airbnb your house for a couple months while you?re in Israel? Can you arrange a housing swap, a la the movie The Holiday? Can you get free accommodations where you?re headed by participating in a volunteer work exchange, like WWOOFing? Or if you rent, when?s your lease up (or what are the consequences of breaking it)? If you don?t want to give up your apartment, can you sublet it, or do you have a friend who?d be willing to move in and pay rent while you?re gone?

Health insurance: You can use the healthcare exchange to get comprehensive coverage between jobs or use travel insurance, which can act as disaster health insurance abroad as well as travel incident insurance. When I was traveling for 3 months back in 2017, I purchased World Nomads insurance and never needed to use it. If you take a leave of absence from work, you can sometimes keep your employer?s health insurance at their rate. If you choose to quit, you can use the COBRA insurance offered.

Utilities: Can you pause or turn off utility services for the months you?re going to be traveling the world in your campervan? Check on when your service renewal dates are.

Your car: Can you leave it in a friend?s garage while you?re gone? Make sure to pay the appropriate taxes, registration fees, and insurance costs while you?re out because many states ticket and tow parked cars that aren?t current.

Pets: Most folks who are traveling for their sabbatical choose to re-home their pets temporarily with a friend or family member. Expect to compensate someone for doing this ? it?s no small feat to feed Krull the Warrior King and pick up his poop on your behalf multiple times a day! Your nearest airport will usually offer long-term boarding options, too.

Phone: Upgrading to international service is one way to go, but it?s expensive and not consistently reliable from country to country. Some carriers allow you to pause your service, switch to a stripped down plan, or add the minimum ?in case of emergency? international service package before you leave. You?re usually good to go if you have an ?unlocked? smartphone that can access wifi. You can also purchase local SIM cards and pop them into your phone for reliable phone/data service or use wifi provided at cafes and hotels. Some places, like Japan, even offer rentable portable wifi signals.

6.) Make it happen!

All the dreaming and planning in the world won?t do any good if you don?t take action, too. So, book something to make it real, whether it?s putting down the yoga retreat deposit, purchasing the first plane ticket, or registering for the cooking class you?ve been dying to take. By putting your money where your mouth is, you?re creating accountability. (And when you have your dream hangover and think ?I can?t really do this, can I?? you?ve already generated positive forward momentum.)

So long, burnout?hello Burning Man!

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Lisa Lewis is a career change coach who helps unfulfilled individuals create lucrative, soulful, and joyful new career paths. Don?t love your job? We should talk. Learn more at or check out The Career Clarity Show podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and Google Play.


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