By Michelle Shih /
December 07, 2017
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You need a break from work. Not just a vacation but something longer and more meaningful. Work-life experts and sabbatical veterans share the steps to make it happen.

Pinpoint the Motivation

"I knew I needed a sabbatical when I realized I hadn't really laughed — belly laughed — in three years," says Amira El-Gawly, an organizational culture consultant in Washington, D.C. Sound familiar? If you think you might want a break from work — like El-Gawly, who took a three-month sabbatical in 2016 from her full-time position at a marketing firm — the first step is to consider what you might get out of taking one, says Dave Evans, coauthor of Designing Your Life. Are you burned out and in need of a recharge? Do you want to do something you can't fit into a shorter vacation — say, bike across Cambodia to raise money for charity? Maybe you have a side hustle you want to give more attention to or have always wanted to write a family history. Even if there's more than one factor, seriously think about what you want from a sabbatical.

Map Out Logistics

Start your planning process 7 to 10 months from when you'd like to take time off, says Pat Katepoo, a flexible-work adviser at and author of the e-book How to Get Six Weeks Off to Travel: A Complete Negotiation Guide. Take a look at company policies — 5 percent of U.S. companies offer a paid sabbatical, while 12 percent offer an unpaid version, according to the 2017 Employee Benefits report by the Society for Human Resource Management. If your workplace doesn't have a policy, plan out what you want to accomplish, then build in time on either end as a buffer to help you transition into the sabbatical and return to work. If your goal has flexibility, "six weeks is a magic number," says David Bach, author of The Automatic Millionaire, who is working on a book about sabbaticals. "It's a good chunk of time for an individual but not so long that the employer can't manage it." To lower the cost of the sabbatical, you'll want to do your best to minimize your expenses. For example, if your company has a sabbatical policy, see whether you'll continue to get health insurance while you're away. If not, try to negotiate for it (see step four) but also research short-term plans or travel health insurance if you, say, plan to climb Mount Everest. Also, some companies offer paid time off for volunteer work, so if your sabbatical involves service, you might be able to transfer those paid hours.

Develop a Contingency Plan

You'll need to get a trusted co-worker on board who will agree to cover necessary work and be a point of contact for emergencies while you're gone, says Katepoo. Reveal your plans in confidence and offer a quid pro quo as part of your discussion. Also, arrange for secure remote access to your work computer so you can test it before proposing your sabbatical to your boss. You won't want to be in touch while you're gone if you can help it, but having access to work files will help sell the idea and show you've taken emergencies into account.

Ask Your Boss for Permission

"The key is not to say, ‘I want to take six weeks off starting tomorrow,'" says Bach. "The key is to say, ‘I want to take six weeks off, and I would like to work with you on a plan to make that happen. It won't be disruptive at all to the business. If anything, it will leave the business in a better position than before I was gone." Talk to your boss at least three months before your planned departure date, says Katepoo. Prepare a written proposal that contains your work coverage plan, including the name of the person who has already agreed to help you, and the benefits to the company. You'll want to ask in person, but have the proposal in hand to guide the conversation. "Don't focus on the ‘me' case, but the ‘we' case," says Katepoo. "Say, ‘I'll be more productive and have more energy when I come back.'" Use other companies' policies as examples if your boss is unfamiliar with sabbaticals (see and don't assume that the time off will be unpaid or that you won't be able to keep your health insurance. Rehearse the conversation ahead of time with a friend or trusted coworker, which will help you anticipate the emotions you'll feel as well as pushback you might get. Sweeten the ask by agreeing to give a presentation on your experience to colleagues when you return.

Prep for Your Absence

Once you have the go-ahead, create a manual that includes a trouble-shooting section so the office won't need to contact you. Cross-train your coworkers, and for any project that will continue while you're away, loop in people early in the process. "I gently ushered in my team, so they knew how to take over," says Megan McIntyre, a freelance beauty writer and consultant in New York City who took a four-week company-sponsored sabbatical from the website Refinery29 in 2016. Done properly, the sabbatical leaves the business with a tested contingency plan, says Bach. And since there's no law that protects your job while you're on sabbatical, it shows your worth, and your boss will be relieved when you return.

Step Away — Especially From Technology

Making the decision to truly disconnect was key, says McIntyre. At the airport at the start of her sabbatical, she was thinking about deleting her work email from her phone. "My finger was hovering," she says. "My friend made me push it, and it was gone." El-Gawly had a similar experience, giving up all contact with the office. "I realized what I missed, what I didn't miss, and what I wanted to create from scratch," she says. The key is to be intentional with your days. El-Gawly created rituals like doing a daily writing exercise as soon as she woke up in the morning, a technique she picked up from the book The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, which helped her focus on living in the moment. And every week or so, reassess to ensure you're still working toward your goals.

Plan Your Reentry

Three to seven days before your return date, start going through emails. Talk to the coworkers who supplied the most coverage to learn about major issues that came up while you were out, suggests Katepoo. Then do the same with your boss and confirm when you'll be back in the office. Bring a small, thoughtful gift for coworkers who helped you out and take them to lunch as a thank-you. And make sure you deliver on the promise that you'd add more to the company when you returned, refreshed and reinvigorated, so it will make the sabbatical a success for everyone involved. For Bach, who took his sabbatical almost four years ago, the effects are still evident. "Even today I'm rushing around, I have a million things on my plate, but I have a different mindset," he says. "I'm way more clear about what's important to me. The sabbatical didn't recharge my battery; it replaced my battery."