Asking for sabbatical leave – 10 tips (and a pitch pack) to get a “yes”
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
I remember the day I asked my boss for 6-months sabbatical leave to travel around South America. I’m not going to lie… it was messy. Ugly crying was involved… in front of my boss. I didn’t follow any of these tips, let alone structure my thoughts in a sabbatical pitch. I was lucky, she was one of those supportive ‘Mum’ type bosses. She knew I needed a break and she said yes anyway.
I’ve taken 10 sabbaticals, so I know how hard it is to ask or what you need. It can feel incredibly vulnerable to have your sabbatical dreams lying at the feet of your boss. But, the best way to kill your sabbatical dream, is to never ask. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
How do you get the confidence to ask for sabbatical leave? Follow the tips below and make sure you’ve got a really well structured, compelling Sabbatical Pitch. The quickest way to get started is to download the Beyond a Break Sabbatical Pitch Pack (more details below).
1) Test the waters
In the weeks leading up to your request, test the waters by seeing what their reaction is to topics related to your sabbatical. Share an article about someone who climbed Everest (if that’s what you want to do) or about someone who went on sabbatical leave and the benefits it brought to their career and life. Watch for their reaction. Are they interested or dismissive? It will tell you a lot about how to prepare your sabbatical pitch.
2) Set up the right time for a discussion
The worst possible feeling for a boss is to feel blindsided by your request. Let them know you have something important to discuss with them and set up a time. Think about the best time and place to have the discussion. Think about this from their perspective. If your boss is not a morning person, don’t book a meeting for 8 am. If you set up a time right after they’ve come out of a stressful board meeting, they’re not going to be in the right headspace or mood to consider your request.
3) Start with why
When it’s time to pitch your sabbatical, be really clear about why you want to take a sabbatical and what it will bring to your life and career. If you’ve been dreaming of climbing Everest since you were a kid, say that. If you want to take a break and recharge, talk about it. Being honest about your sabbatical purpose is the most emotive, compelling way to start to get your boss on board. If you’re not sure, check out the Sabbatical Purpose Matrix.
4) Find the win-win
Present your sabbatical as a win for you and a win for the company. Can you find some alignment to company mission or strategy? Will it help with succession planning? Will it broaden your experience or qualifications? Is it in their best interest to have you full of energy so you can take on a big new project? Clearly present why this is a win for them and why it’ll be a win for you.
5) Be clear about the terms
There’s nothing worse for a boss than having a conversation with someone who isn’t sure what they want. Be really clear about the length of your sabbatical and the time period that will cause the least disruption. Think about the compensation and benefits that you would like to continue while you’re away. If possible, align all these things to your company’s policy for extended leave or sabbatical leave. If they don’t have one, look for how they treat requests for unpaid leave or even maternity leave as an indication of what they think is fair in other situations.
6) Be prepared to negotiate
Know what your non-negotiables are, and what you’re willing to concede. You may not get everything you ask for. Before you go into the discussion with your boss, think about what you’d be willing to give up and what is required to make your sabbatical work. There’s not much point being granted a sabbatical in summer if your dream is to ski all the peaks in Europe. Fiercely guard your ability to fully disconnect from work. It’s all too easy to agree to keep responding to emails, but that will dramatically impact your ability to relax, recharge and get the most out of your sabbatical.
7) Make a commitment to return
The most powerful thing you can do is commit to returning. The biggest fear that companies have around allowing sabbaticals is “if we let people go off on sabbatical, then they’ll never come back!”. This is not true, but it is a common fear. If you’re not sure if you’ll return, consider coming to an agreement that makes it clear for both parties. Can you promise to let them know after the first month of your sabbatical? Can you ask them if you can remain an employee, but say you can be flexible on which role you come back to. Be careful not to burn your bridges by promising to come back, then not following through. Not only do you risk hurting your reputation, you may also hurt the chances of others also wanting sabbaticals in the future.
8) Present some options for work coverage
Do some thinking on what work would need to continue while you’d be away and present some options for how that might be covered. Can you hire some temp-to-hire contractors and use it as a probation period to find new people for the team? Can you ask junior team members to step up their responsibility and use it as a development opportunity for them? At the point that you’re first requesting a sabbatical, it just needs to demonstrate that you’ve thought it through and you’re committed to finding solutions that work for everyone.
9) Follow the golden rule of notice
Give at least the length of time of your sabbatical as your notice period before the sabbatical. If you want a 4-month sabbatical, give at least 4 months’ notice. One strategy that works incredibly well is to give a really long notice period. If you ask for a sabbatical in 2 year’s time, it’s much easier for them to say yes because it’s not going to impact them in the short term. And it’s harder for them to say no on the grounds of not being able to prepare. Get it in writing. Then patiently await your dream sabbatical. Two years will fly by!
10) Encourage open discussion
Once you’ve presented your sabbatical pitch, leave time for an open discussion. Encourage your boss to talk about what they see as difficulties and what worries them. You don’t need to have all the answers. Be clear that you are willing to work with your boss to find solutions and that you’ll lift the load on making sure everything is prepared to minimise disruption.
The Beyond a Break Sabbatical Pitch Pack
The easiest way to make sure you hit all these points and get to a “yes” is to start with the Beyond a Break Sabbatical Pitch Pack. And it’s a free, easy to use PowerPoint template that takes you through every step. It makes sure you present a compelling case for your sabbatical. This is based on what I’ve done (and the lessons I’ve learnt) over my 10 sabbaticals. I know it works because it also works for my clients. I do a little joy-jig each time a client gets a ‘yes’ to their dream sabbatical. Most importantly, having a pitch that you know works, will give you the confidence to take the great leap and ask for what you want.
Lyndall Farley is the founder of Beyond a Break, helping people navigate their way to a sabbatical and supporting organisations to create better sabbatical programs that recharge their people.