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What is sabbatical leave?

Sabbatical leave is a break from work, allowing employees to pursue interests such as traveling, writing, research, or volunteering. During this period, employees remain part of their organization but are exempt from regular duties. Common in educational institutions, sabbaticals can also be found in corporations.

So what is sabbatical leave? Organizations provide employees with various types of leave, such as sick leave, vacation time or parental leave. One of the less common types of leave is the sabbatical leave.


What is a sabbatical?

The sabbatical definition is “a break from work” during which employees can pursue their interests, like traveling, writing, research, volunteering or other activities (or even rest). During that time, the employee is still employed at their organization, but they don’t need to perform their normal job duties or report to work.

This practice is common in educational institutions; for example, a professor may take a sabbatical leave for a semester or two to teach at a foreign university or do research in their field.

Some corporations offer a professional sabbatical as a benefit, too – in 2018, 15% of employers were offering sabbaticals (though only 5% offered paid sabbatical leave). This leave is granted to employees after they complete a certain number of years in service, usually more than five.

The sabbatical leave is separate from other kinds of leave. For example, you may be entitled to 20 days of paid time off per year plus a sabbatical after your fifth year with the organization.

The benefits of a sabbatical leave are clear for employees: they get to take their minds off the stress of their jobs and focus on what they love outside of their work. They can also develop skills, both personal and professional. Employers benefit in various ways, too: for example, their employees are rejuvenated and return to work with new energy and motivation (and without the fear of employee burnout). Plus, offering sabbaticals is a great way to attract talent to your organization.

How long is a sabbatical?

The length of a sabbatical from work varies according to the institution or organization. Some universities may grant this leave for six months, a year (called “sabbatical year”) or more.

Private companies may offer one or more months of sabbatical leave depending on their policy and each employee’s years of service. For example, Adobe offers four weeks of sabbatical to those who’ve been employed in the company for at least five years and five weeks to those who’ve completed 10 years of service.

Is sabbatical leave paid or unpaid?

Often, sabbatical leave is paid, either with the full salary or a percentage of that salary – although some organizations may offer unpaid sabbatical leave.

How does a sabbatical work?

Employees who qualify for this type of leave will usually need to ask for it several months in advance. Organizations will consider that request and approve it if it meets their criteria. Organizations will also need to make arrangements to replace that employee for as long as they’re on sabbatical, or divide their work among other employees.

Many organizations have specific rules regarding sabbaticals. For example, employees might need to take their sabbatical within a specified period after they become eligible or they lose it. Also, if an employee chooses to take advantage of a sabbatical leave, they may need to commit to staying at the company for at least a specified period after they come back (much like with tuition reimbursement benefits).

While on sabbatical, people are still officially employed by the organization. This means that they remain bound by their organization’s policies including harassment, confidentiality, data protection etc.

Sabbatical leave policy

If you’re thinking of introducing a relevant policy to your company, that policy needs to be absolutely clear. First, define sabbatical leave. Is it a break from work so employees can do what they want? Or is it a break for a specific reason, e.g. volunteering in an environmental program?

Then, decide when employees should qualify for sabbaticals. Usually, the minimum is five years, but consider what makes sense for your organization.

The next step is laying out clear guidelines about how employees can ask for sabbatical, how you will evaluate their request, what their obligations are and what applies in regards to their pay, benefits or contract. These elements are essential for an employee sabbatical policy, and clarity and transparency about all aspects of the policy is essential to its success.

If you’re not sure where to start, use our sabbatical leave policy template.

Want more definitions? See our complete library of HR Terms.

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