Personal finance

Here’s how to take a sabbatical, even if your company doesn’t offer one

Katherine Ullman spent part of her sabbatical in Colombia.
Courtesy: Katherine Ullman

Katherine Ullman was burned out from working intensely during the Covid-19 pandemic and was questioning her next career move.

A two-month sabbatical from her job was just what she needed to reevaluate her life. In December, Ullman, who is 33 years old and lives in San Francisco, traveled to Mexico for a yoga retreat and also to Colombia, where she hiked and took an online drawing class.

“There were conversations about changing roles,” said Ullman said of her job. “I was trying to figure out, do I want to do that?

“Did I want to do that here?” she added. “Or, or should I be thinking differently?

“All those factors came together and that’s what led me to really feel like I needed space.”

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Ullman’s consulting firm had a policy that paid her during her leave. Yet not everyone is as fortunate. Some may be allowed to take unpaid leave. Others may instead quit their jobs. In fact, that’s just what Ullman did shortly after she returned to work at the end of January.

“I hadn’t really made a decision about what I was planning to do,” she said. “Then I came back and it just was clear.”

Ullman is now on her second sabbatical, this one unpaid. Fortunately, she has money saved to pay her bills.

To be sure, sabbaticals are not a common employee benefit. Prior to the pandemic, only 5% of organizations offered a paid sabbatical program, while 11% offered it unpaid, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 benefits report.

Yet there is something different between a one- or two-week vacation and multiple months off, said DJ DiDonna, who studies sabbaticals and is the founder of research and advocacy nonprofit The Sabbatical Project.

“Very rarely do you get a chance to step back and say, ‘What am I doing? How am I approaching life? What do I want my life to be like? Have I gotten off path?'” he said.

While experts hope that more employers will create sabbatical policies in response to the Great Resignation, the wave of pandemic-era job quitting that’s also known as the Great Reshuffle, there are ways to move forward without a specific policy in place.

Whether you want to ask your employer for an extended leave or simply walk away from work for a period of time, here’s what the experts say to do.

How to approach your employer

Katherine Ullman took an online drawing class while on sabbatical in Colombia.
Katherine Ullman

Before you go to your boss to ask about a sabbatical, do your research first. See what benefits may be offered by the company, even if it isn’t exactly identified as a sabbatical, said Vicki Salemi, career expert at jobs website Monster.

“There may be some areas of gray,” she said. “There may be some opportunity to explore.”

Even if you don’t see anything in your benefits that would appear to allow you the extended time off, still talk with your boss. That conversation should ideally be in person or over video or phone, but not via email or other messaging, Salemi said.

When you meet, know exactly what it is you are asking for — the number of weeks off and when you want it to start. Have an idea of how your work would be handled during your absence, Salemi advised.

Once you make the request, follow through. Check with human resources or whatever next step may have been decided during the meeting. Start an email chain, noting what was discussed and ask any follow up questions, she said.

If the answer is no, then consider your options.

“That is an opportunity to pause and look at the big picture and see if this company is really the right fit for you,” Salemi said.

Deciding to quit

Mohit Bhasin did a lot of kitesurfing during his sabbatical.
Courtesy: Mohit Bhasin

Quitting was the best option for 35-year-old Mohit Bhasin, even though his employer, Google, had an unpaid leave policy.

“It was an opportunity to figure the next thing out in some open space that’s created,” said Bhasin, who walked away in February 2020. “Thinking that I could always go back to Google, that was not the fall back that I wanted to rely on.”

Bhasin, who spent his time off in India with family and kiteboarding in beach destinations like Mexico, had saved enough money to sustain himself for at least a year without income. He also had no mortgage and could easily cut expenses when he moved away from the San Francisco Bay Area.

To be sure, you should be financially ready to step away from work, even if it is a shorter period of time in between jobs.

First, create a budget and review your cash reserves to see if you are able to go without income for a period of time, said Winnie Sun, co-founder and managing director of Irvine, California-based Sun Group Wealth Partners.

“I like to advise our clients to have a home equity line of credit set up on their home (if they have equity) before they leave their job/paycheck, have a game plan on how they will sustain themselves during the break (without tapping their retirement plan) and have enough income saved plus an emergency fund ready prior to leaving work, even if it is just temporary,” she said.

Also, make sure you have health coverage during your time away.

You may also consider taking on consulting or part-time work during your sabbatical. That’s what Bhasin did, taking on writing projects about five months into his time off.

“A good way to figure out what is the next thing you want to do is take your skills and help other people,” he said. “That might spark some ideas.”

Ten months after quitting his job, Bhasin returned to work as a data scientist for a tech startup. He moved back to California last summer but still travels to kiteboard, since his job is remote and he has flexibility with his hours.

“I learned what I like,” Bhasin said of his time off.

“Living in the Bay Area, I had no idea remote work could be like this,” he added. “I had no idea you could find such balance.”

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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