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Should you take a sabbatical?

We find out what a sabbatical is, how to persuade your employer to let you take one, and how to manage your finances before, and while, you’re away.

22 November 2022 · Harper Banks

Should you take a sabbatical?

Traditionally, sabbaticals are paid-for breaks from work, lasting between one month and a year. These are generally taken to participate in intensive study or research. 

Like the weekly Sabbath, which some consider “the day of rest”, a sabbatical is considered a year of rest, usually after having worked at an organisation for six or more years.

In South Africa, sabbaticals are not as common among the general workforce, but they have become popular among executives and CEOs.

We find out what a sabbatical is, how to persuade your employer to let you take one, and how to manage your finances before, and while, you’re away.

What exactly is a sabbatical?

According to the Origin and Early History of Sabbaticals by Walter Crosby Eells, sabbatical leave involves three essential elements:

  • It must serve a purpose. For example, the employee could aim their sabbatical at self-improvement, the development of new research, or studying in a foreign country.
  • The employee is usually compensated. This does not imply a full salary; organisations may offer only a portion of the recipient’s full salary. In other cases, employees may resign to take a sabbatical if this is not offered at their workplace.
  • Employees must have worked for their organisation for a certain period. This will vary, depending on the policies of each organisation, but it’s usually made available to employees after six, seven, or ten years of work.

Eells points out that there’s a fourth consideration - What value does it offer the employee's organisation?

According to the Special Leave Policy of the Western Cape Government, sabbatical leave is not a right. Instead, it must be to the advantage of the province and the community of the Western Cape.

In other words, Western Cape Government employees are not entitled to sabbaticals. Rather, they can apply for a sabbatical, and it will be granted on condition that it will benefit the purpose of the organisation as a whole, to serve its constituents.

For example, if an employee in the education department decides to take a sabbatical to study management, which will improve his or her skills for their current role, then it may be granted.

How to persuade your employer

The first step is to make clear to your employer the benefits that the sabbatical will offer both you and the organisation. Certain companies already have sabbatical programmes in place, in which case you simply need to follow protocol. If not, you can make note of the following points:

  • study, which was published in 2010, showed that sabbaticals ultimately benefit the organisation at which the employee works. The study assessed 129 professors who had taken a sabbatical and compared them to 129 professors who had not. It found that those who had taken a sabbatical were less stressed and more psychologically equipped to excel at their jobs. Notably, it found that the impact of a sabbatical lasted for long periods after the employee’s return.
  • If you are a leader in your organisation, you could also argue that your absence could empower up-and-coming leaders. The study noted above showed that when organisational leaders go on sabbaticals, it causes a disruption in the workforce, and pushes young leaders forward, allowing for their development, and innovation in the company.
  • Organisations ought to be able to continue to function, even when certain employees leave unexpectantly. The Motley Fool, an American multimedia financial services company, intentionally stress tests its own structure by drawing an employee’s name out of a hat and instructing them to take two weeks' paid vacation in the following month. This allows employees to rest, and it allows the organisation to learn how to deal with absentees.

How to manage your finances while you’re on a sabbatical

Karin Steyn, a 29-year-old South African, decided to quit her job to take a sabbatical.

“Given that my sabbatical was quite spontaneous, I did not have a lot of time to save up. But I knew I might want to use this opportunity to spread my wings and consider working overseas,” says Steyn.

“The day I resigned, I started selling all my household furniture and appliances, as well as my car, to fund my one-year sabbatical across six countries in the Pacific region. I found that travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer,” she explains.

Steyn understands that the thought of quitting your job or taking unpaid leave is daunting. But she believes it’s possible to make it work.

She advises planning what you want to do while on a sabbatical, and – based on that – determining the duration of your time off. Thereafter, she recommends planning your finances accordingly.

“My priority was to ensure that I have some form of travel insurance covering large medical expenses,” says Steyn.

She got in touch with her financial adviser, Madri Jacobs, who assisted her in creating a financial plan for her travels.

“She confirmed that my income protection policy would cover me for the first six months of sabbatical, and she explained the conditions of my disability and critical illness cover. In addition, I was able to make changes to my existing retirement annuity contributions in line with my changing circumstances,” says Steyn.

According to Madri Jacobs, a sabbatical is a life-changing decision, and it may not be right for everyone.

“Once you are convinced that you would like to take a sabbatical, you need to think very carefully about the pros and cons, and the short- and long-term implications of the decision,” she says.

“Make sure you save sufficiently for a sabbatical of 8-12 months, and for a few extra months after you return home. Save enough for unforeseen and emergency expenses. Rework your budget and try to save in a way that has minimal impact on your existing investment planning,” she advises.

Steyn explains that you should not plan endlessly, as there’ll always be some unknowns.

“At some point, just take that leap of faith and step out of your comfort zone. You’ll be surprised at the amount of adjusting and tailoring of your finances you can do while travelling on a budget,” she says.

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