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Taking leave of yourself

Written by: Adam Bernstein
Published on: 10 May 2018


Image © Dudarev Mikhail / Adobe Stock

Taking a career break, gap year or sabbatical are interchangeable terms. Effectively, they mean the same thing – with the employer’s permission you take a break and return to the same position.

Despite what many might think, the Government’s conciliation service, Acas, notes there is no legislation governing sabbaticals; whatever transpires is down to an agreement between employer and employee.

Types of sabbatical

Two types of sabbatical exist – paid and unpaid. As might be expected, the former is rare because while you are on leave, your employer is still paying a salary. Paid sabbaticals tend to only be available to those with very long service, say 25 years.

More common are unpaid sabbaticals, which, while mainly offered by larger bodies, are starting to be used by smaller concerns. However, they are not necessarily available to every employee, as they invariably require a minimum service period of two years.

It’s worth noting pension and salary are usually frozen and, it’s possible, on your return, you may be offered a similar role to that left. The employer could also place limits on what you are allowed to do (such as paid work for someone else) during the sabbatical.

Interestingly, “sabbatical” comes from an academic term where those in academia would take every seventh year away from their establishment.

Taking leave

You will generally know if your practice offers its employees sabbaticals, in which case, you will need to find and comply with the policy in place. However, if a policy does not exist, you should not give up hope – maybe it’s something you could suggest and help implement?

Employers don’t have an obligation to offer (or allow) sabbaticals and, if you want to apply for one, you will need to make a strong case for it to be granted. You may want to prepare for the request by listing the benefits to the practice of your taking a sabbatical:

  • You may learn skills you haven’t the time to while working.
  • It may be cheaper to let you have – say – three months off, rather than have to recruit another person, as anyone who comes into the job as a replacement will take time to learn the ropes, by which time you will be back.

Flexible request

Be flexible with your request; after all, sabbaticals are not a legal entitlement. Unlikely as it may be, if the practice is traditionally quieter during the summer (pets in catteries or kennels while their owners holiday) then applying for time off at this time may be more favourably received than for a busier time of year.

Similarly, you may want one year, but the practice may only feel comfortable giving four months. You could suggest a compromise or several blocks of sabbatical over a longer period of time. Of course, the other option open to you if you don’t get what you want, is to resign. You need to consider your request, the employer’s response and how easy it would be to get another position elsewhere should you dig your heels in.

Employers should, however, look at requests on a case-by-case basis, as they will need to consider how the employee’s work and responsibilities will be covered while they are away. That said, employers should be fair and consistent when considering requests to ensure they don’t treat some employees unfavourably or discriminate against them.

How will it look?

Whatever you do, have in mind your CV and how an employment gap would look – it’s the first thing a practice will look at when recruiting. In other words, the time off should be backed by practical reasoning.

Assuming your request has been granted, it’s vitally important you get the agreement in writing, with all of the terms and conditions set down in the document, including leave and contractual benefit entitlements to avoid any misunderstandings. The last thing you need is a vague concept of what is allowed and what is not.

Consider all eventualities. Where would you stand if the practice moves to a new location that you cannot/do not want to travel to? What if the practice makes redundancies? Will you have to return practice property (vehicle or laptop)? What if you run out of money and need to return to work sooner than anticipated? What if you just don’t want to return? You may need to take legal advice, as some of the issues stray away from management matters into employment law.

Leave declined

What do you do if you have been turned down? As noted earlier, you have no legal right to a sabbatical, which means if your request has been declined, there are only two options open to you.

  1. The first is obvious – you resign, take time off, then either reapply or find work elsewhere.
  2. Alternatively, you hang fire and ask again at a more opportune moment, such as when the practice is over a given problem or until a new partner or manager joins the practice, and hope they will be more open to the idea of a sabbatical.

Why are requests denied? Acas suggests reasons for declining requests include:

  • an employee’s poor performance and attendance
  • an employer being unable to cover the role of the employee
  • the practice being unable to cope with client demand
  • an employee being subject to disciplinary proceedings

Further reading

A well-thought-out sabbatical can be a boon for all. The key to making the request is making it reasonable.

Lastly, if you want time off, but don’t know what to do, can help you research your options.