How to Take a Learning Sabbatical

Espresso how to take a learning sabbatical

Do you feel like taking a break from your daily routine and an opportunity to see things in a totally new way? I’ll tell you a secret: I have been longing for this kind of opportunity. I’m just itching for a break so I can strategize and refocus. The pace of change and life is just so fast, and my time to really immerse in deep, long-view thinking is so fragmented, that I’ve been screaming (on the inside) “stop the world, I want to get off!” So that I can think clearly. And breathe. Do you feel this way sometimes, too?

As these thoughts danced in my head, I remembered the research I did for my book, Employee Development on a Shoestring, about the idea of taking a learning sabbatical. I thought I’d share some more about this concept with you, and I’d love to know your thoughts about it in the comments below the post.

So exactly what is a sabbatical?

As I wrote in my book,

“a sabbatical is “a planned, strategic job pause during which an employee takes time to travel, do research, volunteer, learn a new skill, or fulfill a lifelong dream before returning to regular work” (your SABBATICAL, 2011). It is not a vacation and can be either paid or unpaid. Sabbaticals typically last from four to 10 weeks, although they can also be up to a year in duration.”

“When we think of sabbaticals, we usually think of them in relation to academicians, because academia was where the concept was institutionalized back in 1880. But that’s not the only profession that can and should enjoy this unique type of activity.”

“The origin of the word sabbatical is the Hebrew Sabbath (Shabbat), the day of rest. In Jewish tradition, it is believed that the seventh day should be reserved for rejuvenation, rest, contemplation, and growth so that the person is more refreshed and productive during the other six days of work. The sabbatical (Hebrew: Shabbaton) was introduced as a job break taken every seventh year for the same purpose.”

You can use a sabbatical for learning and development, not just for rest

Sabbaticals can be used as an employee development tool: they offer employees the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in self-development. By stepping out of the daily grind of workday tasks and focusing on their own growth, employees can leverage sabbaticals to develop new knowledge, skills, and aptitudes.

I think a sabbatical could work particularly well when you’ve been on a particular career path for a few years. It doesn’t make much sense to take a prolonged break when you’ve only just begun your career journey.

From the employer’s perspective, a sabbatical probably makes better sense for investing in high-performing employees whose commitment or competence are not in question. I mean, why should they invest in people who are troubled in their current role or seen as slackers?

What are the benefits of going on sabbatical?

Taking a sabbatical can benefit you in a bunch of ways. You can develop new skills and knowledge and gain a fresh perspective on old problems and issues. You can see the world through a different lens to open new avenues of creative problem solving. It could help increase your focus and clarity and help renew your commitment and passion for your organization and job. And it can definitely reduce stress and burnout. Ooh, it Sounds. So. Good.

But wait, there’s more!

You see, learners aren’t the only ones who benefit from taking a sabbatical.

Employers also stand to gain in various ways, such as a way to accelerate skill development for key employees, succession planning, and even improving their leaders’ delegation capabilities.

Sabbaticals can also help employers cross-train the nonsabbatical employees while you’re on sabbatical, and leverage the greater strategic focus for leaders that can result from their enhanced delegation abilities that they gain by delegating their work to enable them to go on sabbatical. And of course the nonsabbatical staff get stretch assignment development opportunities and build leadership capabilities, thereby building the leadership bench strength of the employer.

While there are numerous other organizational benefits, one that may not be readily apparent to the employer is the cost savings afforded them from reduced turnover. We know that replacing talent and experience has high costs attached. Sabbaticals can be an effective strategy for keeping people who might otherwise leave the organization due to stress, burnout, or lack of challenging/suitable development opportunities.

Yes. We like the sound of that. Ka-ching!

Caution: If you just need a vacation, take one. Sabbaticals can get a bad reputation when people use the word to describe what is really just a vacation.

To be a truly developmental strategy, a sabbatical should have a clearly defined strategic purpose. [click to TWEET it!]

Okay, so are you ready for the implementation tips? Here they come…

Four Surefire Tips for Sabbatical Success

Here are some of the best tips from my book about ways to ensure your idea becomes a successful reality, and you can take a learning sabbatical without crashing your career into a wall.

  1. Plan early. Not only should you plan your sabbatical to personally gain the full benefit from it, you need to plan so that your current job responsibilities are smoothly delegated and that those staying behind are able and willing to support your absence. This takes considerable effort and thought, so don’t skip planning or leave it for the last minute.
  2. Create a business case. You’ve got to specifically outline how you and the organization will benefit from the sabbatical investment. You must define your sabbatical goals and what activities you plan to do in order to achieve them. Describe in detail how your work will be covered seamlessly by others so that there are no losses to the business during your absence.
  3. Delegate, delegate, delegate. Review all of your current tasks and projects and create a work coverage plan in order to decide how and to whom to delegate your work while you take leave. Especially if you are in a management role, start thinking about ways to delegate some of your work permanently so you can become free to think strategically and spend more time in leadership mode and less time in tactical mode. This action actually benefits the organization by allowing you to bring higher value to your role and by stretching and growing the capacity and capabilities of your staff at the same time. This is true succession planning.
  4. Communicate your plan, your goals, and their benefits to others and the organization, early and widely. Don’t keep your sabbatical a secret. Prepare others as well as build support and encourage champions to prop up your initiative and ensure its success. Tell your co-workers, staff, management, clients, and vendors about what you plan to do and how you and the organization will benefit. Let them know that the organization supports your plan – this will help boost others’ acceptance of and support for it. It will build their confidence in the organization to know the organization has confidence in you.

Want more? Here are some additional resources

Well – what do you think? Are you ready to scratch your itch and give sabbaticals a try?

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