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How You Can Realistically Make A Sabbatical Happen

Taking a sabbatical isn’t as much of a pipe dream as you think it is. Here’s how you can make it happen in your job.

How You Can Realistically Make A Sabbatical Happen
[Photo: Flickr user martinak15]

You’re not a tenured professor. And you don’t occupy a seat in the coveted C-suite.

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Yet for many American workers just like yourself, the formerly elusive sabbatical may now be within reach.

What, you may rightly ask, is a sabbatical?

It’s a structured getaway that can last from several weeks to several months–sometimes even a year. And it’s specifically designed with one goal in mind: for employees to pursue personal or professional goals outside of their job description before returning to their day job–refreshed, recharged, and reconnected.

So why are sabbaticals no longer the domain of the professional 1%?

Well, it’s all due to a confluence of societal trends. For starters, a wider range of companies–and industries–are beginning to offer these retreats from work.

It’s estimated that as many as 24% of small American businesses and 14% of large firms now offer their own take on the perk.

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“Time is the new currency,” explains Barbara Pagano, a cofounding partner of YourSabbatical, a site that she launched with her daughter, Elizabeth, after they embarked on a six-month sabbatical of their own, sailing 2,000 miles on a sailboat named Revival.

“People don’t want to work for 40 years–and then retire,” she explains. “They don’t want to wait that long to pursue their goals.”

In response, companies looking to retain top talent, ward off burnout, and appeal to freedom-seeking younger employees are carving out plans for paid and unpaid breaks alike.

And while traveling is still a popular sabbatical of choice, many people choose to learn a language, pursue specialized training, seek answers within–and sometimes pursue a combo platter of all the above.

It’s A Surplus of Sabbaticals! So Why Don’t We All Go Away?

Like snowflakes, no two sabbatical programs look exactly alike.

Blue-chip financial services firms like Deloitte LLP offer their employees an extended paid leave after six months on the job, while workers at beauty startup Birchbox are eligible for a three-week getaway after putting in three years.

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As reported by The Wall Street Journal, some companies even offer “mini sabbaticals” to less-tenured workers–a concept that could benefit many people who find it hard just to take regular paid time off.

A recent U.S. Travel Association study found that 40% of working Americans leave vacation days on the table each year.

It’s part of what the study authors call the “work martyr complex,” a syndrome in which we’re addicted to our own busyness–and scared we might be out of a job if we think about disconnecting for more than a week.

But the benefits of extended time away can include the type of major mental reboot a long weekend just can’t afford. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that workers who took sabbaticals of at least six months–and unplugged completely from work while away–experienced a significant drop in stress levels well after their return.

What we gain, says Dan Clements, coauthor of Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Simple, is often a literal shift in perspective, and insight into our own lives.

Sabbaticals Done Right–Professionally, Financially, and Personally

Madeline Ross was 29 years old when she decided to head out, along with her boyfriend, on a five-month leave from her marketing job at a hotel and conference center in Lake Tahoe, California.

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Ross had been itching to take the trip for a while, but her father, a hiring manager, had discouraged her because of the gap it would leave on her résumé. So after saving up, she approached the conversation with her supervisor carefully.

“The whole Lake Tahoe area had been having a tough time because of the lack of snow,” Ross explains. “So I used that to my advantage when telling my boss that I could work remotely for much less of a paycheck. I also offered to continue doing social media for the company part-time to keep up my skills, as well as keep them from having to hire someone to do my job.”

To Ross’s surprise, her supervisor was supportive, telling Ross that now–before she had a mortgage or kids–was the perfect time for her to make the journey.

According to the experts, Ross did many things right. She socked money away on her less than $40,000 salary before leaving on her trip–$7,000 in savings to float her five months on the road.

And she chose to go to a part of the world where the cost of living was far less expensive than her everyday life: Southeast Asia, where, on a strict $40 a day budget, the money lasted her the full 141 days.

“Sabbaticals are possible at any price point–but money is often the biggest mental hurdle,” Clements says. So he recommends kicking off saving several years before you actually depart by socking away whatever you can afford–be it $10 or $100.

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“Automate those savings, and make sure it’s in a separate account from where you keep the rest of your money,” he adds. “And pay down, or consolidate, your debts before you go. The goal is to reduce the cost of your normal life before you head out.”

There are also ways to make your sabbatical work in your financial favor. After going on sabbatical to Paraguay with his wife and then 5-year-old daughter, Clements’ biggest realization was how consumed he was by his busy life, “and how far down the rabbit hole of work we can be without even realizing it,” he says.

“We all have financial rocks in our life,” Clements says. “For most people, it’s your house and your car.” But in the age of Airbnb, even a mortgage needn’t be a sabbatical deal breaker.

“Before leaving on sabbatical, we rented out our house,” Clements says. “We charged more than our mortgage in rent, so we were actually earning money by being on sabbatical!”

Of course, adds Clements, it’s not sustainable if you let your career languish.

Whether to stay partially plugged in to work is up to you. If job security is your ultimate goal, logging in from the road, like Ross, can bring peace of mind–even if it may mean slightly less inner peace.

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In her case, even doing 20 hours of social media work each month proved stressful. “With the very slow Wi-Fi speeds, it was really challenging at times,” she says. “I would dedicate entire days to working when it was possible.”

Before you even begin to think about the ins and outs of your dream sabbatical, do your homework to find out what your company might offer–and campaign early to get buy-in from your boss.

In some cases, working in an element of skill building that you can bring back with you to your day job can help your cause. “We once counseled someone who wanted international leadership experience,” Pagano says, “so he applied to a top business school in Switzerland.”

Like Ross, you want to frame your request in terms of how your time away will benefit your company, whether it’s saving them on your salary in the short-term, or having you return refreshed, renewed, and in possession of new skills.

How To Make The Most Of Your Break From Work

Laying the groundwork of exactly what you want to do on sabbatical is as critical to your own mission as it is to your professional standing.

Put your pitch in writing, covering when you want to take your sabbatical, how long you’ll go for, and what you hope to accomplish, advises Pagano. It will have the added benefit of giving you mental clarity about what you want to accomplish.

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If you don’t craft a careful plan, the experts warn, it’s all too easy to flounder and wind up spending your days “walking to Starbucks and feeding the cat,” says Clements.

That’s what happened to Stewart Mandel, 39, a college football writer in San Francisco who took a six-month sabbatical to write about “something other than college football.” Specifically, Mandel had a book of essays in mind.

What he didn’t bargain for was how hard it would be to buckle down without the structure of regular work. All told, he wrote eight essays during his time away–pieces he’s still waiting to publish today.

But even cooling his heels for a few months had a beneficial effect. “I definitely returned to work totally recharged,” he says.

And sometimes a long break can not only clear our heads but send us hurtling in a whole new direction.

Ross, who’d planned a careful itinerary of volunteering opportunities while making her way through Laos and Myanmar, was surprised to find that she returned home with a new calling.

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“The trip has actually inspired me to go after my true passion: helping others,” she says. “I saw so many women in Southeast Asia who don’t have the same rights or opportunities we have in this country. I really want to help give them opportunities outside the sex trade, which sadly is many women’s only option.”

Ross returned from her sabbatical in April, and she’s now up for a job at an NGO that’s focused on helping women in that part of the world–an opportunity she credits to her time away.

And that’s one of the key benefits of an extended escape from your workaday world. “Your sabbatical might be going back to school or writing a book, but there’s always inherent value in travel,” Clements says. “It’s really hard to create the headspace to make the important life decisions without a little distance.”

This article originally appeared on LearnVest and is reprinted with permission.