Asking for leave of absence or sabbatical the right way

Palm Cove, Queensland, Australia

In this part of our travel guide we explain how to take a leave of absence or a sabbatical without jeopardizing  your career.  We assure you: Everybody can and should do it. Only taking a time off, exploring different cultures and especially being out of the tread mill allows you to see things differently.

Unfortunately, being back from a three months trip to New Zealand and Australia, we are amazed how many people ask us: "How did you manage to take off for such a long time? I will never be able to do that!"

To enable you to take your time off, this article we will show you the different options available to employees.

No matter which option fits for you, always follow this general rule:
Plan early and involve your boss as early as possible. Announcing your plans for a three months absence at least 12 months in advance gives him enough time to organize a stand in and get used to the idea in the first place. 

Combine holidays of two consecutive years 

In many countries around the globe, employees have at least four weeks of holiday per year. Especially in western countries you probably you can combining your holidays of two consecutive years with the public holidays at the year end.

Depending on how many fall on a week end, you can get a total of seven weeks for traveling while keeping one week in each year as a spare. Let us explain how exactly you can secure these seven weeks.

The public holidays available in most western countries are: Christmas holidays on the 25th and 26th of December and New Year on the 1st of January. In addition, many companies grant you half a day off on December 24th and 31st. Depending on the country and region you live in, you might also have Epiphany in January.

This will give a total of 5 days from public holidays. Adding three weeks from this year and the next, results in your seven weeks for traveling. Enough time to even explore a destination at the other side of the globe.

Unfortunately for 2016 and 2017 most holidays are on the week end so you might consider postponing this approach to 2017/2018 which allows you to plan things well ahead with your boss.

We met several people on our trips doing this. Some even combined six weeks of holidays from each year allowing them to include the Easter holidays and resulting in three months for traveling.

Unpaid leave / Sabbatical

For all readers working in the consulting industry, this option is a no brainer. With the industry focusing on projects/assignments with a fixed duration and faced with a naturally high fluctuation rate, it is easy to allow this flexibility once a project is done.

Other companies offers a long-term account where you can book over hours and later use these for early retirement or a longer block leave.

Should you work at the university or as a teacher, chances are high there exists an official plan how to apply for a sabbatical. 

For all of us not working in the above ecosystems, if you play it right, you still get your unpaid leave. You only have to ask for it.

Of course, some of you might raise objections like:

  • "This is all theory, in reality you need to have luck"
  • "My boss will never allow this"
  • "I can't just walk up to my manager and ask for that"

If you hear this inner voice, always remember: The key for combining world travel and building your career is to ensure you are a valuable employee for your company. This might sound corny, but when you think about it, business still has to run while you are away.

As a consequence, no matter when you ask, the first thing your boss will think, but never admit, is: "S***, this means more work. I need to find a stand in while he is away and get rid of the stand in when he returns. I won't approve this."

To have him approve your request, you need to change his line of thought to: "This will be tough, but if he quits I will not be able to deliver good quality to my boss anymore. Let's see what possibilities I have".  

Traveling and driving your career requires carful planning and preparation to identify and use any upcoming opportunity. The following tips will help you understand the cards you can play when some bargaining is necessary. 

The modern business world is constantly changing

While many people envision change at their work place as something to be afraid of, it is an opportunity you should use to pursue your travel plans. Instead of being afraid, observe the changes happening around you and try to identify opportunities which will support your goal of an unpaid leave. 

Keep your eyes open, understand how your company needs to adapt and which projects and organizational changes will be triggered by these adaptations. Taking this action will actually help you in two ways:

  • To understand where your company is going, you need to talk to different people in the organization. This will increase your visibility and get you recognized as someone who cares about long term goals.
  • As soon as you understand how your company is impacted by upcoming changes you can work out a proposal. This might be leading an initiative or project increasing efficiency, introducing a new technology or developing a new product.

The important part is to convince your manager before you start the new project, that afterwards he should grant you the leave of absence. With you having shown interest, commitment and initiative he will have a hard time denying your request. After all you came up with the idea and you want to get this thing done, why should he turn you down?.

Opportunity through organizational change

Change within an organization also means major reorganizations. These probably happen every three to five years and are an excellent opportunity to apply for an unpaid leave.

Your lever is actually simple. Major reorganizations always need a long time to traverse the hierarchy. So chances are good everybody already knows where they will be moving to but everybody is waiting for the real change to happen. During this time productivity in an organization drops significantly.

I am sure, during this period, your manager might even welcome your absence, as an unpaid leave takes some pressure from his budget.

Opportunity costs are on your side

If you have a good case supporting your leave of absence but your manager plays it harder than expected, it helps to understand the opportunity costs of hiring a new employee to back your case. Your boss might be more vulnerable than you think.

If you quit, your productivity during the notice period will drop significantly. Additionally, the company has to look for a replacement and get the new person onboarded. 

Adding up all effort, hiring a new person easily costs the company five months of your pay. In addition, as you showed commitment and initiative, they are running the risk that your replacement is not as committed. The numbers are even more on your side if the replacement starts after you have left the company.

You actually have all odds on your side if you are asking your manager for a leave of absence of only two or three months. This requires him to choose between saving two or three months of your salary and know the new project is in good hands or invest five months of salary and take the risk to hire the wrong guy.

It is very important though that you never threat to quit your job to obtain your sabbatical as this will backfire. Dropping small hints now and then on how much you value the time off, is enough to make your boss understand you might consider quitting an option.

Take time off when changing your job

If you are stuck in your current job and looking for an alternative, you have the best options to realize your travel plans in the near future. There are different levers you can pull to secure your time off and a job when you return.

  • Delay the start of the new job
    The obvious one is to look for a job where your future employer is not in the need to hire you on the spot. As a rule of thumb, look out for jobs already advertised for 8 to 12 weeks. Companies having a position open for that long, are more likely to wait another two months for you to join. Additionally, ensure you qualifications really fit with the job description. The better you solve their problem the more willing they are to postpone your start by a few weeks.
  • Reduce the notice period
    You found your dream job and they are not willing to push the start date? Hand in your resignation and ask your actual boss if you can agree on reducing the notice period. Don't be shy, you are quitting anyway.
  • Be flexible
    Maybe the company is not in the position to wait for you to start but they are willing to guarantee you a leave of absence at a later point in time. If so, ensure to have this statement in your new contract. 
    We met an American couple in Rotorua, New Zealand, where he did exactly this. When changing jobs, the new contract included the option to take one year off. They never expected him to pull it through though and must have been quite astonished when he handed in his request.

No matter which approach might work for you, pay close attention how your potential employer reacts on your request for a time off. If the feedback is very reserved and not showing any possibility for a compromise, you might reconsider to join the company after all. Very likely they will make it nearly impossible for you to take a sabbatical at a later point in time.

Seasonal work

If you are just starting your career you might also consider doing some seasonal work in the tourist industry for two or three years. During high season you will have a stressful job but the rest of the year you are free to travel. 

This is how the finish couple we met at Piha beach, west of Auckland manages to travel the world. During the summer they are waiting tables on the northern hemisphere, in the winter they travel in the southern hemisphere.

Final thoughts

There exist many options to fulfill your travel dreams and develop your career. No matter which option you choose, always remember, it is a matter of give and take. Being a valued employee increases the willingness of your employer to support your plans. If the company does not show any willingness to support you, they might loose you after all.

A key to success is to stop viewing your job as a burden but more as a tool to reach your goals. Envision this and your communication and commitment will be much clearer. It may sound unfamiliar at first, but traveling can be your key to professional success.

Do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions on how to get your sabbatical approved. Alternatively leave a comment and tell us how you managed to take some time off.