Thinking about taking unpaid leave to recharge batteries or pursue a personal project? Here’s how to persuade your employer to give you the breathing space you deserve.
Feeling burned out, or a stressful life event, can make you want to give up on everything. Sometimes, however, a couple of months’ break away from work is all that you need to recover.
Look after number one
“Taking a sabbatical is an opportunity for you to step away, reset and reconnect with what’s important,” says Jenn Fenwick, career coach at Rebel Road Coaching.
Accountant Gemma Dunn took two sabbaticals in the five years of working for the same employer. “I took a month off at the end of my first year, and three months off at the end of my third year. The latter was a full escape from my life at home – I camped my way through nine countries in Africa, soaking up the scenery and the wildlife, and the different ways of life.”
The first time round, Gemma had come to resent the company she worked for because of the unsustainable hours she was putting in and the lack of apparent appreciation for putting so much into it.
“I felt like I hadn’t breathed for the entire 12 months, and it was having a knock on effect on my private life and my health – I was rundown and tired.”
At the end of her second year her sister died suddenly and, ten months later, one of her bosses passed away, too.
“I had a realisation that life was too short and went into ‘seize the day’ mode. A bit of a mental health crisis, actually.”
After both sabbaticals she came back feeling refreshed, with renewed passion for the job and better able to manage her time and her workload. “Best thing that could have happened to me,” she says.
Test your skills and gain new ones
Accountant Ruth Hilton also took unpaid leave twice. She volunteered with Accounting for International Development (AfID), a social enterprise that organises volunteering opportunities for accountants with 500+ charities in 50+ countries.
“My first assignment was in 2012 withJohn Paul II Justice and Peace Centre in Uganda, helping them prepare for their first audit. The second was in 2017 with Ruchipo Child Protection Organisation in Malawi where I helped set up financial recording and forecasting processes.”
Ruth says both assignments hugely increased her confidence in her abilities. “When volunteering I was the expert, without a manager to check things with. My second placement also improved my management skills as the people I was working with were not accountants.”
David Busby, Volunteer Services manager at AfID, comments: “What surprises many finance professionals who lend their skills to non-profits is that they get back just as much, if not more. This includes interpersonal and intercultural skills, resilience in the face of the challenges and unpredictability they may face while volunteering, and a confidence boost in the depth and transferability of their financial knowledge. They return to work with this renewed trust in their ability and a greater appreciation for their profession.”
Sabbaticals can be a win-win for all
Your employer may be temporarily inconvenienced while you’re away, but they also have much to gain from your time off.
“You are likely to return to work with fresh enthusiasm, motivation and a head full of new ideas,” says Jenn Fenwick, career coach.
You’ll also put into practice the skills you’ve learnt.
“Volunteering especially is a great test of character in terms of adaptability, patience, leadership and problem-solving – important traits that accountants inject back into their job upon return,” says Busby.
“Working in an environment far removed from a corporate structure also means that volunteers must adapt their approach, which heightens flexibility, strategic thinking and decision-making skills.”
Ruth Hilton employed her improved management skills shortly after returning, when she started managing new apprentices.
Gemma Dunn came back more assertive. “I had had time to reflect on the problem areas and found courage to speak up and suggest new ways of approaching tasks.”
She adds: “Where I had previously felt unappreciated, I felt the exact opposite when I came back: they could have just said no, but they valued me enough to allow me some breathing space. In return, they got my full respect, loyalty and effort.”
Sabbaticals also allow employers to try new talent in new roles.
Fenwick says: “They create the opportunity for others to step in and take the reigns while you’re out of office, adding to their professional development and bringing diversity of thought into the role and the team.”
How to negotiate a sabbatical
“You want to arm yourself with the knowledge of ‘what will make this an easy yes for my manager / boss?’, then present your proposal based on this,” says Fenwick.
Here are her tips on gaining that knowledge:
- Do your research: have others taken sabbaticals?
- Have a confidential chat with HR – how would the company feel if you took a sabbatical?
- Be clear on what you are asking for – how long will you be off?
- What will the benefits be – for you and for the company?
- What is the impact of you stepping away for x months? How can you help negate that?
- Pre-empt the key objections they may have, so you can have a solution up your sleeve – for example, who will cover for you?
Then put your proposal forward well in advance of making any firm plans, says Susy Roberts, founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts.
She adds: “Make sure you stress that you don’t want to leave the company, that you will return as someone with more experience in a particular area or areas. Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep and be honest about what your plans are – if you’re really not planning to come back to work, then a sabbatical is not the right thing to pursue.”
Getting your boss onboard with the idea of a sabbatical will be easier if you make it clear to them what they stand to gain on your return. It will also help you with planning how to spend your sabbatical time by thinking it through well in advance.
Ultimately, the goal is to recharge, gain some varied experience, and return to your role with renewed enthusiasm.
Further reading on tackling career stress:
- What to do if you need help with your mental health
- Finding your first voluntary accounting role
- What to do if you feel stuck in your career
- The pros and cons of taking a career break
Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.