1. Home
  2. Careers
  3. news
  4. I'm an employment lawyer. Here's everything you need to know about asking for a break from work.

I'm an employment lawyer. Here's everything you need to know about asking for a break from work.

Emma Magnus   

I'm an employment lawyer. Here's everything you need to know about asking for a break from work.
  • Claire Brook has been an employment partner at a law firm for nearly 20 years.
  • Brook advises employers in everything from contract issues to complex dismissals.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a transcribed conversation with Claire Brook, an employment specialist solicitor at Aaron & Partners in England. It has been edited for length and clarity.

A sabbatical is a break from work, usually for a defined time period. People might take career breaks to pursue other business interests, participate in a charitable initiative, have an extended holiday, or explore the world. Alternatively, they might have caring responsibilities. Ultimately, it could be for any reason — sometimes people want time out.

There are two main ways of doing it. The first is effectively ending your employment with the option to return. This has more advantages for an employer, who won't have the ongoing liability of an employee accruing length of service and retaining their employment rights — or paying a salary, holiday, and pension — while the employee is away.

The more common option, and the more useful for an employee, is where employment continues. This might be paid or a mixture of paid and unpaid leave. Usually, these kinds of sabbaticals are shorter – between three and six months. For a longer period of a year or more, a mutually agreed termination arrangement is more likely.

A career break has advantages for both employees and employers. It can help hardworking, long-standing staff avoid burnout, particularly where their work is very intense. For employers, it can be hugely beneficial for staff well-being and retention.

How to request a sabbatical

There is no legal entitlement to a sabbatical, but it's still reasonable to discuss one with your employer.

There is no rule about how long you need to have worked for an organization before requesting a sabbatical, but they are generally provided to more senior, long-standing staff.

Check whether your company has a sabbatical policy

If your company already has a sabbatical policy, you should follow it. It should explain the eligibility requirements and criteria for applying, the key arrangements, and the application process.

If there isn't a policy in place, employees should have an initial conversation with their line manager or HR to determine whether they would consider it. You might ask: "If you were open to considering a sabbatical, what would you want to see from me? Is there anything you'd like to see me demonstrating as part of that application?"

Prepare a business case

Prepare a business case for the career break to present to your employer. Your line manager is generally the best person to have this conversation with. Do this with as much notice as possible to give them the opportunity to think about it and decide whether it's something they can support.

Explain what you're looking to do, how long you'd like to take off, and your proposal. Reassure your employer that you're asking for leave for a reason they can support and that it's not for a purpose that might cause concern, like a conflicting business interest.

Show that you have thought about how you'll keep up to date with the role, how you'd like to engage with the organization while you're away, how your responsibilities could be covered, and how you see the return to the role afterward.

Highlight the advantages for the organization

It's useful to demonstrate your value — and your future value. Explain to your boss how the sabbatical can benefit them upon your return, especially if it's being funded.

The key to success is to demonstrate the potential advantages for the organization. Find out what's important to your employer and how your request meets their aims and priorities. Organizations usually have a written set of values — use those to frame your request.

Aim high

You can request a paid sabbatical in the first instance unless your company has a contrary policy or practice. If that is unacceptable to your employer, consider whether an unpaid sabbatical would work for you. If so, follow up with your employer.

Clearly, a paid sabbatical is more attractive to the employee, but the employer may be more willing to support an unpaid sabbatical, given the cost to the company.

Be willing to compromise

My best advice is to be realistic about what you're asking for and willing to compromise. Always think: What would I think if this request were presented to me? Putting yourself in their shoes will help you put together a more reasonable request: one which sets out the reason for the sabbatical, how it will help you and your employer in the long term and puts forward a sensible business case It might include requesting an appropriate length of time away, accepting a combination of paid and unpaid leave, or not receiving a bonus while you are on sabbatical.

You can still negotiate with your employer once you've applied for a sabbatical, and vice versa. Showing reasonableness and a willingness to negotiate will help to reach terms that will work for both parties.

What happens if your employer says yes?

We would always recommend that a sabbatical is set out in a very clear agreement in writing, usually drawn up by a solicitor. A properly drafted agreement avoids ambiguity and confusion. It should state how pay will work — including pay rises, bonuses, holiday and benefits — just like any other form of leave agreement. It should detail arrangements for the return to work: whether the employee will be entitled to return to their role and the circumstances under which they would be offered an alternative.

It will also need a termination provision explaining what notice the employee would be required to give if they didn't return to work and any clawback provisions — which might require the employee to repay any money or the value of any benefits they receive — in place.

It's important to ensure that the employees maintain contact and update their contact information while they are away, too.

And if it's a no?

Consider alternatives like flexible or part-time work. Since 6 April this year, any employee has the right to make a flexible working application from day one, regardless of how long they have been employed at their organization. If you want to go part-time or have a regular volunteering day, for any reason, you can make the request.

I think employers are increasingly open to flexibility, and I would advise them to consider employee requests with an open mind. If requests are taken seriously, employers can maintain trust in a much better way and ensure that employees feel valued moving forwards.

As told to Emma Magnus. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Popular Right Now