How to Prepare for a Sabbatical

How to Prepare for a Sabbatical



Taking a sabbatical can be just as exciting as it is intimidating. Taking a sabbatical can mean unimaginable self-discovery as you take time off to study or explore options, travel and see the world. However, preparing for this kind of journey of a lifetime is intimidating. Between moving the accumulation of your stable life into storage, worrying about insurance, and making sure your travel arrangements and accommodations are lined up, there’s a lot to do—and think about—before setting out.

As someone who’s taken a sabbatical, I’ve learned that beginning a life somewhere new doesn’t have to feel like starting from scratch or journeying blindly into the unknown. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up about how to prepare for a sabbatical and make sure you have the foundation back home to enjoy your time off, grow, and resume your career successfully!


Start Planning

To make sure you convey your goals accurately, you’ll need to craft your pitch for a few different audiences.

Of course, your first priority should be talking it over or business partners in order to plan your departure on a positive note. You’ll want to talk over the logistics (e.g., will your position still be available to you when you return?) as well as who will take over your work and how you’ll transition your responsibilities.

Then, you’ll have to come up with an approach for explaining the trip to your co-workers, clients, and contacts. Try crafting simple but thoughtful talking points about where you’re headed and how the journey will enhance your career growth or fulfill personal goals. The key is to keep it digestible for your audience—your office doesn’t need to know the details of your dream of becoming a zip line instructor or doing international development work in a high-risk zone, but they may want to know why now is the right time and what you hope to get out of the transition.

Informing co-workers one-on-one will give the conversation a more personal touch and let co-workers feel like they’re included in your plans. This will also give you a chance to discuss specific projects that you have ongoing and how you intend to transition them off to various co-workers or a new hire.

Anticipate Reactions: Positive or Negative

While you’ll probably get a range of support, encouragement, and envy when you tell people that you’re about to take time off to travel, you may also initially get a lot of raised eyebrows and skepticism.

If your peers are surprised or critical of your decision, focus your conversation on how you’re excited for the growth and learning ahead, and while there will certainly be challenges, you’re ready for them. What will matter in the end is that you’re taking the steps to reach your goals.

Take advantage of any Company Benefits

Canadian companies offer a wide variety of benefits and different types of leave. Thoroughly research what benefits you may apply for and plan accordingly. In Canada, we have a generous one-year maternity leave supported by Unemployment Insurance benefits that help cushion the finances. Some companies offer offers programs where, upon approval, employees can take a self-funded leave lasting from six months to one year. Employees are sometimes allowed to have a percentage of every pay cheque set aside that the company disperses after a set time of saving. Start well in advance and ask your compensation/HR advisor to put aside a set amount once you and your boss have discussed your sabbatical.

Sabbaticals are no longer the domain of university professors needing time to do research or write a book. Although statistics related to the number of Canadians who’ve taken paid or unpaid leaves don’t exist, more organizations are offering such absences to their employees. In part, the trend is to lure and attract Gen-y workers who value flexibility and who can’t even contemplate waiting till their so-called golden years to do the things they love.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Employee Benefits Survey, 16 per cent of employers in the United States offer unpaid sabbaticals, up from 12 per cent in 2009. Another 4 per cent even offer paid sabbaticals. The numbers are even higher in Canada. According to a 2006 study by Hewitt Associates’ HR Consulting Services, 44 per cent of Canadian companies surveyed offer an unpaid sabbatical, and an additional 12 per cent offer paid sabbaticals.

Some Canadian employers are using sabbaticals as a cost-cutting measure. Accounting firm KPMG, for instance, has just started to offer its employees paid sabbaticals, at 20 per cent of their salaries while on leave. They’ll also keep their benefits intact – and be guaranteed a job when they return.

Deloitte & Touche LLP, for one, has pressed ahead with a new sabbatical program, even as Canada’s recession deepened in 2009. It now offers staff across Canada a chance to apply for international development fellowships, leaves of one to five months that come with a variable stipend to help cover costs, and a guaranteed job upon return. In answer to that call, the accounting firm plans to send more than 20 employees as far afield as Mozambique, Egypt, Ghana and Latin America, where they will work with non-profits on projects relating to their professional skills.

Start the Logistics 

This is probably the most daunting part of prep work. You’ll want the transition to your new life to be seamless, leaving no loose ends behind—but that can be an incredible amount of work.

It will include some basic decisions, like what you’ll do with your belongings while you’re gone (e.g., leave them in storage, sell them, or stow them at a friend’s house) and coming up with a plan for your current living space (e.g., will you sublet it to a friend? Have someone come check up on it and water your plants every couple weeks?).

Then you’ll get into the slightly scarier part of making sure all your bills are paid and that you have enough savings to live out your dream. You can choose to set up automated payments or ask a friend or family member to send pre-written checks in each month. Talk to a financial planner and make sure to tie up loose ends. Make sure you have all your utilities and credit card bills set up as electronic billing, that includes, Enbridge, Hydro, Bell, Rogers etc. A sabbatical can ruin your credit history – if not done properly – don’t let it ruin yours.

Getting organized also includes organizing for your mail. Canada Post has very good options in place for handling mail while you’re gone. They can do mail-forwarding to your chosen locale for a specified time – or they can offer other suitable options. If you will be away for an extended period – the best route would be the mail forwarding option.

Create a Plan of Action

While alot of University Professors and others in Academia are famous for taking sabbaticals. Research suggest that they use this time very wisely to also advance their careers. They use the time to publish more frequently, develop partnerships and get more funding. This is a wise decision from both a time-off and professional development perspective. Use the time to grow as much as you can. Create a Road-Map of places or skills you want to build up over this period.

You probably have your journey at least partially outlined in your head, but now it’s the fun part: making the trip a reality—by doing things like booking plane tickets, lining up rental cars, arranging housing, finding a job abroad, and connecting with faraway friends (or friends of friends) to network with.

It’s also the time to start thinking about your list of must-sees and must-dos (like working at a lion sanctuary or going to teach at a rural school) since those experiences may need to be planned out well in advance. Figure out which organizations you want to volunteer and work with and reach out to them. Finally, I suggest creating a list of five things you want to achieve while on your journey. Of course, those things may change along the way (it’s amazing to see how your experience evolves), but having a rough plan will keep you focused.

Keep in mind, however, that not everything will go exactly as planned, and visiting a place is completely different than living there. Build flexibility into your road map, and be open to the opportunities that come your way. The best parts of your journey will often reveal themselves unexpectedly.

Always be prepared for changes along the way

Heading out to Asia, the Caribbean or South America? Travel is often unpredictable, and a lot can happen in a matter of days. Everything from political upheaval to travel cancellations due to weather conditions can seemingly ruin a trip. Always have a backup plan, whether it involves traveling to a completely new place, rerouting your journey, or, in the worst-case scenario, even returning home. As long as you have a plan in place, if and when things change on the ground, you’ll be ready to act quickly.

Think about this in the area of finances too – things can pop-up immidiately that require additional money that you didn’t plan for. Always create a budget and pop in some contingencies in there.

And remember, not sticking exactly to your plan is not a failure. (Dealing with the unexpected could happen back home as well!) Keep a positive attitude and focus on the fun of the journey—not just the original plan.


Start your sabbatical only when you are 100% ready

Start your sabbatical only when you are 100% sure that you are ready. This comes after thorough research and planning. Now you’re ready to launch into the unknown—but it’s not really unknown, because you’ve taken all the right steps to prepare. You’ve shared your plan, and you’ve ensured your life back home will be in order.

Whatever happens on the ground, remember that the most important thing is that you’re taking a leap and launching into a whole new level of personal and professional growth—so enjoy it.

In the follow-up post I will show you how to take a sabbatical and not get into debt. Till then -start planning and let me know how its going.


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