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The difference between a sabbatical and a career break

The modern era has seen more people work overtime. It's perhaps because of the resultant stress, shifting short staycations into longer holidays, that bosses need to know the difference between a sabbatical and a career break.
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Both a sabbatical and a career break involve long periods of time in which a member of staff leaves your employ. It’s thus unsurprising that the two terms are mistaken to be synonymous.

Neither has a legal preset, meaning employers can tweak the offering to their discretion. But that’s where a sabbatical and a career break diverge in likeness, the biggest difference being that the former affords employees job security.

As was suggested by Sue Hadden of Career Shifters: “The usual job ‘perks’, such as being paid and pension contributions, may be suspended when someone is on a sabbatical. However, employees eventually return to their job, or equivalent thereof (if you’ve filled their role, then find them another within the company).

“The period of time allowed depends on the business – though often stretches into months – and may only be accessible to those at a certain level in the organisation, such as senior managers or full-time staff.”

It’s important you be consistent in the process involved, so having clear rules – a required notification period and the need for written requests – set out in the staff handbook will help, detailing what matters will be handled case-by-case. 

“You will need to decide whether to accept requests based on individual circumstances and the operational needs of the business,” one Jeanette from EllisWitham opined.

“You may have to refuse because you cannot cover their role or they have not maintained a good disciplinary record. Take care to ensure you are not breaching equality laws by making fair decisions.”

Plan with them what will happen to their portion of the workload, and whatever you agree on should be written up and stored securely.

A career break, on the other hand, is normally taken when a sabbatical policy is non-existent. Staff are effectively handing in their resignation – they’re making a clean break, though it doesn’t stop them seeking work with you later on.

Traditionally it’s called a career break because they tend to focus on themselves for what can be a number of years. Echoing the sabbatical, a notification period should be stated in the staff handbook. A letter of resignation should be handed your way as well – future protection from unemployment claims.

The rising trend in both a sabbatical and a career break is testament that people work too hard and as such require a longer time to rejuvenate – a concept of great interest to author David Burkus in the Harvard Business Review.

He explained: “At the very least, having people rotate out allows companies to stress test the organisational chart. Ideally, no team should be so dependent on any one person that productivity grinds to a halt during an extended vacation. And while it may look good on paper, the only way to know for sure is to try it.

“Whether it’s a long-term sabbatical or a surprise vacation, its success is an encouragement – mainly that you retain your staff unlike with a career break – and a warning. The warning is that most organisations are not giving staff enough time away. The encouragement? Extended time off pays off.”

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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