Sabbaticals Guide: How Does Sabbatical Leave Work In The UK?

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Emilene LucasLegal Assessment Team Supervisor
Updated on 7th July 2024
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The idea of taking an extended break from your job might seem like a luxury, but more and more companies are recognising the value of offering such breaks to their employees.

But what exactly is a sabbatical? And what are the implications of taking one for both employees and employers?

In this guide, we'll explore the concepts of sabbaticals, covering everything from the typical length and eligibility criteria to how to apply for one and legal considerations. We'll also look at the benefits of sabbaticals for both employees and employers and answer some common questions about sabbatical policies and agreements.

Table of Contents

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a period of paid or unpaid leave granted to an employee to pursue personal interests, rest, or professional development. Essentially, it's a break from work that allows employees to recharge, gain new experiences, or achieve goals outside of their regular job responsibilities!

How long is a typical sabbatical?

Most sabbaticals range from one month to one year but the exact length depends on the employer's policy and the reason for the sabbatical.

Many large corporations offer sabbaticals of up to three months as part of their benefits package. Universities and research institutions frequently offer longer sabbaticals, sometimes up to a year, to allow faculty to focus on research or advanced study.

Who can take a sabbatical?

Employers usually have eligibility criteria for who can take a sabbatical. This may take into account:

  • How long an employee has been with an organisation;

  • Job performance;

  • The feasibility of taking a sabbatical.

How do you apply for a sabbatical?

How you apply for a sabbatical depends on your company's sabbatical policy.

However, you'll likely need to submit a formal request detailing your sabbatical plans including:

  1. Why you want to take a sabbatical and what you hope to achieve;

  2. The duration of the proposed sabbatical;

  3. How your sabbatical will benefit both you and the company;

  4. How your responsibilities will be managed in your absence.

What does UK employment law say about sabbaticals?

There is no statutory right for employees to take a sabbatical. Offering them is entirely at the discretion of the employer.

Is a sabbatical paid or unpaid?

Sabbaticals can be paid or unpaid. Alternatively, some employers may offer partial pay or a stipend to cover basic living expenses.

Unpaid sabbaticals are common in smaller companies or industries where extended paid leave is not feasible whereas sabbaticals in academia, for example, are often paid or come with some form of financial support.

Do employee benefits continue during a sabbatical?

The continuation of employee benefits during a sabbatical depends on your employer's policy. Some employers might maintain full benefits, while others may suspend them or offer limited coverage.

This is usually influenced by whether a sabbatical is paid or unpaid. Paid sabbaticals are more likely to include continued benefits compared to unpaid ones.

Health insurance

If your employer provides private health insurance, they may choose to continue your coverage during your sabbatical, especially for shorter leaves.

For longer periods, you might need to arrange to continue your coverage through personal payments or a different arrangement.

Pension contributions

Pension contributions may be paused during an unpaid sabbatical. However, if your sabbatical is paid, contributions to your workplace pension scheme are likely to continue as normal.

Annual leave

Your entitlement to annual leave may continue to accrue during a paid sabbatical. However, for unpaid sabbaticals, accrual might be paused.

Will my job be secure during my sabbatical?

Job security during a sabbatical largely depends on your employer's policy.

Some employers offer a guarantee that you can return to the same or a similar position after your sabbatical. In other cases, your return to the same role may depend on business needs and any changes that happen during your absence.

As such, it's important to get the terms of your sabbatical in writing. This should include the duration of your leave, the date you plan to return, and assurances about your role upon your return.

What can you do during a sabbatical?

Taking a sabbatical offers an opportunity to step away from your routine and engage in activities that can enrich your personal and professional life including:

  • Enrol in a course either related to your current field or a completely new area of interest;

  • Engage in research relevant to your profession;

  • Take time to learn new skills;

  • Travel;

  • Volunteer;

  • Focus on hobbies and passions;

  • Rest or recover from burnout.

In short, there are no hard and fast rules about what you can or can't do during a sabbatical. However, your employer may consider the purpose of the sabbatical when deciding whether or not to grant your request or not.

Can I work another job during my sabbatical?

Some companies might require you to get explicit permission before taking up any paid work during your sabbatical to avoid conflicts of interest. They may also have different rules depending on the type of work. For example, freelance work or jobs in completely unrelated fields might be more acceptable.

To better answer this question, review your employment contract or company policy on sabbaticals. You may find specific clauses that address whether you can take up other employment during your sabbatical and non-compete clauses that might prevent you from working for a competitor or in the same industry while on sabbatical.

Can a request for a sabbatical be denied?

In the UK, employers are not legally obligated to grant sabbaticals so your request can be denied based on the company's discretion.

Common reasons for denial include:

  • The employee's absence would significantly impact business operations;

  • There's no suitable way to cover the employee's responsibilities during their absence;

  • There are concerns about the employee's job performance or reliability.

If an employee's sabbatical request is denied, viable alternatives are possible, such as a shorter leave of absence, flexible working arrangements, or using annual leave for a longer break.

Can you take multiple sabbaticals during your career?

There is no legal restriction on the number of sabbaticals you can take during your career, however, the feasibility of doing so depends on your employer(s).

Companies may have specific policies regarding the frequency and eligibility criteria for sabbaticals.

How does a sabbatical differ from other types of leave?

Type of Leave

Usage

Purpose

Sabbatical Leave

An extended leave from work, usually lasting several months to a year, often granted for personal growth, professional development, or rest and rejuvenation.

Commonly used by academics, but increasingly available in other professions.

Annual Leave

Regular paid time off that employees accrue based on their length of service. Intended for rest, relaxation, or personal activities.

Employees usually use annual leave for holidays or short breaks throughout the year.

Maternity and Paternity Leave

Granted to new parents for the birth or adoption of a child

Maternity leave can be up to 52 weeks, while paternity leave is typically short, up to two weeks.

Sick Leave

Taken when an employee is ill or injured and unable to work.

Usually short-term, but long-term sick leave may be necessary for serious health conditions.

Parental Leave

Available to parents to spend time with their children, often used to attend to a child's needs or during school holidays.

Usually unpaid and can be taken up to 18 weeks per child.

Unpaid Leave

Granted for various personal reasons when paid leave entitlements are exhausted or not applicable.

Often used for extended personal matters, including travel, education, or family care.

What is typically included in a sabbatical policy?

A sabbatical policy typically includes:

  • The minimum period an employee must work for the company before being eligible;

  • Performance requirements;

  • Purpose of sabbatical;

  • The typical duration of a sabbatical;

  • How often an employee can take a sabbatical;

  • The steps for applying for a sabbatical;

  • Who is responsible for approving sabbatical requests;

  • Whether the sabbatical is paid, unpaid, or partially paid;

  • Which benefits continue during the sabbatical and which do not;

  • Conditions and restrictions.

Can a sabbatical be combined with other types of leave?

Different employers have varying policies regarding combining leave types. This may include combining a sabbatical with other types of leave, which we'll explore below.

Annual leave

Some employers allow employees to combine their sabbatical with their annual leave to extend the total time off and provide additional flexibility.

Maternity or paternity leave

While it's less common, some employees may wish to combine maternity or paternity leave with a sabbatical, however it's important to be aware of the legal and financial impacts, particularly regarding statutory entitlements and company policies on paid vs unpaid leave.

Sick leave

Generally, sabbaticals are planned and voluntary, whereas sick leave is unplanned. Combining these types of leave is uncommon and may not be supported by all employers.

If you require extended time off for health reasons, it's typically better to manage this through sick leave policies and long-term provisions your employer offers.

Parental leave

Combining a sabbatical with parental leave can provide an extended period to care for your children and engage in personal development or rest.

Unpaid leave

Combining a sabbatical with unpaid leave can offer additional time off without financial compensation if you need more time beyond what is provided in your sabbatical policy.

Can an employer revoke a sabbatical once it has been approved?

Employers are generally expected to act in good faith and have reasonable grounds for revoking a sabbatical. This means they shouldn't arbitrarily or unjustly cancel an approved leave.

However, in exceptional cases, such as significant changes in business needs or unforeseen operational challenges, an employer might feel compelled to revoke an approved sabbatical.

Any decision of this nature should involve a fair process, including clear communication and consideration of all the employee's circumstances.

Further, while there is no specific statutory protection for sabbaticals in the UK, if a revocation appears unfair or discriminatory, an employee may have grounds to challenge it.

Will taking a sabbatical affect my career progression?

If your employer has a supportive sabbatical policy and a culture that values work-life balance, taking a sabbatical is less likely to negatively impact your career.

However, it's important to take into account the fact that being away from work for an extended period can sometimes cause a loss of professional momentum, and returning to work after a sabbatical might require some adjustment.

Can my role change after I return from a sabbatical?

Your role might change after returning from a sabbatical because of operational changes, like restructuring, mergers, or shifts in business focus. It's also possible that your employer might decide that your skills are better suited to a different role on your return.

In any case, your employment contract or sabbatical agreement should outline your rights and your employer's obligations regarding your role upon return. In some cases, either or both might specify that you will return to the same or a similar role.

Ideally, employers should discuss any potential changes to your role with you before implementing them, and these changes should not be detrimental or unfair.

If they are, you have the right to raise a grievance.

Are sabbaticals the same as career breaks?

On the face of it, sabbaticals and career breaks may seem the same. However, a key difference between the two is that when you take a sabbatical you remain employed and have an agreement to return to work eventually, whereas to take a career break you typically resign and there is no obligation for the employer to rehire you.

What is a sabbatical agreement?

A sabbatical agreement is a formal document drafted between an employer and an employee that outlines the terms and conditions of a sabbatical.

Why is a sabbatical agreement important?

It's important to have a sabbatical agreement drawn up to make sure both parties have a clear understanding of the sabbatical's purpose, length, and the employee's entitlements and obligations during the leave.

What key terms are typically included in a sabbatical agreement?

A well-drafted sabbatical agreement should include the following key elements:

  • The purpose of the sabbatical;

  • Duration and timing;

  • Provisions for extending the sabbatical under certain conditions;

  • Employment status during the sabbatical;

  • Whether the employee will return to the same role or a similar position;

  • Compensation and benefits during the sabbatical;

  • The employee's responsibilities during the sabbatical;

  • Activities that aren't allowed during the sabbatical.

What happens if I don't return to work after my sabbatical?

If you decide not to go back to work after your sabbatical, you will need to formally resign from your position. This means submitting a resignation letter and serving any required notice.

Further, if your sabbatical was paid or your employer covered any expenses, you might have to repay some or all of these costs depending on the terms outlined in your sabbatical agreement.

If you don't return after your sabbatical without telling your employer or working your required notice, they may consider this a breach of contract and take legal action to recover costs or damages.

Therefore, if you decide not to return to work following a sabbatical, you should first review your sabbatical agreement and employment contract to understand any financial obligations or required notice periods.

You should then communicate your intention not to return in writing to your employer, providing the required notice.

What are an employee's responsibilities during a sabbatical?

An employee's responsibilities during a sabbatical should be outlined in the sabbatical agreement and policy. They may include:

  • Periodic updates on your activities;

  • Providing a way for your employer to contact you in case of emergencies or important developments;

  • Following the guidelines set out in the sabbatical agreement;

  • Maintaining a level of professional conduct that reflects well on your employer;

  • Not engaging in activities that could be seen as competing with your employer;

  • Not engaging in additional, unauthorised work.

What are the benefits of taking a sabbatical?

Taking a sabbatical can offer lots of benefits to employees both personally and professionally.

Personal growth and development

Sabbaticals provide an opportunity to step back from your daily routine and reflect on your life, career, and goals. This can lead to a better understanding of your personal and professional aspirations.

Whether through formal education, self-study, or hands-on experiences, sabbaticals can help you develop new skills or deepen existing ones, which can be beneficial for your career.

Professional benefits

Taking time off can prevent burnout and lead to increased productivity when you return to work. You may come back with fresh ideas and a renewed sense of purpose.

By pursuing further education or professional development activities during your sabbatical, you can enhance your qualifications and potentially open up new career opportunities.

Health and wellbeing

Stepping away from the pressures of work can significantly reduce stress levels. This can lead to better mental and physical health.

Sabbaticals may also offer you a chance to spend more time with family and friends, pursue hobbies, and achieve a better work-life balance.

What are the benefits of offering sabbatical leave?

Sabbaticals are often seen as beneficial primarily for employers, but they also offer some advantages to employers.

Enhanced employee retention

Offering sabbaticals can increase employee loyalty and reduce turnover. Employees who feel supported and valued are more likely to stay with the company long-term.

Sabbaticals can also be an attractive benefit that helps in recruiting top talent, especially those looking for a balanced work-life dynamic.

Improved productivity and innovation

Employees returning from sabbaticals often bring back fresh perspectives and innovative ideas. This can lead to improved problem-solving and creativity within the organisation.

Rested and rejuvenated employees also tend to be more productive and motivated. They return with renewed energy and enthusiasm, which can boost overall workplace productivity.

Leadership and development opportunities

Sabbaticals provide opportunities for employees to develop new skills and gain experiences that can benefit the company. This can be especially valuable in leadership roles.

What is the difference between flexible working and a sabbatical?

Flexible working refers to any work arrangement that deviates from the traditional 9 to 5, five-day work week while a sabbatical is a temporary, extended leave of absence from work.

There is no statutory right for employees to take a sabbatical and usually employees have to meet certain criteria relating to tenure and performance. On the other hand, in the UK, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working from day one of their job.

Can an employee be made redundant while on sabbatical?

Being on a sabbatical does not exempt an employee from the redundancy process. However, if employment continues during the sabbatical, employees on sabbatical are entitled to the same redundancy pay and notice periods as those who are actively working.

Conclusion

Taking a sabbatical can be a transformative experience offering employees the chance to explore new interests, rest, gain fresh perspectives, and return to work reenergiesed and rejuvenated.

For employers, offering sabbatical leave can improve employee satisfaction, boost productivity, and improve talent retention.

To avoid problems, sabbaticals require careful planning and clear communication.

If you’re considering a sabbatical or are an employer looking to implement a sabbatical policy, it’s essential to understand the key considerations and potential legal implications.

At Lawhive, our team of experienced employment lawyers is here to help you every step of the way. Whether you need advice on drafting a sabbatical agreement, understanding your rights, or addressing any legal issues that arise, we offer tailored support to meet your needs.

Contact us today for a free case evaluation and quote for the services of a specialist lawyer.

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