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How to negotiate a sabbatical when a vacation isn't enough

Common in academia, companies are now catching up to the idea that a break from work can improve retention, focus and well-being. Negotiation expert Alexandra Carter explains how to ask for one.
Alexandra Carter, U.N. negotiator and bestselling author of \"Ask for More,\" breaks down how women can turn their professional lives around, starting with the way they talk to themselves.
Alexandra Carter, U.N. negotiator and bestselling author of "Ask for More," breaks down how women can turn their professional lives around, starting with the way they talk to themselves.Morgan Triska Media

Lila, a senior manager with a major consulting company, felt like she had run full-speed into a wall. Life even before the pandemic was challenging – with two teenagers experiencing difficulties at school and a growing list of work projects – but by the beginning of 2022, the stress had caught up with her.

She had trouble sleeping and chronic hip pain that was so intense it took her breath away. She frequently felt as though her team culture was detracting from the changes she had been hired to make. And despite her excellent reviews, Lila felt like she wasn’t giving her company her best effort, which only made everything feel worse.

Lila’s boss asked for a meeting so that they could discuss her goals for the year. Instead, Lila asked for time off. And not just a vacation, either. Lila knew what happened when she took one week off: Nothing. All that did was allow the emails – and the stress – to build up for her return. Instead, she candidly told her manager she was burnt out and needed to take a step back.

Lila didn’t know it, but her company had a “time away” benefit. The next thing she knew, Lila had a five-month sabbatical – paid – to rest and recharge.

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an extended time away from work – usually a month or more – during which an employee retains her job but can rest, or pursue other interests outside of work. Being away from the office for a more prolonged period than a vacation allows for deeper rest, creative thinking and discovery.

Lila reported that it took the first few weeks of her sabbatical to allow her stress levels to come down. But then, what happened felt like magic: she started sleeping again. Her pain levels decreased significantly.

She connected with her children, and was able to start getting them the learning assistance they needed. She even re-discovered an old hobby of hers: gardening. Spending every morning with her hands in soil, growing beautiful flowers she could stare at from her porch, gave her a profound feeling of peace she hadn’t experienced in years. And through it all, Lila felt tremendous gratitude to the company that saw what she needed and gave it to her. She knew she would never have gotten these benefits from a short vacation.

The move toward sabbaticals for U.S. employees

Common in academic institutions, companies are now catching up to the idea that a break from work can improve retention, focus and overall well-being. The pandemic, as well as worldwide political developments over the last few years, have had a profound effect on employees’ well-being. More than half of the U.S. workforce reports that they are either “languishing,” defined as feeling disconnected, listless and disinterested in everyday activities, or burnt out. Around 40 percent of workers are considering quitting their job.

And women, who dealt with additional burdens at home and at work before the pandemic, are now suffering from what experts call an “exhaustion gap” – feeling more exhausted, less inspired and less motivated even than their male counterparts.

With this many employees suffering, companies are also feeling the pinch. Disengagement and attrition cost employers millions of dollars every year. It’s no wonder companies are saying, as Lila’s did, “We’d much rather give you a break than have you quit.”

About 15 percent of companies now openly offer sabbaticals, with about 5 percent of those being paid.

This summer another woman I’ve worked with, Caroline, who is an executive at a large tech company took advantage of a well-publicized, 30-day paid break her company offers for every five years an employee has worked. She used the time to rest, spend time with her family, and do some creative thinking about her career trajectory. A month later, she returned to work invigorated, feeling ready to give her all toward her long-term goals.

Caroline knew about her company’s sabbatical policy. But as Lila found, many more companies will offer it “unofficially.” You just have to know to ask.

How to ask for a sabbatical

So, how do you ask for a sabbatical? Follow these four steps to get the time off you need.

Research what benefits your company offers. Sabbaticals aren’t just available at consulting or tech companies – many industries, including food and retail, also have leave programs. Find out the length of leave offered, how long you need to have worked there to qualify, and whether the leave can be paid. Knowing what’s standard will help you focus on what you need to negotiate for – for example, whether it’s leave after five years instead of 15, paid leave instead of unpaid, or two months instead of one.

Clarify the reasons you need the leave and what to share with your employer. Lila was very candid – she talked about her burnout and family needs – and as a result, her company responded with a paid extended leave. But, depending on company culture, some employees may not want to be as forthcoming.

Sienna, who works in the financial industry, was suffering from burnout as a result of a challenging manager who lacked boundaries. The problem? That same manager had to approve her leave. Rather than discussing the relationship, Sienna focused on her children’s needs in order to get the time she needed to contemplate her next move.

Make a plan for work continuity. Come up with ideas for who could take over your projects, or how you would transition client communication during your leave. When you ask for a sabbatical, showing the company that you’ve thought about how things will run in your absence not only demonstrates collaboration and leadership – it also makes it easier for them to say yes.

Show your company how your sabbatical can also benefit them. You can do that by using what’s called a “I/we ask:” “Here’s what I’m requesting, and here’s how we all benefit from it.”

Let them know that when you have time off, everyone will benefit from your greater energy levels, the deep thinking you’ve been able to do, or your recommitment to the job. As much as some managers and companies care deeply about their employees on a personal level, they also usually do what is in their own interest. Showing them how a sabbatical for you – or even better, a sabbatical program for the entire company – can help them better reach their objectives greatly increases the odds that this will be the year you finally get that time off.

Alexandra Carter is a professor at Columbia Law School, a world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations, and the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of "Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything." Learn more about Alex’s work at