Guide to sabbaticals and career breaks

Taking a career break is something that appeals to many of us, but most people think their employer won’t allow it.

We take a look at the issues employers must consider when allowing employees to take sabbaticals and career breaks.

The law

There is no statutory right to take leave or specific laws that deal with career breaks and sabbaticals. This means that employers are under no obligation to offer or accept requests for career breaks to their employees.

Allowing time off 

Employers may be open to the idea of employees taking a sabbatical or career break in order to retain valuable members of staff in the long-term, reward employees who have worked for them for a long time or allow employees the time they need to deal with personal or domestic responsibilities. Alternatively, you may see it as a good alternative to redundancy if your business is experiencing financial difficulty.

However, you may not wish to give time off for other specific reasons, for example, to set up a business venture.

Sabbatical vs career break

The law does not provide definitions, but typically career breaks are often considered for a longer period of time, while sabbaticals are far shorter. Employees could be away for a few months or perhaps even years.

Agreement

How the career break or sabbatical will work out will be subject to agreement between the employee and employer. You may decide it is worth setting out clear rules in a policy.

There are a number of key issues to consider:

  • What is the reason for the career break or sabbatical? For example to travel, pursue further education, volunteer, spend time with family, etc.
  • Who is eligible? Will it depend on employment status, years of service, performance record?
  • How long are they taking off? Can you cover their work internally or do you need to hire someone externally?
  • Have they taken career breaks or sabbaticals recently?
  • Do they still have rights to contractual benefits under the contract?
  • What happens to the promotion opportunities and pay review while they are gone? Will they qualify for bonus payments?
  • What about their annual leave entitlement?
  • What are their duties while they are away? For example, confidentiality and good faith.
  • Will the contract continue while they are away or will you require the employee to resign and then re-employ them?
  • Will they come in from time to time? How often will you contact them to keep them up to date with changes and developments?
  • What happens when they return? Are they guaranteed their previous position or if that is not available, a similar alternative position?

Our Employment Law Advisers can help you think about all these key issues, in particular what is best for you and your organisation.

Dealing with requests

You may ask the employee to submit a request in writing and have a specific process.

You will need to decide whether to grant the request based on the individual circumstances of the case and the operational needs of the business. You may have to refuse because you cannot cover their role or they have not maintained a good disciplinary record. You need to take care to ensure that you are not breaching equality laws by making sure you make fair and consistent decisions when considering requests.

Returning to work

You also need to take care about making promises. Guaranteeing a person their job back when they may be away for two or three years may be tricky as you don’t know how the market or your business will have evolved in that time. What happens if you have restructured and their job no longer exists?

You also need to think about what happens if they return early or extend the time they are on their break. This may have implications if you have hired someone to cover the absence.

For further advice on this topic, contact your dedicated Employment Law Adviser, who can provide you quick and easy-to-follow guidance and support.

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

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