Taking a career break from work

People may take a career break, or sabbatical, for a number of reasons such as family commitments, travelling, volunteering or studying. However, there are no laws that cover taking a career break or sabbatical; therefore employees don't have a statutory right to take leave. The terms and conditions of the break are usually agreed between employer and employee.

Key points

  • There are no laws specifically dealing with taking a career break.
  • Employers don't have to offer career breaks.
  • Employers should have a clear policy regarding career breaks and sabbaticals.
  • A career break or sabbatical is usually unpaid.
  • A sabbatical is normally for a shorter period of time.

Employers may allow career breaks as they can bring benefits for both the business and the employee, they can:

  • increase retention of employees
  • be used as a reward
  • help bring new skills and motivate employees.

Career breaks can vary in length, some last a few months while others can last a few years, employers should state the length of break that they are prepared to offer. Employers should look at requests on a case-by-case basis, as they will need to consider how the employee's work and responsibilities will be covered while they're off. This will help employers if they need to refuse a request for business needs. Employers should be fair and consistent when considering requests to ensure they don't treat some employees unfavourably or discriminate against them.

Examples of when a request may be refused include:

  • poor performance and attendance
  • the employer is unable to cover the role of the employee
  • the demand for customer service
  • the employee is subject to disciplinary proceedings.

An employer should have a clear policy regarding taking a career break or sabbatical which could include:

  • eligibility and how to apply
  • notice period and the length of time off allowed
  • how it will affect the terms and conditions of employment, for example will continuity of employment be preserved or will the employee return to the same job afterwards
  • annual leave entitlements, contractual benefits while off.

After checking the company policy employees should discuss the request with their manager/employer letting them know the reason for a career break and the length of time off required. Any agreement should be made in writing, including what will happen when the employee returns to work. Employers should state if the employee will be able to return to the same or similar job on returning to work.

In some cases an employee may be asked to resign from their job to begin a career break; the employer may agree to re-employ them on their return. In other cases continuity of employment will be preserved, however, career breaks will not normally qualify for pension purposes.