Career breaks and sabbaticals

Is there a difference between a career break and a sabbatical?  Both terms are used to define (unpaid) time away from work for any number of reasons – travelling; training or further education; to pursue a hobby; or to spend more time with family.  There are no laws covering career breaks or sabbaticals, but it’s important to be aware of the implications of allowing such leave.

If you are considering allowing employees to take leave under these arrangements, consider implementing a policy to make the procedures clear so that you, and your employees, know exactly where they stand. The policy should include how employees can apply; eligibility requirements (eg based on length of service) how the leave will effect continuity of service; benefits and annual leave; and the rights with regard to returning to their role.

Terms used

A career break is an informal break; the individual usually resigns from his or her post and therefore relinquishes all employee rights and benefits. The period taken off is for as long as the individual wants as they are no longer obligated to an employer.

A sabbatical is usually a formal period of leave for a shorter, set period of time whereby the individual retains employee status and the ability to return to the same (or similar) role after a period.


In both cases, there are implications which need to be considered:

  • Consider the length of time you will allow off – this can be from a few months to a few years.
  • How will you cover the employee’s workload whilst they are away?
  • Will the employee retain continuity of service? If so, they are still regarded as an ‘employee’ and even though pay and benefits might be suspended for the duration of the break, the entitlement to paid holiday under the Working Time Regulations remains, albeit statutory leave only.  Consider the cost to the organisation, especially there is a temporary worker in the position, also entitled to paid annual leave!
  • Pension and life insurance/assurance policies may continue throughout the period of leave – check your policies with your providers.
  • Is the individual allowed to work elsewhere during the break?
  • Requests should be dealt with fairly to ensure that employees are not treated unfavourably or discriminated against.
  • Consider the grounds on which you might refuse a request, for example; poor performance or attendance; business demands; a poor disciplinary record are all valid reasons.


  • Allowing career breaks and sabbaticals can have a positive impact both on individuals and businesses:
  • as part of a reward package (for longer serving employees, for example)
  • to increase retention
  • to help bring new skills into the organisation
  • to motivate employees.

Return to work

Depending on the agreement before the leave, the employee may be able to return to the same job and benefits they left on.  Consider how you will deal with employees returning to work in terms of updating them on changes since they were away, re-integrating them with the team, and dealing with any employee who provided cover in their absence.

If the leave has been for a longer period, it’s worth going through a similar induction process to that of a new starter so the employee is introduced to new members of staff, new products and services and have a period in which to settle back in.


PSHR are on hand to offer advice and guidance please contact us on 01473 653000 or at


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