What is A Career Break or Sabbatical (Definition) And Why You Need One?

By Annie André

A career break or sabbatical, as some people like to call it, may not be the status quo. However, if you’re in a rut or burnt out from the rat race, a career break may be just what you need. But what is a career break, and can it positively affect your future career and life?

Do you need a career break?

You’re supposed to get an education, work hard, buy a house, raise a family, and pay off your student loans.All the while stashing money away like a squirrel so you can retire comfortably during your golden years.

If you’re lucky, you won’t get run over by a car like my father did the year before you retire, and you’ll still be in good health to finally do all those things you put off for later.

Sometimes we just need to take a break for our sanity.

If you’re like most, sooner or later, you get bored or burnt out from the monotony of your daily routine. What if you could take time off before you reach retirement and what if it could positively improve your life and help your future career?

What is a career break?

A career break is an extended period of time where you QUIT your job to do something new, different, worthwhile or different. A career break also gives you the time you need to recharge your batteries so that when you return to work and your normal routine, you’re hopefully refreshed, enriched and have a better perspective and outlook on life.

Think of a career break as a detour on the road of life where you stop the car and take an alternate, more scenic route to your destination while enjoying the sights along the way. 

The term career break is closely related to the following terms and sometimes used interchangeably. 

What’s the difference between a sabbatical and a career break?

A sabbatical and career break are closely related. Both involve taking an extended period of time off from work; however, a sabbatical usually implies that you have an agreement with your employer to take a period of paid or unpaid leave with the understanding that you can return to your job.

Sometimes a company will continue to give you certain work perks and benefits but not always. 

Fun fact about sabbaticals:

Did you know that taking a sabbatical year goes back to biblical times?

The Torah mandated that ancient Jews who farmed take one year off on the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle. During this sabbatical year or shǝvi’it (Hebrew for Sabbatical year but literally “seventh”), farmers could not plow, plant, prune or harvest.

What’s the difference between a gap year and a career break? 

The British have known about the benefits of taking time off for a long time. During the 1960s, they coined the term GAP YEAR to describe an adult who took time off from life to travel or work abroad. The British also use the term A YEAR OUT. 

Since then, the term gap year has grown in popularity, especially among Americans and perhaps by coincidence, it seems to have taken on a new meaning. Now a gap year is mainly used to refer to younger people taking a year off from school, before college or even during high school.

An adult gap year seems to be more closely related to a career break to describe any adult who quits their job or the normal rhythms of their day-to-day life to do something worthwhile, including travelling and working abroad.

Fun fact about students who take a gap year: 

According to research by the Gap Year Association, Gap Year students perform better than their peers who don’t take a Gap Year? The research shows they also report higher job satisfaction, and many students report that their gap year had a direct impact on their career choice?

A career break is not a vacation.

Don’t confuse a career break with vacation. The major difference between a career break and a vacation is time and what you do. Career breaks and sabbaticals usually last more than a few months and up to a few years. And it’s usually to achieve a life goal, experience or something significant. A vacation is, well, a vacation for a short period of time. 

The downside to taking a career Break

If your company doesn’t have a sabbatical policy, and you want to take a career break, you’ll have to resign completely, and your job at that company will not be waiting for you when you return. 

How long is a career break or sabbatical?

Because career breaks are typically unpaid, the length varies depending on your goals, financial situation or family obligations, but typically they can last anywhere from a couple of months to a full year or more. 

If you’re lucky enough to work for a company with a sabbatical policy, the length of your sabbatical will depend on your company’s policy. 

What Can You Do On A Career Break

What you do on your career break is entirely up to you. In general, career breaks and sabbaticals are not just about taking time off for the sake of taking time off. A career break can be time for personal development, to work on special projects or to raise a family. 

Here are more examples of things you can do on a career break. 

  • Travel and see the world (read how this person put travel on her resume after a gap year abroad and got a job)
  • Take an adult gap year to move abroad for a year: (Doubts About Moving Abroad? Read How We Overcame Our Fears And Moved To France)
  • Volunteer abroad
  • Learn (a new language, to ski, to sail, etc.)
  • TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language)
  • Take care of a newborn or stay home to raise older children
  • Take care of a sick or ageing family member.
  • Start a business
  • Train for a marathon
  • Learn a new hobby (painting, pottery, sewing)
  • Training or education to staying up-to-date with professional skills
  • Go back to school (get an advanced degree)
  • Recover from an accident or illness.
  • Look after a dependent
  • Spend more quality time with your family.
  • Write a novel 
  • Volunteer Abroad (family programs exist)
  • Training for an adventure career such as a ski instructor or sailing instructor
  • Pursue a passion or hobby such as painting, writing, marathon
  • Take steps to change careers
How To Change Careers When You Don't Know What To Do

It’s hard enough making a career change when you think you know what you’d rather be doing but what if you have no idea? Here are five ways/resources to help you discover a fulfilling career path more efficiently and more quickly.

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Have a plan

Every year people around the world successfully take career breaks, sabbaticals and gap years.

Taking a career break can be scary, especially if you have a family. You may experience doubts, and the people around you may think your crazy, especially if they think you’re committing career suicide. And you may have to get a little creative to finance your career break, but with a little planning, you can do it. 

Having taken several career breaks and one gap year to live in Japan, which turned into 3 years, I can honestly say that the adventures you experience on your break will contribute to your evolution. It will also be something you remember for the rest of your life. You won’t regret it if you plan it well. Life is nothing without a little ADVENTURE.

Below is a TED Talk about the “Power of time off.”

Boring Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you use them to buy something, I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you which helps me buy more croissants. Merci for your support.

  1. Hi Annie,

    I’m surprised that there are so called career breaks. I’m from India and there are no such options to employers except the higher study option. I’m feeling lucky that I’m an entrepreneur and not bound by the strict rules by office. I’ve a plan to travel the world in motorcycle at mid 30 to mid 40.

    Dipra

  2. Hi Annie,

    I appreciate your article. An acquaintance’s daugther, who is 15, began homeschooling this year, using an alternative learning path that focuses on self-directed learning and apprenticeships/internships. I am realizizng that this first year could be referred to as a gap year. It is taking her some time to learn to direct herself and “de-school” so to speak, and she is just now hitting her stride. I think the “gap year” term would be a good way to look at the transition time. Thanks for forwarding this idea.

    Cheers,
    M

  3. Wow, I couldn’t agree more. Saving all your time and money to do what you want when you retire is just bad planning. Like you said, what if you are incapable of doing what you want by then or die just before you reach that age? That’s why I choose to do as much as I can now before then.

    I knew someone who said that they wouldn’t travel until they reached retirement age. For him that means decades of working to just enjoy the last few remaining years of his life. Hardly seems worth it. And with the retirement age going up and the difficulty of saving money for it, I wouldn’t count on it.

    I’m not in a place to watch videos right now, but I think that Ted talk is about the guy who takes a sabbatical every seven years. Now that is the right approach.

    1. I think a lot of people think that way Steve and although it is ok to want a secure future, we need to live more in the moment. Security is a falsity that we can try to plan for but it’s not guaranteed..

  4. Hi Annie!
    A career break sounds like a great idea to me. Especially in this economy. I have clients who are chained to their desks for years and then get “downsized” or the company falls apart.
    I was an entrepreneur my whole life and did dabble in that 9-5 Wall Street trend when I was young. I did that because I thought that is what I was supposed to do for “security” HA
    It didn’t take me long to realize that a company owned me, telling me when to work and when to play. It just didn’t make sense to me, so off I went starting a business.
    It is true what you had mentioned about your dad not making it to 65. And…in today’s economy, most people who “retire” have to supplement their income with another job anyway.
    Taking a break from your career can open your mind to so many possibilities. It seems like a good time to reflect on your inner self and find passions you want to take.
    Keep on writing Annie about your adventure. You are enlightening many people to get out of the box.
    I thank you,
    Donna

    1. Thank you so much Donna for your input. A career break in this economy is the perfect time to rethink your long term goals. Like you said, our futures are never as secure as we think they are. Death, downsizing and who knows what else.
      I’ll keep on writing Donna and thanks for stopping by.

  5. Hi Annie,

    I think you’re really brave taking a career break with the state of affairs world wide.

    My brother took one a few years and went traveling with his girlfriend and son. They got married in Howaii and then spent 12 months in Australia and went onto LA after that. When they returned to the UK he had trouble finding work, spent the rest of their savings paying the bills and eventually split up.

    I’d love to be in a position to do this myself but need to generate a decent income first. It does sound very appealling though :D

    Barry

    1. wow Barry,
      Your poor brother.. Your brother could never have known that he couldn’t find a job when he returned.
      A lot of people don’t plan for worse case scenario on re-entry. One of the things i tell people to do to help offset this is, on their career breaks work on generating a side income. Either before they take their break and or during their break. You’re already doing that with your blog right now right?
      Every break i’ve taken, i always do this. I know technically we all envision a break where we are doing something completely fun but for some of us, especially financially strapped people and people with kids, working on the side at a business that blends their passions is the compromise they’ll have to make if they really want a break and an’t afford one. Plus, if they ever decided to go back to work, they have a nice new skill on their resume.
      I’ve done this several times and each time i’ve gone back to work, i’ve commanded a higher salary..It goes beyond logic and it’s scary but it’s possible since i’m living proof of that and so are lots of other people.

      I think you’re being smart about your goals and building an income and business on the side before you take your break.. I started doing that too but when i got laid off it accelerated the process for me and now i just have to make it work. It’s a matter of survival..

  6. Travelling would be a very good suggestion. But the problem is, the amount of savings you have to spend for the adventures.

    1. Agreed, travelling on your break is the biggest barrier. But.. like any big expense you save for it. i took a year off to learn a new skill which eventually landed me to my six figure job. Another time i took a break to start an ecommerce business. What you do on your break depends on you and yes saving money is a big big part of it. It involves sacrifice, lots of it but it’s worth it. Ask anyone who has taken one.

      1. I totally agree with your article on taking a career break. There is a difference between living to work and working to live. Tomorrow is not promise to any of us. We must enjoy every moment and every season and not wait for our employers to tell us when to take a break. Seven days after He created the Earth, God took a break. Why should we take a break once a year? We should take as many mini breaks as we can. Taking a break should be a duty and not a burden. I have a friend who feels guilty when he takes a break. He needs this articles as do many others. Thanks Annie.

        Joseph

      2. Joseph,
        You are so right, even god rested so why shouldn’t we? I know what your friend is going through when he/she feels guilty for taking a break. it’s like we are all programed to work hard and if we don’t we feel like there is a stigma attached to enjoying yourself, or leaving work early or taking more than a 2 week vacation. It’s sad..

  7. Hi Annie!
    I was not that kind of person and I thought that I have to be reasonable and take the right decisions….follow the standards of the society I grew up. Then I met my boyfriend in Paris and his dream was to travel around the world.
    Then my mother got sick with a rare disease which has no treatment.
    Then I realized that the meaning of my life in Paris was “metro-boulot-dodo”.
    Then I realized than in our life we have to choose and not to follow.
    Then I gave myself a career break… :)

    Today, I know just like you that my goal in life is to make as many career breaks as I can. Why? Because life is short and it is beautiful. And we should enjoy it :)

    p.s. I read your comment and your answer about the cheap place you are looking for. I will come back to you soon.

    1. Lenia,
      Sounds like a lot has happened to your in your life to change your way of thinking. It’s such a mind shift to belief one thing and one way of living than do a complete 180 and follow your heart especially if your heart does not coincide with popular belief or common way of living..

      i think you are going to have a lot of interesting stories to tell your grandchildren one day.

  8. I used to kick myself for not becoming a college professor – because then I would have had the chance to take a Sabbatical every 7 years or so.

    Then I realized just what you are saying here. We can actually take a career break whenever we want, no matter what line of work we are in! And this is DEFINITELY something I recommend. And it’s getting a lot easier now that we can all stay connected through the Internet.

    Even if you are not ‘working’ in the office you can be generating some income from wherever you are if you get creative.

    It’s so depressing to imagine working, working, working for decades without any breaks longer than 2 or 3 weeks. We humans were not meant for that.

    1. I agree sarah. Ever since i my father passed away i have always had this picture of me dying before having done things. Eaten noodles in Hong kong, gone shopping in london. stay home with my kids.
      We all have things we want to do and we sometimes need to take tiem off to do them before sooner rather than later.

      One of the things i advocate is creating a job based on your passions. Finding that point of convergence where your work is your passion and or it facilitates your passions.
      If you like to write, get into copy writing. If you like to write and travel and write. Become a freelance copy writer so you can travel the world and work from anywhere. It’s all about working with what you have and your limitations..
      This will get you on your way to that break from the ordinary and routine faster than if you just wait until you have xxx amount of dollars saved up..

      Thanks for your input…Sarh. They mean a lot to me.

  9. Hey Annie,

    Welcome back young lady and so happy to have you. Glad you guys had such a wonderful time. Even though it was only a weeks break.

    I think the majority of people aren’t comfortable with quitting their jobs to take a break not knowing if they’ll have one when they return. It’s all about how secure you are and the people I’ve known throughout my life, including me, were not that comfortable with doing this. Let’s face it Annie, most of us were raised to be responsible and that didn’t fit in that description.

    Now if you can afford it then I definitely say go for it. Heck, who wouldn’t right!

    I know so many people who have waited all their lives to do what they wanted once they retired only to pass away shortly after. It’s really very sad since that’s what most families live for.

    I think it’s awesome and something I would love to be able to do someday. Guess only time will tell.

    Thanks for sharing this and that guy has the right idea. Take a break every 7 years. Nice!

    ~Adrienne

    1. Adrienne,
      That is what is so scary Adrienne. We could kick the bucket tomorrow. For people who can’t afford a career break, or who are scared i say try this….

      When i coldn’t afford to take a break but i needed to take one because i went through some traumatic experience(divorce), or was burnt out (hospitalized from exhaustion of working 3 jobs). try converging your interests into a job or your own business.

      I started an ebay business which combined many of my interests under one umbrella while also helping me create an income and stay home with my kids. Technically i’m still working but it’s a career break from corporate life.
      Aren’t you doing the same thing now? You’re working on your business right? I’m doing it too but i’m just doing it while living in another country..

  10. Ahhh career breaks … I took one kinda and ended up pregnant! Lol!

    I moved away from Dubai, sold our business and moved to France to refurbish an old house. I was playing around with launching the refurbished property as holiday rentals and found myself back at university to learn French. It was amazing. I was no longer marketing or really running a high powered business with multinational companies … Everything was at my leisure.

    It wasnt until my daughter was 18m old that i decided that the time is NOW to relaunch my marketing business online. It was perfect timing. I had been rested, exposed to so many new things that just complimented my experience to make it fly.

    Saying all that, being married to a coach meant that i was held accountable for my pipe dreams.

    So to conclude. The break was incredibly invigorating, it unlocked parts of me that i didnt know existed and i recommend it to anyone!

    Just get someone to help you with you focus !

    1. Ameena,
      You made a really good point Ameena. You took your break and it unlocked parts of you that you didn’t know existed which led to the relaunch of your business (whichi might add rocks this world). That IS the “Power of time off”.
      Career breaks have the ability to unlock what is hidden in you.

      I’ve experienced the same thing each and ever time i’ve taken a break.

      Thanks for your input Ameena. Really appreciate it.

  11. This is all part and parcel of why I am working on making some big changes in my life. It is simply time to do something different.

  12. Hey Annie,

    welcome back & great post.

    There are so many advantages to a career break, and you’re right, there’s no set amount of time for this.

    The most important thing I think a career break does for most people (as well as all the new things you can try) is allowing time to reflect & it forces a certain amount of objectivity about the career which when you’re actually in the routine of work is often just not there.

    1. Alan,
      It certainly does allow for a moment or two of objectivity. The other thing is, a career break is usually a set amount of time. If you are trying to achieve a goal, that ticking clock is like having a fire under your butt to accomplish your goal.

  13. Hello Annie, thank you so much for this article. I enjoyed reading this one, at first I thought what I did last holiday was a career break, but it was just a trip… anyway, at the time being am trying to process my enrollment, yeheey am going back to school, but it’s not still a career break because I would still working :) But soon, who knows I will decide to detour, I guess blogging would made it! :)

    1. Hello and welcome.

      You are right, a trip is not a career break although it can be a mini career break if you were to say take a month off to do something enriching besides site seeing.

      as far as going back to school and your blog. I see it as your side hustle in preperation for your career break.. Because of money or lack of it, most of us need to work and so we prepare our side hustles before hand until we are ready for a full blown career break. Your blog can take on that role.
      Thanks for stopping in and chatting. Much appreciated.

  14. Hi Annie,

    Sadly, a lot of people who live paycheck to paycheck are not able to take a career break easily, even though it could still be worked at and planned.

    On the other hand, lots of people who could might not be good money managers. For example, eating out less and not buying daily necessities such as clothing, or small appliances on credit will definitely help you save some money toward a project. It might seem little, but it does add up.

    Also trying to invest some money can grow to a good potential in just a few years. Paying more in taxes and invest the difference versus waiting on Uncle Sam’s return can also put more money in your pocket. There are definitely ways to be able to accumulate/save money for a big career break.

    Thanks for this very interesting post :)

    1. Sylviane,
      I agree that there are a lot of people who live check by check. I did for a long time. But like you said, with a litle planning you can take a break. It does involve sacrifice.
      Don’t eat out as much. No starbucks coffees. or less of them. Don’t live beyond your means. I worked 3 jobs at one point after my divorce just to make ends meat and then i took a break to start a home business idea.

      Where there’s a will there’s a way. At least in the developed nations there is.

  15. HI Annie! WOW this is the perfect article – forwarding it on to a certain person I am married to… Was just telling him something similar :) My mom died very suddenly at 53 and she was someone who worked very hard and saved every penny. I really got the wake up call when it happened- what’s the point to all the money and the nice shiny objects if you aren’t here to use them? Thanks for being an inspiration!! Robin

    1. Robin,
      I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. And at 53? That is super young. MY GOD….

      Death really does make you think about what matters… We sometimes lose site of our purpose here on earth by trying to be practical and thinkng we need to work hard until the age of retirement. Forgetting that life was meant to be lived.

      Glad you enjoyed it. Hope to see you back..

  16. I took a two year career break. That is how I view it. Some people say I ran away from home. Far, far, away. I moved to England for two years, went back to school, traveled, worked part-time, and realized that I hated my line of work!

    It took me years after returning to get back to my old salary.

    While financially it was a set back, I am so much happier now. My life is so much better for the experience, and I would do it again in a heart beat.

    1. Hello Tammy,

      I think a lot of people don’t take breaks because of the fact that they think they will not be able to command the same salary. But so what if they can’t right. Like you said, is was a financial set back but you are happier more enriched.
      I’ve made six figures and it was nice but I still wasn’t happy. It’s our experiences that make us happy.

  17. Love this! I’m a huge advocate of career breaks (mainly because I took one myself). So many of my friends decided to pay $100,000 to go to business school for their career breaks without really thinking about whether they wanted to or whether there was another option.

    I knew B-school wasn’t for me so I took 6 months off and moved to the Dominican Republic where I volunteered with a microfinance organization. Nothing like lack of electricity & no running water to make you reevaluate your priorities and direction in life!

    1. I hear that Lindsay,
      No electricity, no running water….

      makes certain things seem so trivial…

      Grad school is great but it’s not for everyone. Plus 100K? Cost was one of the major reasons i DID NOT go to Grad school. How can school be so expensive.. I digress.

      Thanks for stopping by… Love having experienced career breakers give their input..

  18. Sounds wonderful Annie!

    You are so right when you say that we shouldn’t really wait to retire or grow old to take a break away from work or do things we really want to do, because you never really know about the next moment whether you will really be alive to live it!

    But yes, the problem with most people would be how do they leave their jobs or kids and families to just take off, even though they may want to, which includes me too. Because you need to be minds-free about your earning for the time when you take a career break or cater for funds. I guess till my kids are in school or not independent, one’s not really free to take a career break.

    However, I do manage to take a few getaways for a few days when things get too monotonous, or we take the weekends off with a few more extra days to visit our relatives. Those times are also breathers, though you just enjoy and return refreshed. But you cannot really accomplish things you want to do, like writing a novel, or take out time for personal development or doing things you want to do.

    Thanks for sharing, and this is a wonderful reminder to think how to take out more time and do things you really want to do :)

    1. Harleena,
      it sounds like you despite being a mom and super busy you’ve found a way to recharge and enjoy your life.
      And i agree, it’s not enough time to do the BIGGER things, like write a novel or take time out for personal development but you can take a mini retirement, or mini career break. It doesn’t involve quitting your job. But it gives you a chunk of time to focus on one big goal. These mini breaks typically last up to 3 months. You would need to negotiate with your employer to do it. thanks for stopping by.

      I really enjoy your input.

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