How I got a three month sabbatical to travel the world

DSC_8081_editI’m taking a little break from sewing chat today. I’ve started working on a write up of my patternmaking class experience, and I’ve got a new coat pattern and bales of grey felt arriving tomorrow for my winter coat project. But with the sun dipping lower in the sky every day and a distinct nip in the air, my mind has repeatedly been turning back to the start of the year, when I was thousands of miles away and not including a blanket as part of my standard loungewear. Today I felt like writing about travelling.

If you’ve been reading Song of the Stitch since the start of the year (and if you have omigod I love you), you’ll know that my husband Chris and I spent the first three months of 2015 fulfilling a long held dream to travel around the world. We’d been planning to go for years, but somehow the time was never right. I got to the end of my PhD in 2013, which seemed like the best time, except that Chris was enjoying a particularly hellish time at work and I had no money. So we waited. Then Chris left his old job, and once again the time seemed right, but I had just landed a job that I loved and didn’t want to take a break.

But finally at the start of 2014 we were both in stable jobs that we liked, we were planning to get married, and decided that if we were ever going to go, the time was now. This trip that we had been dreaming about for so long would be our honeymoon. We both took three month unpaid sabbaticals, booked our plane tickets and set off.

One of the most frequent questions I get is “how did you do it?”

For the most part this question typically means “how did you get your employer to agree to this?”. DSC_0218_editGood question. I recently mentioned my sabbatical action and travel junkie tendencies to an HR person at my new job, and the look on her face was one of barely disguised horror. There’s no getting away from the fact that, given the choice between having you working for three months or letting you swan off round the globe, most employers will stick with the former. But I firmly believe that if you plan effectively, approach carefully and are prepared to negotiate, you can get what you want. Here is what Chris and I did.

To give you some context, at the time I was working for a tiny not-for-profit organisation with ten employees who were stretched quite thin. If one person was off sick for a day, picking up their workload became a complex juggling act. Chris was working for a small start-up company that had just started to realise how valuable he was to the business. So we weren’t overly confident that our employers would allow us the time off! This is where the strategic thinking came in. tumblr_nllckoLgHo1u6rsg7o10_1280I asked my boss for a sabbatical in January 2014, one year ahead of our proposed trip. Which may seem like a long way in advance, but to me it made absolute logical sense. Get them introduced to the idea early, explain what I wanted to do and why, and then set the scene for any negotiating they wanted to do. I started off the conversation with wedding chat, before taking a deep breath and explaining that I wanted to take three months off in 2015 for a travelling honeymoon. While that was sinking in I added that we hadn’t planned anything concrete yet, but here’s what I was hoping for.

By the by, this is the most terrifying conversation I have ever had with a colleague. I may sound calm with hindsight, but I was terrified that they would just say know, or that I would get fired, or shouted at, or any of a hundred equally unlikely scenarios that played out in my head over and over again. I’m sure that I didn’t sound calm when I made the request either, my words falling out in a babble and my knees were shaking. But somehow I managed it. DSC_0059_edit

To my utter astonishment, my boss didn’t immediately dismiss the idea out of hand. Instead, he suggested that we sit down with a calendar and see when would work best. After all, our organisation had busy times and not-so-busy times, so if I could be flexible that would really help him. By the end of the day we had worked out which three months I could take, and had even got some tentative dates worked out.

Chris’s experience was pretty similar, with one added bonus: he discovered that his boss had in fact done the exact same thing when he got married, and so rather than being simply supportive he was actually enthusiastic and excited for him!

So let’s come back to the original question: “how did you get your employers to agree to this?” For me there are three main things that worked in our favour, and were integral to getting two small companies to agree to give us time off:

  1. We asked in advance. I suspect that if we had asked any less than a year ahead of time, our chances of success would have decreased a lot. In a larger organisation you might get away with six months, but the earlier you ask the better I reckon.
  2. We had a reason. Ok, a honeymoon might not resonate with every employer, but we were also very clear that this was something we had been planning for a very long time. Simply asking for three months off to bum around and watch TV probably would have been greeted with less enthusiasm.
  3. We were flexible and prepared to negotiate. At the time of asking we hadn’t booked anything. Being able to go to your boss and say that you’re prepared to be flexible about when you take your time off shows them that you care about what happens to the company in your absence, and perhaps you’re the kind of person that they’d like to keep on.

Have you ever taken a sabbatical? How did you get your employer to agree to it? Are there any tips that you would add to this list?

If you’re planning a trip of your own I’d love to hear about it! DSC_0031_edit

What do you think?