Fortunately, in my case, my manager and my VP were incredibly supportive about my passion project and could see that I was very serious about it. So when I asked if I could stay with the company and take a year off from work instead of quitting, they said yes.
Get what you want by being vulnerable
Now, I don’t advise that you make up some bleeding heart cause just to drum up support for taking a year off from work. But you can turn any sabbatical plan into a dream that others can empathize with (and vicariously dream along with you).
So you want to sail to Mexico with your family? Talk about how this was your dad’s dream, and share your hopes for what you want your kids to experience from it. You want to take time off because your daughter is suddenly having trouble at school and needs your attention? Get vulnerable and tell your manager, because most likely she’ll empathize. Are you burned out and need a break? Have a frank conversation about your work stress levels and health.
Be honest, authentic, and vulnerable with your manager. Then ask for their help to make your dreams happen. People want to help. When they see you baring your soul, they will want to support you.
A template for negotiating an extended leave of absence
1. Get your colleagues and your manager bought into your dream. If you are pursuing a passion project, put together a “product” that easily conveys what you’re trying to do and how serious you are about it. This could be a website, a video, a powerpoint, or even a heartfelt email articulating your story.
Pulling the heartstrings of your manager (and ideally, her manager as well) to empathize with your dream is the key to getting their support. I can’t emphasize how important this part is. If you can articulate yourself well, you will gain not only their support but also their respect.
2. Familiarize yourself with the leave of absence policy at your work.
Before you ask, figure out (as anonymously as possible) what the policy is. Have other coworkers successfully gotten leaves of absences (outside of mandated leaves like FMLA)? What’s the maximum leave allowed?
3. Make sure you provide ample time for notice and consider timing your conversation strategically if a bonus or review is upcoming. You need to give your manager time to plan for your absence. In my case, I made my request three months ahead of when I wanted to leave. I also waited until after I received my annual review before making my request. There is a real risk that your review could be impacted if your employer knows you want to leave your job (even if temporarily).
4. Propose a plan for how your work will be covered while you’re out. You need to give your manager a solution so she doesn’t feel like her life will be made much harder by your absence. Can other team members cover your work? Are you on a project that has a natural end? Would you need to hire a temporary cover, and if so, do you have any potential candidates?
5. Articulate that you value this job and have every intention to return. Yes, you might be burned out at the moment. But if you do sincerely want a break instead of separation, then you must value certain things about the job. So talk about those things with every ounce of conviction that you have. Explain that this is about taking a break so that you can pursue a lifelong dream. Set a definite end date for when you plan to be back at work.
I’ve put together this template to help you plan a conversation with your manager:
What to do if a leave of absence isn’t in the cards
Your best shot at this is through a manager that you trust. Again, getting them bought into your dream is critical. You don’t want to come off as a money-grabber who wants a severance check for quitting. You have a bigger and nobler “why.” Tell your story, and then tell your manager that you’d like to volunteer to take redundancy. In the best case scenario, there is an upcoming re-org, and you’re doing her a favor by volunteering yourself. But even if there isn’t one, you may be able to set yourself up to be made redundant by grooming your replacement and working yourself out of a job. This is a win-win for all involved.
If the only option is to resign, ask for your cake first
The last option is to quit your job. The goal here is to keep bridges well connected and pave the way for a potential return. Do this even if you think you’ll never want to, because keeping options open is never a bad thing! If you are well-valued at work, you may find that you suddenly become greatly desired the moment you say you’re leaving. Don’t overlook this opportunity. It’s your chance to ask for the world. You may be able to have your cake and eat it too.
At some point in my career, I was exhausted with the daily grind and thought I needed another break. A huge part of my dissatisfaction had to do with my commute, which sucked 2-3 hours out of my life every day. When I went in to quit, my manager asked me if there was anything she could do to get me to stay. I asked to work remotely, 80% of the time. She said yes. Of course, I had considered this before but had been too afraid to ask.
But when you are ready to quit, you have nothing to lose. So if there’s a change you can make that would take away the thorn in your flesh that is making you want to leave in the first place, ask for it!