In an age where we work longer hours than ever before and the job struggle is real, taking a sabbatical, or any kind of career break is an enticing prospect. But it’s not a magic potion.
True, it might ease work strain and let you travel the world but you need ninja planning skills to make it happen, from raising funds to deciding what to do with your break. Plus, there’s the question of how it will affect your hard-earned career, and whether you should quit your job or try for a sabbatical.
“Done in the right way, a break can excel your career by giving you much-needed time and space to reassess what motivates and inspires you,” says Flash Pack co-founder Radha Vyas.
Below, we hear from a panel of experts, plus women who’ve taken the plunge, to find out how to press pause on your career and come back stronger than ever.
1. Be purposeful
Taking a career break isn’t something you want to passively amble into. “Take it for positive reasons, and with a clear end goal in mind,” says Jane Sunley, chairman and founder of employee engagement consultancy, Purple Cubed .
“It needs to be purposeful,” adds Corinne Mills, author of Career Coach, and managing director at Personal Career Management . “The danger is, you’ll end up looking around for stuff to fill the time, and that’s not very constructive. You need to experiment, try different skills, get volunteering or grab a taste of different kinds of career. Be energetic about it.”
2. Think ahead
“Think carefully through the consequences of taking a break,” says Karen Meager, managing director of career coaching company Monkey Puzzle Training . “If you are on a learning curve you want to complete, doing something important that will help your CV, or if there are opportunities you might miss out on (and later regret), it might not be the right time. ”
“Whilst the thought of chucking your laptop in the bin and running off as a free-spirit might appeal, this is the real world and you need a plan,” adds Jane, who is also the author of career guide, It’s Never OK to Kiss the Interviewer . “Put yourself in the shoes of your employer. There is no legal obligation for an employer to take you back after a career break; it’s up to you to negotiate.”
3. Question your motives
“Avoid running for the hills until you’ve really thought about the why,” says Jane. If you’re feeling frustrated or fed up with your job, this 'flight' response is not unusual, but might not necessarily be the answer.
“Be honest with yourself: if you’re not feeling engaged with your job, it may be time to leave altogether,” says Corinne. “On the other hand, if you’re desperate to leave but can’t afford a career break - stay put. Do some thinking, start applying elsewhere – and when you have a new job, you may be able to create a small break between roles.”
Perhaps all you really want is more money? In which case, it might be time to ask your boss for a pay rise .
4. Seek advice
From finance to career progression, there are a lot of things to weigh up when it comes to taking a sabbatical. “It can be useful to get someone neutral to the situation to help you, as it’s easy to fool yourself,” says Karen.
“Taking a career break can push all but the bravest right out of their comfort zones,” says Jane. “Mitigate the risks by thinking things through properly and examining the options. It helps to discuss this with a trusted friend, or even find yourself a coach to help you transition.”
5. Explore the possibilities
You could try volunteering: organisations such as GVI and Pod Volunteer have placements all over the world, ranging from wildlife conservation to healthcare and women’s rights advocacy. Or you could get handy with a TEFL qualification (or similar), to allow you to teach English abroad.
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But travel isn’t the only option. “I'd suggest using your time-out to work on your mental wellbeing,” says Chloe Brotheridge, anxiety hypnotherapist and founder of calmer-you.com . “It might be learning yoga, meditating on a retreat, or starting an exercise habit.”
You could also focus on building a new vocation. “Try freelance projects, line up work experience, or temp at different places to get a feel for an environment that you like, says Alice Weightman, CEO and founder of freelancer start-up The Work Crowd and executive search consultancy Hanson Search . "Build up connections, and network with people who work in the area that you’re interested in.”
6. Raise money
If you decide to go travelling, you need to make sure your finances are in order first. Start by drafting a living budget for your travels, says Jasmine Birtles, financial expert at moneymagpie.com . Factor in everything from food to accommodation and transport, then double that figure: everything costs more than you expect.
It's also worth thinking about overheads you’ll want to continue paying while you’re away, like pension and student loan repayments.
Next, work out how much you can save per month. “This all comes down to the question, how much do you want to take a career break?” says Jasmine. “This will dictate the sacrifices you’ll have to make. Always keep your goal in mind, and remind yourself that you’re saving for something bigger.”
Knowing these two figures (your living budget and how much you can save) will dictate your leaving timeline.
7. Check your company policy
Check with your HR department to see whether your company has a policy on taking a sabbatical after three or five years’ employment. If they do, this will be your route into negotiations.
8. Prepare a strong argument
If you do decide to go ahead and ask for time off in your current role, you’ll need to prepare a strong argument. Many companies will be reluctant to reorganise work-flow, or spend budget on your cover, so you’ll need to persuade them of the incentive for doing this. At the same time, it also costs money to hire and train new people – if you’re good at what you do, they’ll probably want to foster your talent, and build trust and value by keeping you long-term. So, it’s all to play for.
9. Give plenty of notice
Timing is key: you don’t want to leave in the middle of a project, or when the company is on the cusp of a major expansion. You’ll need to plan at least six months in advance, too.
“The more notice you can give, the better,” says Alice. “Bear in mind your employer may want some time to think it through.”
“It’s worth having a series of escalating conversations about it, rather than surprise your boss,” says Karen. “First gauge their views, telling a story about someone who has done it (and take note of their views and objections). Then you can find out what they might object to, and consider how you can mitigate that concern.”
10. Be solutions-focused
“Work out how your job will be covered before you go into the negotiation,” says Alice. “You could find a great freelancer who could do the job, or identify other members of your team whom you could delegate your job to. Employers like it if you don’t see a career break as an entitlement, but instead present it as a project that would be mutually beneficial.”
Jane adds: “If you’re going off on a study break in your own time and at your own expense, be sure to let your employer know the benefits this could bring in the long run.”
11. Prepare for a no
“Be realistic,” says Corinne. “Without a policy in place on sabbaticals, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a yes. It’s a risk.”
The key is to remain transparent and professional about your request. “Be careful about issuing threats of leaving unless you really mean it,” says Karen. “You may never get back the trust that you lose.”
12. Stay in touch
If you do get the green light for a career break, make the transition as smooth as possible, and stay in touch while you’re away.
“Do a really good handover and then send photos and updates when you’re away,” says Alice. “Offer to help out with anything if they need you to, even if you can’t get back to them straight away. Make sure you stay visible and that they have you in their mind’s eye. Arrange a hand-back-to meeting before you go, too.”
13. Keep your skills fresh
Tempting as it may be, you shouldn’t lose just yourself to a Colombian beach for six months, and then expect to jump right in. Some industries develop more quickly than others, and it’s important that you stay fresh and up-to-date throughout your career break. This is especially key if you’ve given in your notice and will be looking for a new job.
“Reach out to the right people, stay relevant and be proactive,” says Alice. “Line up meetings with recruiters and agencies in the last month before you return, so you’re good to go straight in.”
14. Have a good story to tell
“If you want to leave altogether, make sure you get good references both from employers and clients before you go,” says Alice. “Also, make sure you have a good story to tell from your time off. You don’t need to do something incredibly worthy but prospective employers will ask, and you need to have a good answer. How did you grow? What did you gain? What’s the reasoning behind the career break?”
“You need a good answer when a prospective employer asks you, ‘What have you been doing for the past six months?’” adds Corinne. “What won’t work is if you just say, ‘I’ve had a career break’ – the employer will start to wonder, ‘What was the issue?’”