How To Wangle (And Plan) A Career Break

Extended leave from work will give you a chance to reassess your life goals.
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Do you dream of swapping that morning commute, stuffy office and endless meetings about meetings for something entirely different? A chance to step off the bandwagon, experience different places, do something entirely new and gain a fresh perspective on your life?

You're not alone. Increasing numbers of people are taking a career break, whether it's an around-the-world trip or volunteering in an orphanage - and forward-thinking companies often offer a sabbatical as a work perk.

Ask yourself why you want a career break

'Because I want to sit in the garden and top up my tan,' is not the right answer – for you or your boss! Have a clear idea of what you hope to do with your time away from work. Otherwise you'll be back behind your desk in a few months' time cursing your lack of planning and the wasted opportunity. Once you've been given the go-ahead (fingers crossed! see below), get those maps, course guides, volunteering programmes out and start planning your itinerary.

Lisa Merrick-Lawless, founder and director of Headspace advises: 'Start by asking yourself why you are considering this. What would the benefits be for you? What is it that you are hoping to get from it? This could be any number of reasons from taking a rest to learning something new, going on an adventure, discovering more meaning in your life or simply trying out a new direction. It is important to start by understanding your purpose.'

Of course, a sabbatical isn't the holy grail to happiness – but it can help you work out your priorities. Sara, 33, took a six-month break to travel through South East Asia. 'I split up from my boyfriend of eight years and realised if I was going to move out, I might as well move somewhere entirely new,' she says.

'It was the best thing I've ever done. I had worried I'd be sitting on a beach feeling sad and lonely, but because I was immersed in a whole new life, I didn't have time. Ironically, after a few months my ex and I started emailing, making each other laugh, realising things weren't as stale as we'd thought, and he came to meet me at Sydney before we flew home together.'

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Sara's life break gave her the chance to reassess their relationship - and she and Tom are now happily married with an 18-month old daughter. On her return to Manchester, Sara went back to work as a video producer but dropped her hours to three days a week in order to concentrate on setting up a Thai massage practice – which she first experienced on her travels.

'In some ways, I feel my life came back full circle – we're still in the same home and I work for the same company – but by 'throwing it all up in the air', I worked out what what most important to me in my life – and that included Tom.'

How to ask for a career break

The good news is that increasing numbers of companies are offering sabbaticals to employees – or are open-minded enough to consider letting you take a career break. The bad news is they don't have any legal obligation to agree to a career break, however altruistic your motives might be. 'It's great you want to work in an African orphanage, just not on my time,' might well be the response.

The Gov.UK website states: 'There are no laws that deal specifically with taking a career break – it is only an agreement between the employer and the employee.'

They recommend that employers who do offer career breaks have a clearly laid out policy covering eligibility, notice periods, how to apply, how long is allowed and if your contract's terms and conditions will be affected.

Even if your company does have a policy on career breaks, it's not a definite that they will agree to you taking time off. A lot will depend on how accommodating your manager is and how your role can be covered or divvied up between the team.

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Give as much time as possible between first broaching the subject and when you would like to leave: a panicked boss is more likely to give a flat ‘no’ response. It's a good idea to have a clear plan of how your absence could be covered and get your fellow work mates on board with your plans – the easier you make it for everyone, the better your chances.

Hollie, 28, from Streatham, London, took a two-month sabbatical last year to travel in South America. 'I saved my holiday time and arranged to be off over the Christmas period when the office was closed anyway, so they only had January to cover without me,' she explains.

If your company has never offered a career break, it's still worth making your proposal. Don't say 'I'm feeling really burnt out and frustrated working for you and I'm not sure what I want to do with my life'. Prepare a carefully thought-out business case, presenting the benefits for the company if they support you in a career break.

It's worth talking up how the experience would make you more committed in the long term now it's ‘out of your system’. Remind them of what a valuable employee you are, shout about your skills and show them how it doesn't make business sense to deny you a short-term sabbatical (when they will also save money by not paying you) compared to the cost and annoyance of finding a replacement (who would have to work their notice, by which time you would be back anyway).

Apart from the benefit in terms of PR and good employee relations, it can make sound financial sense in the long term: it's better for a company to have an employee (whose recruitment and training they have invested in) come back to a company rather than leave and potentially end up working for a competitor on their return. And remind them how they'll be getting you back but refreshed and motivated and raring to go, thanks to them! Well, that's the official story.

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The boring but important stuff

In all the excitement, it's sensible to know the answers to these questions:

  • What's your agreed start and return date?
  • Will you be paid? (Not unless you're very lucky, but it's always worth asking, and you can use accrued holidays.)
  • Will you be eligible for any benefits, e.g. annual bonus?
  • What if you are made redundant while on sabbatical?
  • What if you or the company want to extend or reduce your career break?
  • What if you don’t want to come back?
  • Will you return to the same job?
  • Get it in writing! Remember, you would not be able to take any legal action if your employer decides you can't return to your job or a similar one.

Other things to organise

  • If you own your home, you can earn extra income/cover the mortgage by renting out your home for short stays through AirBnb (if you have a neighbour/friend happy to welcome strangers) or Onefinestay (which does all the cleaning and welcoming for you) or through a local estate agency. Check with your mortgage and insurance companies.
  • If you rent, and with the agreement of your landlord/flatmates, you can sub-let while you're away for some extra revenue Gumtree is a good starting point.
  • Arrange travel insurance.
  • Share destinations and dates with friends and family.
  • Start packing

Enjoy your career break. Just remember not to make your work colleagues too embittered with umpteen smug Facebook posts. If the likes to your swimming with dolphins photos start tailing off, it's a sure sign of career break envy.

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