Taking a career break from work

Far from a death knell for your career, employers are increasingly savvy when it comes to recognising the personal and business benefits of a career break. If you’re considering taking time out from work, here’s how to maximise the chance and stay ahead.

What is a career break?

How many of us have sat at the computer wistfully dreaming of quitting the humdrum routine and living a little? Modern life is busy – work, family, friends, hobbies – and it’s easy to get caught in the cycle without pausing to think about your longer-term ambitions, but it is possible to escape, even briefly, without sacrificing your career.

Sabbaticals and career breaks are a prolonged period of unpaid leave from work, and employers increasingly recognise the advantage of rounded employees who are personally as much as professionally fulfilled. No longer career suicide, companies are more and more receptive to the business benefits of a break.

Far from a glorified gap year, taking a career break can give you a fresh perspective on your life and work, often while taking on new challenges, and exploring new frontiers. It might be an opportunity to do that volunteering project that’s been niggling away at you, gain experience in a new field, sail the seven seas, learn a new language or travel South America on a motorbike.

Whatever your career break ideas or ambitions, if you’re feeling frustrated at work, are bored of your role, have just been made redundant or have wavering priorities following a major life event (such as divorce or serious illness), a sabbatical could be for you. Time out from your job can be a real opportunity – at any age of life – to revive your passion for work, assess how you’d like your career to progress, learn new skills, re-energise, or test out a new career path.

“Taking an adult gap year can provide people with many benefits including time to clear your head and the opportunity to step back and reassess in a way that could improve your quality of life,” says Lisa Merrick-Lawless, professional coach, in Stylist. “The idea can seem very appealing to a lot of people, especially if they are going through a rough patch, life is just feeling a bit tough or sometimes when you have been zigging for years and it just feels like to time to zag.”

In fact, more people than ever are seizing the chance, with recent researching showing that 32% of the working age population has taken some form of hiatus during their career.

Should you take a sabbatical or a career break

If you’re considering taking the plunge, you’ll need to understand the subtle difference between a career break and a sabbatical. Although often used synonymously and both involving a long period of time away from the office, technically a sabbatical is a more formal agreement with your company where it agrees to keep your job open for you (even if perks such as salary and pension contributions are suspended), whereas a career break is just that – a clean break, and generally perceived to last longer.

Consider first whether a short period of unpaid leave from work could bring the same benefits, or if a sabbatical from your current job is an option (read our guide to sabbaticals here).

If a sabbatical is a non-starter and you’re determined to take time out, a career break could be for you. It means the scary step of resigning, so you won’t have the security of a job to return to, but you’ll be free as a bird and companies sometimes welcome reapplications from former employees. Be realistic but confident. By demonstrating your new skills, there’s no reason you can’t walk back into a similar job at the same level, or it could be the stepping stone to something you really love.

Counter any lingering fears about being labelled a slacker, even in your own mind, by being clear about your objectives before you leave. “Have a think about what you want to achieve during the break and the impact you would like it to have,” says career and performance coach Tessa Armstrong. “A career break can give you time to develop your ideas about what you want from your future career and how this fits with your personal life.”

“Be proactive in how you choose to spend your time,” advises Richard Alderson of website careershifters.com, who himself took a three-month trip to Kerala after leaving his corporate job, suggests three ways for turning the break to your advantage: “and don’t expect lightbulb moments if you’re looking for a new direction (they may come but don’t bank on it).”

Remind yourself of the skills you will return with. Volunteering in an aid project could enable you to solve problems more quickly and cost effectively. Taking time out to care for children or older relatives could bring you soft people management and communication skills. Whatever you do, your batteries are likely to be recharged. Properly structured, a break can enhance your skillset and make you more employable.

How long can you take?

Two years, two months, just a few weeks; the choice really is yours when it comes to deciding the length of your break, and will be influenced by what you want to do: you won’t qualify as a TEFL teacher, build a village school or become fluent in Portuguese in a month.

Four to six months is the most typical length of break, though a year is not uncommon. For specific projects such as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) some breakers take two years, though beware of pauses this long without a goal as it can be easy to feel drifty and hard to re-engage with work when you’re back.

Taking a career break at middle age

If you’re worried that you’re too old for a career break, don’t be. Famous and high-profile figures to take time out include head of Royal Dutch Shell Peter Voser, Diageo executive Paul Walsh, singer Lily Allen, and Bank of England Governor Sir Mervyn King, who took six months out in his 60s to learn to dance and spend more time with his wife.

“I loved my career break,” says Rachel Morgan-Trimmer who took four months off to travel having been tempted by the opportunities on offer at the gap year company where she worked. Empowered by the skills she developed (“confidence and a raft of soft skills”) she went on to set up www.thecareerbreaksite.com to help others seize the opportunity.

What’s more Tessa says the breaker movement is on the up in middle aged workers: “I am starting to see a rise in the number of people taking a career break later on in their career. You have strengths and experiences to offer. With the right attitude, does age really matter?”

Practically speaking, you’ll need to ensure that you’ve made provisions for covering your costs while you’re out of work. Away from your living costs, your mortgage will still need paying (though moving to an interest-only mortgage or renting your property out, for example, could bring the costs right down) and it may be worth putting a lump sum into any pension scheme to avoid losing out on savings.

Where do you stand with employment law and entitlements?

There is no legal entitlement to a sabbatical – employers are not obliged to offer them – but as a career break involves severing ties, even temporarily, with a company, you forfeit any entitlements As a voluntary break, there’s little by way of relevant employment law, but the normal ageism legislation applies when it comes to returning to work so don’t be dissuaded by being perceived as ‘old’.

Should you mention Careers Breaks on your CV?

As the sun sets on your Eat, Pray, Love adventure, some simple tips can ease your return to business or the job hunt.

If you’re searching for a new opportunity, make sure you update your CV and be upfront about the hiatus. “Ensure that you address your break upfront by mentioning it in your cover letter and assuring employers that you are keen to get back into a long-term role,” advises Andrew Fennell, director of StandOut CV. “Never try to hide the fact that you’ve had a break – it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and plenty of employers like to see candidates who have positive experiences outside of work.” Check out our guide to career break cover letters for more tips.

Apply the same philosophy to your CV and LinkedIn profile, and don’t be shy: you’re not overstating if you point out that learning to be teacher has improved your presentation skills, or that globetrotting brings troubleshooting skills. “Describe your break positively on your CV and try to include plenty of constructive attributes such as travel, sightseeing, volunteering to give the impression you are proactive and enthusiastic,” Andrew continues “Highlight transferable skills such as planning, organisation and social skills.”

“The fact that you’ve had the initiative to get out and do something different will immediately make your CV stand out if you’re job-hunting,” emphasises Rachel.

Prepare for interviews by pre-empting questions and clearly mapping out the benefits in your head so you can sell them to a potential employer. Be sure to come across as a committed, rejuvenated member of the work force – employers won’t take a chance on a flight risk but will be reassured if you stress that you’re ready, willing and very able to do a good job. “Craft a strong story about your career break,” advises Richard; “what did you learn, what did you achieve, and what additional value can you bring through these things?”

If you’re looking to change sector, focus on the transferrable skills from both your previous incarnation and your career break experience. It’s a great opportunity to do something different. You might too have met some useful new contacts while away. Don’t be afraid to call on your new network for opportunities and collaborations.

Look at your previous roles and note down which elements of each you have enjoyed or disliked, and where your strengths lie. Use that insight to guide the jobs you apply for.

Above all else, have confidence in your skills and experience. Maturity, life skills and a global outlook have inherent value to a workplace, potentially making you a more focused and tolerant team player. If in doubt, make a list of your experience and achievements: you’ll be surprised.

Take the plunge

Not just for itchy-footed millennials, the career break is an opportunity to hit pause on your career, not delete. It’s a legitimate and increasingly common opportunity to refresh your energy levels, learn new skills, prioritise personal goals or consider a new career path.

Ask yourself if you want the security of a job to return to and, if so, find out if your company has a sabbatical policy and prepare to make a case to your boss.

If a sabbatical isn’t an option, and not all companies can offer them, ensure your finances are in order then consider the bold step of a career break, resigning altogether. The new skills you gain, coupled with your previous professional experience and bravery, will make a compelling CV, whether you want to return to the same field or try something new. Nor will it necessarily mean sliding back down the ladder.

As Rachel puts it, People never regret the things they do, only the things they don’t do – that goes for career breaks too.”

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