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Sabbaticals: caring for yourself and your company

Three months, six, or even a year away from the office can have you returning refreshed, upskilled and ready for new challenges. Amy Reeve looks at some career break ideas and speaks to two chartered accountants who have taken time off for self-development.

Whether you’re five years into your career or 35, there may come a time when you wonder if it’s time to get away from the workplace for a while. Whether it’s to learn something new, volunteer to help others, or simply take a break from your job to recharge your batteries, a sabbatical is no longer the career suicide it perhaps once was. Organisations are beginning to understand that they can be a way to retain the employees they have spent time and money nurturing. And people who have taken a sabbatical will tell you they bring new skills back to their day job, as well as improved clarity, resilience, confidence and cultural understanding.

“As well as getting to see different parts of the world and making new friends, I really gained a lot from working for another company,” confirms Tracey Corbett, paraplanning team manager at Cooper Parry Wealth, who joined the firm straight from university and decided to take a sabbatical in Australia after eight years and before she turned 30. “It was valuable to witness a different working culture and to learn new processes. The experience really boosted my confidence, which helped me to progress into a new role when I returned. By pushing yourself out of your comfort zone you’ll gain a hell of a lot from it and make memories that last a lifetime.”

A sabbatical can last from a few months up to a year and is usually unpaid, although there are exceptions. If you’re participating in work-related research, for example, or if you’ve been at your organisation for a long period of time, then you may be offered a paid sabbatical. There is no legal entitlement to a career break in the UK so terms must be agreed with your employer. And although your company may guarantee to hold your job open, sometimes it will only offer a similar job at the same level. So check out how your company views sabbaticals and what its policies are before you begin making a case to justify taking one. Think about what you’d like to achieve and whether to set any goals, says Emma Rosen, author of The Radical Sabbatical: The Millennial Handbook to the Quarter Life Crisis.

“Whether that’s upskilling yourself, cultural awareness through voluntary work or just taking a break in the purest sense, each has different values. I see a lot of people who take sabbaticals who don’t really figure out what they’re going to do with that time off. It’s easy to end up wasting quite a lot of sabbatical time if you don’t put any forethought into it. It’s important to start with a clear goal.”

Longer working lives means some people have been in the workforce for years without a meaningful break, which is why forward-thinking businesses are offering career MOTs to those in their 40s and 50s to energise them and help them feel valued. Rosen says a lot of people are often quite close to burnout without realising it, and therefore aren’t as efficient or productive in the workplace as they could be. “Sometimes being able to take a step back, even if it’s just for a month, means that when you do come back you’re ready to be there. Having that time off, for the vast majority, means you come back motivated, refreshed and are able to give that job 110%.”

Sumita Shah

Regulatory policy manager, ICAEW, on travelling for six months

“To truly know yourself, you have to challenge yourself and step outside your comfort zone. I stepped out of my comfort zone many a time on this trip. I have changed. Change is good, change is needed. Life is about change.”

When and why did you decide to take a sabbatical?
“During a traumatic time in the summer of 2018 it occurred to me that some time out from work might help me get my head back together again. It was a very quick decision on my part, even though I’m quite risk averse. Things sometimes come for a reason, don’t they?”

How did you decide what type of break you needed?
“I’ve been volunteering for years so an option was to do something like that. Maybe do something on the ground. But because I have worked for 35 years and have volunteered for 12, I thought that wasn’t the best way to get a proper head break – volunteering can be quite intense. So I did a combination – I went travelling and volunteered remotely. I’ve always loved walking and know that out in the mountains I feel at peace with myself.”

How did you prepare your employer?
“I’d seen other colleagues taking these opportunities. Years ago it was quite ad hoc but we now have a policy and a structure, you’re guaranteed a job to come back to, which is great. I thought I could go away, get myself sorted out and I’d be fresher and have this amazing experience as well. So I put that to our chief operating officer.”

How did you prepare yourself?
“I’m a very organised person normally, I have to book things in advance, but I didn’t do that. I spent one Saturday planning the first month. I decided I’d do a boot camp in my first month to get fit. I also did the coastal Camino way (above). I needed to have a ticket out of each country for immigration and that’s as far as I planned. It was quite liberating. I would say don’t plan everything too far ahead. A lot of people do things completely off the cuff, and I wasn’t sure I could live exactly the way they do, but if you’ve got that much time to take off, don’t overthink it, don’t over plan it.”

Did you set any goals?
“I wanted to explore places I’d never been to – I’d never been as far as Australia and New Zealand. I set a budget – you have to think about what lifestyle you want, bearing in mind you might not have a salary coming in. You could do hostels, or you could do five-star. So that informed where I was going to go and what plans I’d make.”

What did you learn?
“I can live with a lot less. Living out of a suitcase, you realise the things you don’t need. I didn’t miss a lot of things. Also, strength and resilience. I was always a strong person, but this took me out of my comfort zone even more. At one point I was really ill and I could have come back home. But then I would have been miserable, so I carried on. Women often don’t realise the strength they have and what they take on. That was a revelation. When I came back I felt mentally stronger and more confident. Processes don’t feel like a strain, I don’t stress and feel more laid back. I worry a lot less.”

How did you manage your return to work?
“It’s a good idea to keep in touch with your employer. You have time to think about your role and the future, so get them thinking about how to manage your return as well. They often wonder whether the employee is coming back or not, so encourage dialogue. At some point you have to think, do I want to come back to responsibility or not? Think about it because it does change you as a person. Give yourself time to think about your future and what you want.”

Any advice?
“Getting thrown in at the deep end showed me I can do things without being overly organised. You have to be safe. When you’re older – I’m 52 – you’re a bit more reserved about what you do. From an employer perspective, know your staff – be open to the person changing and becoming mentally stronger and more confident. It’s been so amazing for my mental health, I can’t stress that enough. Think about how you’re going to use that new experience of life, and skill, and how to apply it.”

Harish Jani

Former head of finance at Crystal Palace Football Club, on his MBA at Cass Business School

When did you decide to take a sabbatical and why?
“It’s a little bit unusual at my age. It’s something I wanted to do for a while because I think it’s important to challenge yourself when you’ve been doing things over such a long period of time. A lot of people retire at around this stage. When you start to reach your official retirement age, you think, ‘is it time to do something a little bit different?’ I started my MBA in September 2018 at Cass Business School in London after 11 years with Crystal Palace.”

How did you decide what type of break you needed?
“I’d always had a desire to do an MBA because I went straight into studying for accountancy from school. I’ve met lots of different people – it reconnects you. You meet a younger generation, lots of nationalities. It’s a buzzy type of place. It’s a novel idea to do something like this. You are challenging yourself, after 50 odd years. Most people do an MBA to enhance their careers, largely. I’m here doing exams, knuckling down to do things that other candidates might have done in their degrees just five or six years ago, or 10 years max. When you’ve got a gap of 50 years it’s a little different.”

How did you prepare your employer for your break?
“I’d been in touch with the chairman of the club and he was very supportive. I was fulfilling a position and the business has to keep running, so a new CFO came in from another club. It all happened seamlessly, the finance team wasn’t disturbed. My thinking was that when I got my MBA I would be reaching 70 so I wouldn’t necessarily want to go back to that position. I will be available to do other things. I haven’t severed links – I’ve kept in touch with people, and the chairman, so there is a good chance I’ll go back and do something at Palace, but it’s not the be all and end all.”

What did you learn?
“You learn a lot about yourself. You’re in a different environment altogether. When you get to a certain position in your career you tend to be in an established hierarchical structure. In a place like this you’re one of 62 students. There’s a constant pressure on you to deliver things. The MBA is a tough course to do in a year and Cass Business School doesn’t make any excuses about it being tough – they say at the beginning you’re in for one heck of a ride. That’s why I say it’s a sabbatical with a difference. If you want to have a fairly easy year off, then this isn’t it. But I would say to anyone thinking of taking a year sabbatical to just do it.”

Any advice?
“The MBA gives you a chance to look at all aspects of a business. If you’re a head of finance you can look at different parts of the business and how business models work in different organisations. It’s such a good thing to do – we travelled to Israel and Palestine to study organisations there, their history and how they manage conflict. That was terrific. We went to Beijing as well. Lots of organisations are spending more time making sure their employees are happy and supported. People are your biggest asset, it makes sense. An MBA definitely gives you food for thought.”

Originally published in Economia on 6 September 2019.