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Women in Focus

Time for a sabbatical? How to make the most of a year off

by Alison Potter Published on 30 August 2013

Imagine taking a year off work to do everything on your 'one day' list? Sounds good right? No wonder sabbaticals are tempting more and more professionals. While taking a year off used to be synonymous with career suicide, things have changed. In fact more people than ever are effectively swapping their suits for sandals. Having a sabbatical doesn’t necessarily mean lying on a beach though – a sabbatical can give you the chance to learn new skills, travel and even boost your CV.

If you're dreaming of a career break but need to convince yourself it's worth the risk then listen to the wise words of Natalie Johnson and Olivia Hind, creators of career inspiration blog Professionelles. They've rounded up the professional pros and career cons of taking a time-out from work, and why it could be the answer to your Sunday night meltdown.

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Recent statistics show that the number of young people taking sabbaticals has never been higher and Olivia believes that this is for a number of reasons. She says: “Far more people have degrees and work in professional careers than they did a generation ago, and technology means that all of our work has more of an international outlook than it once did.

“A combination of these factors means that sabbaticals are open to more of us, and time spent travelling and exploring different cultures is more valuable to employers than it once was.”

Natalie agrees: “Add to this the pressure that our 24-hour culture puts on us to work hard and play hard, and it seems like the potential of burning ourselves out might be encouraging more of us to seek out ways to alter our lifestyle - and a sabbatical can be a great catalyst for examining our priorities.”

Having a break and getting perspective

A year out is a chance to have an extended breather from the rat race, which you’ll probably need at some point as new studies suggest that those in their early thirties won’t be able to retire until they’re at least 73!

They’re also useful for those looking for some perspective on their careers and the direction that they want to be going in.

Natalie says: “Time away from work can really help you to re-evaluate the work you’re doing and the life you’re usually living, leading you to really build a life that makes you happy when you get back.”

But as well as giving you a break and time to evaluate things, there are plenty of other reasons why a sabbatical can be beneficial to your career and overall health and wellbeing.

​“Chances are you’ll meet people quite unlike those you usually work with or you’ve been to school and university with, and a different perspective can really spark your inspiration – both career-wise, and when thinking about the way you live,” Olivia says.

“If you’ve always been in the workplace or studying, you can often find yourself defining your identity by what you do, or what you’ve done in the past: a sabbatical can encourage you to develop your identity outside of your career, and this independence will really boost your confidence when you face career challenges.”

An opportunity to pick up new skills

Sabbaticals are also an opportunity to expand your skills, as well as your horizons – obviously depending on what you end up doing!

Natalie explains: “Travelling gives you the opportunity to pick up a language and learn more about other cultures and cuisines, as well as providing you with plenty of problem solving skills (buying train tickets, explaining that you’ve got a stomach ache and restaurant etiquette are all much more complicated when you can only fall back on hand signals).

“You might spend a year learning something specific, like cooking or sewing or farming; you could write poetry or draft a novel; you might make music or do yoga. The whole point of a sabbatical is to do what you feel will be valuable to you, so the skills you pick up can be endless. Whatever happens, you’ll definitely boost your confidence and pick up some new friends along the way.”

Endorsed by employers?

Even employers are starting to see the positives in letting their employees take an extended break from the office, allowing them to take leave with the security of knowing that their job is waiting for them when they come back.

Olivia says: “Amongst many employers, there’s a growing understanding of the need for encouraging health and wellbeing in staff: not only does it make business sense to retain great staff, but team members who feel valued are more productive and creative.

“As our working lives are so much longer now, many more people take career breaks, and it makes sense for employers to encourage employees to take time away but remain within the organisation.”

But a sabbatical isn’t something to enter into lightly – you need to make sure you have the financial means to support yourself if you decide to go travelling or take up an unpaid position.

It’s also important that you look into how a period of extended leave will affect your pension contributions, and whether private healthcare or any other work benefits will be suspended during your break. Financially you need to plan with precision, as you don’t want to have to suddenly cut your trip short due to lack of funds.

Making it count

While there are plenty of volunteer schemes and charities out there you can sign up for, Natalie believes that sabbaticals aren’t just for those who are looking to do something ‘worthy’.

“A sabbatical should be about giving yourself some freedom from the daily grind to achieve something that you think is valuable – that could be travelling, volunteering, learning a language, or just working on your own health – so it’s entirely up to you what you do with it,” she says.

“But remember: if you’re not established in a senior position in your career, then you really should think about how and what your sabbatical will be adding to your CV as a year can make a big difference in your early twenties.

“The obvious answer is volunteering, but there’s plenty of other ways to add something to your career history; just think hard about what you’re learning as you’re doing it.”

Would you seriously consider taking a sabbatical? And what would you do with it? Tweet us @SofeminineUK!

by Alison Potter

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