Career Break Or Sabbatical? How To Decide What Is Right For You


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Sue Hadden examines the difference between career breaks and sabbaticals and explains how both can positively effect your future career.

The terms ‘career break’ and ‘sabbatical’ are sometimes used interchangeably. Both relate to periods of time taken out of your normal routine to do something completely different. So, what’s the difference?

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a more formal system. A ‘sabbatical policy’ may exist within a company, whereby employees are able to take an agreed amount of time off.  The usual job ‘perks’, such as being paid and your pension contributions, may be suspended for the duration of the sabbatical period. However, employees have the security of returning to their job. The period of time allowed depends on the company and may only be accessible to employees at a certain level in the organisation such as senior managers or full-time staff. This is the option for those who may be planning to return to the same job or field of work. It can be a useful way to take time out from your job to reassess where your career is heading and how you would like it to progress when you return.

Debbie Norman, 52, Kent, took a 6-month sabbatical from her job in banking. Debbie qualified for the sabbatical because she had been working for the bank for over 10 years. During her time off, she sailed the Queen Mary and travelled the West Coast of America before returning home to England. As Debbie’s company provided a formal sabbatical policy, her job was held open so she slid straight back in on her return. Ann Sullivan, 39, Gloucester, took a 3-month sabbatical from her job in an insurance company and travelled through south east Asia. On her return to England, she returned to her role working in the Human Resources department.

Employers’ attitudes are changing as they’re realising that, in order to retain good employees, they may have to release them for a certain period of time. The organisation may benefit from an employee who returns with new skills, such as a new language or a professional qualification. In addition, the employe is likely to have a renewed and refreshed attitude to work.

What do I need to do to take a sabbatical?

Step 1: Find out if your company offers a sabbatical policy and if so, the maximum duration. Are there any forms you must complete? Who do you need to inform? What benefits would be suspended for the duration? Which would be continued?

Step 2: Be prepared. Before meeting your manager, arm yourself with information on when you want to take your break, how long you want to be away for, what you plan to do and how your work-load could be managed whilst you’re away. Make is easy on your manager by doing the thinking for them.

Step 3: Arrange a meeting with your manager to discuss your sabbatical. Think about questions you may be asked, write them down and have the answers ready. You may have to negotiate the timing of your break, due to the nature of your role or the industry you work in. There may be a more ‘natural’ time to step away from the organisation that will cause minimal disruption to you and your team. Tell your manager the benefits of you taking a break and how this will impact the organisation in a positive way.

Step 4: Once your sabbatical is agreed, complete the necessary paperwork and return it to the appropriate parties. Ensure you have all the dates confirmed and are sure about which benefits are suspended and which will continue.

Step 5: Organise your farewell party and start packing!

What is a career break?

If you decide to take a career break and your company doesn’t have a sabbatical policy, you may have to resign in order to do it. By resigning from your job, you have the freedom to take a career break for as long as you like because you are not tied to the organisation. You can use a career break as an opportunity to work on your career change without having the feeling of having to return to your old job after a few months. This strategy worked for Doug Kington, 25, who has taken many career breaks over the last few years. The organisations Doug has worked for haven’t offered sabbatical policies. Therefore, every time he took a career break, he resigned. He went travelling and found new work when he returned to England.

Often career changers leave regular employment to set up their own businesses, go freelance, or to retrain in a different area. If this is not for you and you wish to return to regular employment after your career break (perhaps in a different sector), you may be wondering...

What do prospective employers think about people who’ve taken a career break?

This depends on the work sector, what you chose to do whilst you were away and how you position your career break to employers when you return. If you take on voluntary work or work on a personal project during your career break, these can add to your CV and perhaps help you move into a different job sector. In 2006, I returned from a 6-month career break. During my second interview with an investment bank, my interviewer asked why I returned to the UK. My simple and honest answer was, “I ran out of money”. My interviewer laughed and said it was a good a reason as any. I was offered the job a few days later. Taking a career break didn’t seem to have an impact during my job search or during my interviews. I believe that, as long as you sell the ‘benefits’ of your career break to your potential employer, it could be viewed favourably.

But what will I do afterwards?

Towards the end of your career break, the following tips can help prepare you to use the benefits of your career break in the next stage of your career:

  • Update your CV to include any courses, qualifications and experiences you’ve had, such as volunteering, which may help you during your search.
  • Decide how you can best sell the benefits of your career break to a potential employer.
  • If you wish to move into another work sector, think about how you can build on your career break experience to make the move.
  • List any contacts you made during your career break, whom you could speak to about work opportunities or collaboration.

So, what’s it for you? Sabbatical or career break? Once you’ve made the decision to take a break, all you need to do is start asking questions and find out which one is a possibility for you.

Does the idea of a career break or sabbatical appeal to you? Could you use it to help with your longer-term career change? Leave a comment below.