Sabbatical—the word conjures up images of sea and sand, books and movies, family and friends. No client meetings, no messages waiting from the boss to call back and no deadlines. Just spending time doing things one always wanted to do. Given the performance pressure in the modern workplace, high stress levels and fast burnouts, career breaks are becoming indispensable to any career plan. They are almost as sought after as salary increments or promotions. But very few know how long and for what purpose the break should be. Not every feeling of discomfort, boredom and restlesssness at work should be construed as a good reason to take a sabbatical. A break at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons or a mismanaged break can have disastrous implications for your career growth.
As a rule of thumb, a sabbatical must never be an escape (temporary or otherwise) from stress, difficult work, fatigue or bad vibes at office. If you return to the same situation after the break, you will probabaly have grounds for another one soon after!
So how do you know whether the sabbatical you are planning will be good for you or not? Ask yourself these questions to know how well you are positioned for it.
What is the purpose of the break?
It is very important to remember that a sabbatical has a purpose and is not just a meaningless long holiday. Remember, it’s a break and not an early retirement. A recent survey indicated that some of the reasons for people taking a sabbatical include travel, acquiring knowledge and skills, pursuing a hobby or simply spending some quality time with family.
Defining a theme for the sabbatical ensures that you don’t waste these precious months. If you want to take a break to enhance your career prospects, it is best to pursue courses, degrees or diplomas in the desired field. You may also consider attending workshops or lectures outside the syllabi set by the institution you enroll in and leverage your past experience to gain the maximum out of these activities.
Alternatively, if the sabbatical is taken to travel, then plan out your itinerary so that you visit all your dream destinations in the given time. If you are planning to return to the same job or industry after the break, keep yourself abreast of the changes and developments that are happening so that you don’t completely lose touch. See if important official e-mails can be sent to you as well as other notices and reports. This will help you settle back quicker.
The break should always help you follow your career goal. If it is a rejuvenating exercise, you must come back with renewed vigour to your work. Hence, the break should not steer you away from what you have aimed for professionally. However, if you have been in two minds about your career, use the break to re-focus on what you want. If at the end you realise that you want to switch to another industry, use the break to read up, explore and acquire the skills required for the challenge.
While deciding what you want to do during the break, it is also important to be honest with yourself and about whether the break is self-motivated or forced due to problems at work. If it is the latter, carefully think whether the break will make a difference at all. Be as professional about the break as you are about your career. Remember, you should be able to add value to your CV after the break.
Is this the right time?
Remember, whatever the duration of your break, you are unlikely to receive your regular salary during that period. Therefore, it is only after looking at your current financial commitments you can plan ahead. Do you think you have the leeway to do so without a recurring income for the time period you have in mind? If you are planning to take up a course during the sabbatical, there maybe extra expenditure. So either you will have to dip into your savings or take a loan to fund the break. It is also important to look at the family commitments you have. Do these commitments allow you to take a break? And of what duration? If the break is to enjoy, you might want to look at opportunities where your family is with you. Can they also suspend their commitments and take out time? You have to think about your children’s education, your spouse’s job, health condition of parents, etc, have to be factored in.
Also, is your boss convinced that you need a break? More importantly, does he see any direct benefit to the organisation from it? In most cases it is for the employees to make a strong case for sabbatical. Factors such as your work tenure and your proven abilities will become critical. You might also be in a situation where you will have to resign. It is better to think through these details and take advice from your colleagues, family members and others who might be directly impacted.
How long should the break be?
The stage of career and life you are in makes a lot of difference in defining the tenure of your break. If you are in the early stages of your career, say the first 5-10 years, you might want to take a break for studies and enhance your career prospects. The tenure for such a break is then automatically defined by the duration of such a course. For instance, if you are going in for an MBA, it might take you anywhere between one and two years whereas a diploma might take just about six months.
At the mid-career level after you have put in 15-20 years of work, the possibility of taking a long break is relatively low as your professional and personal responsibilities are high. If you want to further educate yourself, an executive course at such an age makes more sense than taking a complete break from work. Deciding the time period becomes difficult when the break is for travel, spending time with your family or other such purposes. Here it is your discretion whether a couple of months or a year is required. If the purpose of the break is to rethink about your job in a particular industry and then make a career change, it is best to set up a loose schedule of what you want to do and when, so that you do not end up lounging on your living room couch without coming up with new plans.
Tie up loose ends
If you decide to leave your current job before taking a career break, make sure that you leave on the best of terms since the references you get from your ex-boss and seniors will stand you in good stead. This will also mean that you can apply to your previous employer for work on your return, if you change your mind. If you are planning to return to the same position after your break, it’s even more important to make sure that tasks are properly completed. Try not to leave in the middle of a preassigned task or project as it reflects negatively on your commitment. Make sure that you hand over the job to your successor without any hitches. Start making a list of important contacts and duties well in advance of your leaving date. This will be a helpful resource to others in your absence. If possible, arrange for a handover period so that you can train your successor and he can see you handle the work hands on.
In today’s dynamic work environment, where policies, systems and even people need to change constantly, it is only realistic to understand that while you’re away, your colleagues, processes, policies and systems will change. This might result in a feeling of being left out of the loop when you return. Prepare yourself by renewing your professional skills and increasing your knowledge. Use your career break to demonstrate your motivation, ability to take on new challenges and the value of the new skills and confidence you have found.
Most importantly, be ready to adapt to this change as you might have to start from scratch in trying to build relationships again. It is not only you, but also your colleagues who will need to adapt to you. Some people returning from a career break find that things haven’t changed at all and no longer feel excited by their role. If this happens to you, it might be time to move on. However, don’t forget to fulfil your obligations in your present job. After all, your employer facilitated your sabbatical and your colleagues held the fort in your absence.
If you have decided to switch jobs after the sabbatical, finding your feet can be quite tedious. You not only have to find a new job, you will also have to adjust in an entirely new environment. Keep yourself busy and do not let the motivation slip away in post-trip blues.
A sabbatical can be one of the most trickiest and most difficult career move you have ever made. But this is no reason to shy away from it. The break will allow you to fulfil many aspirations. It is also helpful in recharging your batteries so that you return to work refreshed and with a new perspective. So weigh your options carefully. At the end, any career move should only bring you towards your goal, not delay or deviate from it.
(Megha Wadha is a consultant with TMI India)
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