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Career breaks – are they worth it?

Career breaks – are they worth it?

Career breaks come in many shapes and sizes and can happen at any time of your working life.  Some career breaks are voluntary and some are enforced (usually through you being made redundant).  In this blog, we’re considering voluntary career breaks to go travelling, and have new experiences, helping you decide whether you should take one, and when.  Having said that, much of the advice could still be relevant to you if you’ve been made redundant.

Should I take a career break?

This is of course the most fundamental question you need to consider, and there’s a lot to think about.  I find it helps, when making decisions like this, to break it down into smaller questions.  Will it damage my career if I take a break?  Will it be beneficial to me, my partner or my family?  Can I afford to take a break? 

The second question is probably the easiest to answer:

Will a career break benefit me, my partner or my family?

If you plan to use your time well, by travelling, experiencing new cultures, learning new skills, writing that book you’ve always said you’d write, then taking a break will without doubt be beneficial.  If you travel and you go overseas with your partner, or family, then the challenges, experiences and memories you have will last a lifetime.  7 years ago, we took our young family travelling for 4 months, and it strengthened us as a family.  We still all talk about the many amazing memories and no doubt will continue to do so.

If you plan to take a break, doing something without your loved ones, like sailing the Atlantic, or learning to be a ski instructor, then you will grow as a person, but do make sure you have the blessing of your family before you go.  There’s no point growing you, if, at the same time, you’re breaking relationships that are important to you.

Chances are, that most career breaks will benefit you, as long as they’re carefully planned.  So this brings us onto your career.

Will taking a career break damage my career?

I can only talk generally here, and you’ll know the situation you are in.  If you’re currently in paid work, you have three courses of action.

  1. Ask your employer if you can have a sabbatical, and return to work for them after the break
  2. Leave your job, and line up a job in a similar field with a different employer for when you return
  3. Leave your job, take a break and try something completely different.
  1. Sabattical

So let’s consider the sabbatical first.  Your employer may or may not have a policy of giving staff sabbaticals, but either way, there’s no harm in asking.  Most employers should see the benefits of letting their staff take extended time off every so often, as you’ll come back refreshed, and re-energised.  It’s clearly harder for smaller firms to cope with the loss of a team member, but not impossible.  And there’s a risk to the employer that you may decide not to return, and go and live in a hill tribe in Thailand.  But if they say no to your sabbatical, you may decide to leave anyway.  You need to have a look at your company, see what the precedents are, and talk to your manager about the options.  Try and get them on board, by showing them you’ll be a better person when you come back.  Don’t just tell them you’re going to sit on a beach for 6 months.

  1. Job change

As you’ll know, we don’t have jobs for life any more, and you’ll most likely work for a few different employers throughout your career.  The benefit of leaving one employer for another may lead to a pay-rise, a better job, an easier commute, a better work-life balance.  If you do decide to change employer, it’s a good time to build in a longer break than your standard two week holiday.  Some employers will insist you go on gardening leave anyway, so a long time away could be ideal.  If you’re leaving one job for another for the right reasons, then this can only enhance your career.  If you’re changing jobs just so you can have a long break between, then you need to make sure your new job will still offer you the chance to progress your career.

  1. Career change

Finally, many of us are in jobs that we don’t enjoy, and we have this sense that there must be something better to do with our lives.  Obviously you have to make a living, but does it have to be so dull?  It’s hard to plan a career change when you’re stuck in the rut, so sometimes taking a year off, without any ties, gives you the chance to re-focus on what’s important to you, and what you want to do with your life.

Clearly, there’s a risk involved with leaving one job without having another one to go to, but sometimes it’s by daring to take the leap, that you learn the most about yourself, and it will lead you to a whole new path.

So far, so good!  You’ve decided to take a break for all the right reasons, but the final question is can you afford to take one?

How can I afford a career break?

This is a very important question and will be key to deciding whether and when you go.  The basics to remember are to budget well, so that you don’t come back in debt with no plan to pay it off, especially if you’re not coming back to a job.  So there are three ways to pay for a career break:

  1. Save up before you go – either by putting aside some of your salary each month, spending less on luxuries, or using savings.
  2. Pay your way as you travel – you may be able to work as you travel.  You’ll need to check the visa regulations of each country where you intend to work.  And if you’re on a sabbatical, you’ll need to check with your employer that they’re happy for you to work elsewhere.
  3. Pay it back after you return – this is the most risky option, and I’d only advise it if you’ve got a job lined up for your return, and you’ve worked out that you’ll have enough to live on and pay off the debt.

There are other ways you can fund the trip.  If you’re a home-owner you can look at equity release on your property, but again that’s a risky strategy that could leave you burdened with yet more debt.  You can rent your home out whilst you’re away which should cover the mortgage and bring in a little extra.  Be aware that you’ll need to let your mortgage company and your home insurance company know you’re doing that.  And there will be other legal requirements for you to consider when letting out your house.

A career break doesn’t have to be super expensive, and once you’ve worked out your finances, that should govern what you decide to do.  Backpacking round South East Asia will cost far less than hiring a campervan and driving across America, so don’t over-stretch yourself, as this will just lead to stressful situations either when you’re away, or once you get back.

So you’ve done the sums, and you think you can afford to take a career break.

Next question: When should I take a career break?

Again so many variables here.  If you’re taking a sabbatical, then your employer may have a view.  If you have a fixed break in mind, like a winter ski season, then factor that in to the equation.  If you’re moving jobs, then again, the timescales will normally be fixed by other people, and so you may have to alter your travel plans to fit in – check out weather conditions for the time of year for the places you want to visit.  Finally, if you’re travelling with others, you’ll need to fit in with them.  If you’re going en famille, then what works best for the kids?  If they’re young enough, then taking them out of school for a long stint shouldn’t be a problem. Many schools would support such a move if they can see the child will benefit.  When we took our 13-year-old out of school for one term, she benefitted hugely from the experience, we chose not to sit and do school work on our travels, and she’d caught up within about 6 weeks of returning home.  If you are taking kids out of school, missing a whole term, or more, is often easier for them, than a few weeks taken in the middle of term.

So that leaves one final question: What should I do on my career break?

Well here the options are limitless.  The only factors that will influence the decision are how much time you have, when you can travel, and how much money you have.  Once you’ve taken that all into consideration, you’ll still be left with a huge choice.  You may want to do just one thing – like helping on a wildlife project.  You may decide to split your time off into smaller chunks – a bit of travel, a bit of work. You may want to volunteer anywhere in the world, and build a trip around that.  You could learn a new skill, like scuba-diving, or a new language.  You could do something that will help you change career – like go on a ski instructor’s course so that you can become a ski teacher.  Or do a TEFL course and teach English either at home or overseas.

There’s so many amazing experiences you can choose on your career break, but there’s one thing for certain: the memories will last a lifetime.

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