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How to Ask for a Career Break or Sabbatical

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After I announced my 6-month career break from work back in October, I was flooded with messages and questions from friends and readers about how I had actually managed to get these 6 months off work without having to leave my company or resign from my job. It seems that a fair few others quite fancy an extended break from work too, without giving up their job security or subjecting themselves to the job hunt afterwards. So I thought it might be helpful to write about how I approached my manager and my company, and give some advice on what I consider to be prerequisites for a career break. However there’s no magic formula and every case will be different, so I’m not making any promises. But nevertheless, I hope this is helpful or motivating for anyone who thinks they’d benefit from a career break.

What kind of company do you work for?

  • An open-minded and flexible company culture is essential, ideally with an existing “career break” policy. In my company, the policy is that any full-time employee can request a career break after 12 months’ employment, but in other companies it can be 3, 5, or even 10 years! Your first port of call is your HR policy or employment contract. Find out what you’re entitled to request, remembering that it’s likely to be at your manager’s discretion, it’s unlikely to be an employee’s right.
  • Larger companies can accommodate a career break better than small companies, because it’s easier for them to cover your workload while you’re away. Small companies will feel the impact of your absence more.
  • A modern, younger company will be more receptive than more traditional companies.
  • Ideally you’ll have previous examples of colleagues or employees who have already taken a career break, as this will strengthen your case and provide you will people to talk to and consult first. Ask them them how they asked for their career break.
  • What’s the business climate? If the company’s performing well, you’ve got better chances of success than if it’s missing targets and struggling. Timing is key on various levels: timing related to the business climate, timing of when you actually make your request, and timing of when you’re away.

How will your manager react?

  • A good relationship with your line manager is fundamental and I can’t emphasise this enough. If you don’t get along with your manager, you can practically forget about asking for a career break. I am lucky to have a fantastic manager and I’m very, very grateful.
  • Is your line manager open-minded and flexible? Their attitude towards the concept will determine the initial reaction to your request. You can still work on convincing them even if they’re not the most modern or understanding of managers, but it certainly helps!
  • Consider the personal experiences of your manager. Have they ever benefited from time out such as a career break or maternity/paternity leave? Whatever you’d like to be doing in your career break, whether it be studying / travelling / volunteering, has your manager already done this and is therefore better able to understand your request? My manager and I both studied languages at university, both spending a year abroad and both having an interest in foreign countries, so she could understand my motivations and need to travel.
  • How honest and close are you with your manager? If you’re used to having heart-to-hearts and discussing your performance, career and personal development openly with your manager, then he or she will already have an idea of your need for a change of scenery. For example, my manager had known since Day 1 of the job that at some point I wanted to work internationally again, move up the career ladder, gain responsibility and about 6 months before I made my request, I told her I was keen to add line management experience to my skillset. So we were both already on the same page and it didn’t come as a huge surprise to her when I asked.
  • Give lots of prior warning if possible. Plan in advance! The more prior notice you can give, the more time your manager has to prepare for and cover your absence.

What’s the impact on your team?

  • Your manager will obviously consider the impact on your team, so that’s a factor to consider. Do your colleagues have the capacity and skills to cover your role? Is there a good team dynamic and are the team comfortable with a change in the status quo? Is anyone else in your team seeking time off for maternity/paternity leave, study leave or a career break at the same time? How will they feel if you’re granted a career break? How open-minded are your teammates?
  • Consider what happens to anyone you manage. If you already have people working for you, who will manage them in your absence and how will this disruption affect their morale? This is another reason I wanted to take a career break before having a team of my own.
  • Offer to help find a temporary replacement for your role while you’re away.

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Why you?

  • Hopefully you’re already doing a pretty decent job and are valued in your company. If so, then they probably won’t want to lose you and will be happy to negotiate in order to get you back after the career break. If you’re performing badly, then obviously they’ve little reason to want you back.
  • Show that you really do want to come back to the company. The best way to show this is by making the career break relevant to your career, or showing how the break will benefit the team or company. I’ll go into detail later, but having a long-term career plan and demonstrating how the break fits in and complements this plan is the best way to show your commitment.
  • Why is now the right time for you to take a career break? Timing is everything, so why is now key? If your manager asks you to wait a year and and then ask, make sure you have an explanation for why it can’t wait. For me, the request coincided with my 1-year anniversary in the role and my manager was aware that I intended to seek other opportunities/roles after 1 year in the job.
  • What’s your motivation and why are you requesting a career break? My motivations were a change of scenery, a breath of fresh air, international experience and leadership skills that I couldn’t find within my company, hence why I had to look elsewhere, to my volunteering project in Nepal and my course at the ICD in Berlin. I showed enthusiasm and proactivity for my plans, proving that I’d use the career break in a productive way, not just for an extended holiday lying on a tropical beach for 6 months.
  • How will your career break benefit the company? In my case, the experience I will gain in team leadership and the skills I learn in Nepal will benefit the company when I return, as they’ll have upskilled their employee at zero financial cost to them, and I’ll be more useful to them after these 6 months away. I will also be more motivated after a stint abroad and will feel really positive about the company after their demonstrated investment and interest in my personal development. Happy employee = higher productivity and better performance at work. When requesting the career break, focus on the skills aspect of what you’ll bring back, but the wellbeing and employee happiness is also something to bear in mind.

What will you actually do on your career break?

Unless you have a seriously chilled line manager, bumming around on a beach for 6 months is unlikely to fly. Would you approve such a request if you were your manager and had to stay in the office, picking up someone else’s workload while your employee swans off to Bali to top up their tan and drink cocktails at sunset every night?

Options:

  • Travelling may be approved, but I’d imagine it’ll be harder to convince your manager, unless you have happen to work in the travel industry or have a specific reason for your travels, such as family living abroad or a once-in-a-lifetime trip like an extended honeymoon or a specific challenge like sailing round the world, etc. For example, if your company operates in South America, you could use the time to travel around the region, studying Spanish and Portuguese and bringing back valuable in-market familiarity.
  • Studying is an attractive use of a career break from the perspective of the line manager if it’s relevant. Most employers appreciate that active learning reinvigorates the brain and encourages creativity. If your course also has a part-time option that your manager might ask you to choose instead, then prepare a reason why you want to study full-time instead. A career break also allows you to study outside of your city, opening up your options. I spent 2 weeks studying in Berlin at the ICD and 2 weeks studying Russian in St Petersburg, two courses that I just couldn’t find at home in London.
  • Volunteering is also a valid activity, especially if, like my company, yours invests a lot of time and energy into social responsibility and actively encourages employees to volunteer. If so then there’s a strong chance they’ll support you in a volunteering project like my 4-month project in Nepal with Raleigh.
  • Paid work could be an option, as long as there’s no direct conflict with your company’s own work. If your company is seeking to innovate and needs more of an entrepreneurial mindset, you could work at a start-up and bring back more efficient ways of working and specific technical skills.
  • Dedicate yourself to a hobby or start your own business. You’ll have to consider how this hobby or business would continue once you return to work, but this experience could teach you some valuable skills that you couldn’t acquire within your company.

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How much time should you request?

  • My company’s HR policy said I could request up to 1 year, however I didn’t think that a whole year would be approved (for reasons of timing and business climate) and I was also conscious that I need to earn some money to live! My savings can happily sustain me for 6 months but a year would be pushing it.
  • Also consider how your expertise and knowledge may go out-of-date while you’re away, and you might miss out on promotion opportunities if you spend too long on a career break. It’s an individual decision for you to take, but try to be realistic. I’ve heard stories of some managers approving career breaks for half the amount of time requested so consider how that would affect your plans.

How to actually ask for a career break?

If you take into account all of the above then you’re pretty well set to actually have the talk with your line manager, but here’s a summary of the key points to remember.

  • Give prior warning and open the communication lines in advance – Test the waters to gauge your managers reaction before diving into the full proposal, as this may come as too much of a shock if it’s out of the blue.
  • Time your request well –  Bring up the subject in a private 121, away from other people’s ears, during an appropriate review or meeting to discuss your personal development. Choose a moment when you’re manager isn’t stressed, in a rush or distracted.
  • Treat it like a business case – By answering all of the questions in this blog post your business case is complete, so I’ve made it easy for you! Highlight the benefits to the company upfront and do your best pitch. Prepare answers for possible questions and be prepared to negotiate and compromise. Hopefully your request will receive a positive reaction, but more than likely you should be prepared for your manager to think it through, consult HR and get back to you at a later date with a decision.

What next – if it’s a yes!

  • Great news, you’ve got yourself a career break! Time to firm up your plans, apply for study courses, volunteers projects, book flights or get key activities confirmed before you agree the exact start and end dates of your career break.
  • Once a date is set, you need to tell your colleagues and prepare them for your absence, planning who to handover your work to and finishing up projects before you leave. Potentially you many have to recruit or find another member of staff to temporarily step into your role
  • Don’t go on and on about how excited you are to leave the office – that’s not going to help matters!
  • Set your Out of Office message and agree with your manager how much you’ll be in touch and how to reach you if anything important happens.

What next – if it’s a no…

  • If it’s a no, you have to consider your next move carefully. Threatening your manager with your resignation is probably a bad move and not something that’s likely to change their mind! They will have already considered that consequence and therefore it’ll just create bad sentiment if you resort to threats!
  • Try negotiating or asking your manager what they would allow – a shorter period of time? A more relevant activity? A later date?
  • Work out how much the career break means to you: are you willing to leave your job to do it? How happy will you be to stay in your job and will it bother you? How easy will it be to find another job after your career break? How important is job security to you or do you fancy a change of company anyway? Are you sacrificing an upcoming bonus or promotion prospects by leaving the company to take your career break?

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          I’m pleased to say that I didn’t need to consider the last few questions because my manager agreed to my 6-month career break (and was incredibly flexible about it) and even let me more-or-less choose my start and end date, and she handled HR and more senior colleagues on my behalf. She’s such a champion and I am so grateful to her for understanding what this break means to me and the opportunities and benefits it brings.

I wish you good luck if you’re also contemplating a career break and I hope this helps!

Do you like the idea of a career break and what would you do with it? Or have you already taken one and how did you manage it?

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2 Comments »

  1. My partner and I have been lucky enough to be granted the time off so we can cycle across Canada this summer. However in the past I’ve been happy to give my notice and walk away no strings attached. Finding a new job isn’t that hard, but if you have one you want to come back to and it will be there waiting that’s a great thing.

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