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Annie Hayes

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Gaynor’s Thoughts: Career breaks, sabbaticals and personal transformation

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“Companies find that if they don't give people the opportunity to take time off, they'll burn out and leave – or worse still, they'll burn out and stay!"

When I was 22 years old I had a dead-end job in a factory, a wife and two babies, played football at the weekend and performed in a rock band one or two evenings a week. One day a car knocked me down when I was crossing the road and I spent two weeks in hospital, resulting in four months off work. This long break from work had a profound effect on my view of life, my relationship with and attitude towards work, my self-esteem and creativity and the general direction I was heading.

Within a year of returning to work I was in a graduate management development scheme with a major commercial organisation, I had moved my family from a rented flat to an owned house (with a mortgage of course!) and my rock band was playing at large events as well as at local pubs. Sadly my football skills never improved! I’ve not taken a sabbatical or career break since but I think that the psychological journey I made then was in some ways similar.

It has become quite common for key people in major organisations to be able to take extended periods away from their employer, focusing on other aspects of their life, developing an interest or just taking a rest. Often this is attached to achieving a specified length of service and is often used as an inducement aimed at retaining key people.

Career break schemes give employers the discretion to retain valued employees who want to take a significant amount of unpaid time, perhaps years, away from work, giving them the right to return to work or at least to apply for re-engagement on favourable terms.

Sabbaticals are less common (except in the academic, government and non-profit sectors) and tend to last for months rather than years. They are normally given as a reward for continuous service and employees can pretty much choose what they do with the time. Individuals remain employed and can return automatically to their job at the end of the sabbatical. Some sabbaticals are paid some are not – a recent study in the US showed that around 6% of employers surveyed, offered paid sabbaticals whilst a further 17% offer unpaid sabbaticals.

Career breaks and sabbaticals are more common in creative companies that rely on their employees to generate ideas. Publishing, high technology, advertising and consulting companies are more likely to offer sabbaticals than manufacturing or finance firms.

Extended time off with a secure return to work is therefore, when it’s available, typically from three months to a couple of years. What do people do with this time? How do they use the time to make a difference in their lives? What difference does it make to them? And what difference does it make to their employer?

The range of things that people typically do includes, travel, study, consultancy, looking after children or older relatives, doing voluntary service utilising their professional skills or in a totally different area, recharging their batteries or a combination of some of these things.

How do people typically spend their time away from work? It's not always a holiday.

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Annie Hayes

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