It’s fair to say Rhys Knight was nervous when he decided to take a sabbatical. At 34, his first baby was due and his wife was urging him to quit work to spend some quality time with the family.
“The idea of it was scary. I’d always worked continuously. If I left a job it was to start another.”
Before he took the plunge, Knight admits now that he didn’t understand why people would take a break from their careers. How did they fill their time? Weren’t they bored?
After nearly eight years, the executive recruitment professional and associate director at Australian recruitment company Hamilton James Bruce decided to resign, planning to spend three months at home.
With enough money to kick back for a while and enjoying spending time with wife and new daughter, Knight’s thoughts began to turn to all the things that he wanted to do in life, but hadn’t.
“It stopped being scary and the whole thing got really exciting and exhilarating as I began acting on it.”
He decided to extend the sabbatical to six months and in a flurry of activity took up sky diving to overcome his crippling fear of heights. He got back on a motorbike again and relearned to ride after having suffered a bad accident in his 20s. He helped his father-in-law build a house.
Not only that, Knight had written the first draft of a book that had been gathering dust in his office; he completed editing it and has started on his second. He also managed to fit in a trip to New Zealand to visit his family and attend martial arts classes.
“All the little things I learnt were such a thrill. As I ticked things off my list, I kept wondering what more I could do,” says Knight.
It’s given him a new perspective on what’s really important and how to use time more usefully.
“I was always busy being busy when I was in the office; I was great at filling my day with stuff I didn’t really need to be doing. I’m far more focused on what I want to achieve now. When I go back to an office, I know that I can do things that add genuine value to my work.”
His wife has seen a massive change and calls him Rhys 2.0. “When I’m at home, I’m far more engaged with my daughter and not distracted. I’m definitely a lot calmer, too and don’t let little things – like someone tailgating me when I’m driving – bother me anymore.”
"A sabbatical can give you a new perspective on what’s really important."
With the six months at an end, Knight is in the final stages of interviewing for his next position.
Initially anxious about how people would view his career break and not wanting to take a step backwards in his career, he says reaction from employers has been enthusiastic, with many people saying they would like to do what he has done.
“I’m excited about going back to work and I haven’t felt that way in a long time. I think if I hadn’t taken time out, I might have burnt out and I’ll be more aware now if I start to go off the boil again. I definitely intend to take a sabbatical again in another 10 years or so.”
Executive sabbaticals are certainly more common than they were 20 years ago says Nick Waterworth, managing partner of Sydney-based executive search firm Watermark Search International. A sabbatical isn’t long-service leave but an extended period away from work, often with the consent of the employer.
“Employers are more open to the idea as there’s a belief that allowing executives to break from their career will keep them longer in the position – and if they don’t return from a sabbatical, perhaps it means they shouldn’t be doing the job,” he suggests.
For anyone contemplating a career break, Waterworth says, “it’s important to have something in mind to do because if you’re not careful, you blink, a couple of months have passed and you’ve done nothing. You want to have a plan, whether it’s to get fit, spend more time with the children or learn a language.”
Whatever reason you offer for wanting extended leave, he says, “don’t table it before you’ve had time to plan your approach and understand that in some instances your boss won’t like it, particularly if they’ve never done it before, but don’t let that put you off.”
Waterworth speaks from experience, having taken a career break back in 1998 after 17 years with the same company.
“I left my employer and the first six months off coincided with the birth of my first son. It was fantastic to be around for that and it’s something that a lot of dads don’t get.”
Waterworth planned to launch his own business with a colleague and believes that “it was an excellent process of clearing my mind; I did a lot of physical fitness as well and I’m certain that my ability to perform was improved by the break”.
If, like Waterworth, there’s no intention of returning to the same employer, then a break has to be planned for financially.
“If that’s what you want to do, particularly in today’s employment market, which isn’t terrible but neither is it great, be very cognisant that it’s not really a sellers’ market,” he says.
Make or break
A career break doesn’t have to mean a career breakdown or an ominous hole in the CV. “We have seen executives taking time out to focus on very different projects while waiting for their next opportunity to come along,” says Simon Lusty, Managing Director of Firebrand Talent in Sydney.
“If they hold a skill set that is in demand and have a proven track record of generating results, they should see no issue with re-entering the workforce.”
Andrew Chang, 43, is only 10 weeks into his year-long career break, having worked for 20 years in the banking sector, most recently at ANZ as Global Practice Leader. He’s already more relaxed, he says, having cut down from around 10 cups of coffee or tea to only one.
When the time comes to return to work, he’s reasonably confident that he will find another job but anticipates that it will be difficult to find one that pays the salary he’s been used to. However, the time off is already making him rethink his priorities.
“My career goals have changed and I’m considering whether to look for a job with less responsibility and stress. As long as I’m enjoying the role, then that’s fine for me,” he says.
It underlines a mass of research that suggests happiness and satisfaction at work are greater motivators than money. For a long period Chang says he hadn’t been enjoying work and when he bumped into a friend one lunch time and she asked him what was wrong because he looked so sad, he realised that he needed to take action.
Knight believes once someone realises that they need to disengage from work for a while, the most nerve-wracking part is to make that leap.
“It’s like sky diving: once you’re falling out of the plane, there’s nothing much you can do. You might as well just go with it.”
Negotiating sabbatical leave
Many larger companies have a written policy on sabbatical leave. Australian banking corporation Westpac, for example, offers employees 12 months paid leave in some circumstances or between three and 12 months unpaid leave. Some employers consider each request on a case-by-case basis so it’s still worth asking.
The website Meet Plan Go is a useful forum for people planning a career break. It has some tips on the best way to go about convincing your employer of the benefits of a sabbatical:
State clearly what you’re asking for (e.g. six months unpaid leave)
Outline why you merit the career break (contribution and achievements at the company)
State what you would gain as a result (skills, renewed motivation, personal growth, fitness)
Consider how your work might be covered while you are on leave. Be careful, however, that the restructuring that may be required to cover your absence doesn’t mean that your job is made obsolete.
Both employer and employee should agree in writing on expectations and assurances before entering into a sabbatical agreement, including guarantees, if any, regarding position and pay upon return to work.
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