Will time out of work hurt your career?

Positive attitude, increased sense of confidence and enhanced work ethic are just some of the outcomes of a sabbatical that employees can bring back to the workplace.

An extended work break represents a chance to step off the corporate treadmill for greater personal development and enriching experiences but can a sabbatical jeopardise your career? Three experts debate.

Rachel Clements

Co-founder and director of psychological services and principal organisational psychologist at the Centre for Corporate Health and Resilia

Rachel ClementsSome organisations perceive sabbaticals as costly and disruptive to work and the maintenance of key client relationships. There may also be concern from an employee’s perspective, as they may believe that a period of absence may jeopardise their career progress.

Fortunately, however, when the circumstances are right, sabbaticals can have various benefits. They foster personal and professional development as the employee can gain new ideas and perspectives.

Sabbaticals can also be perceived as a way to relieve burnout in those in busy and demanding roles. Being removed from daily demands and pressure, employees may become more energised and committed after their leave. Extended breaks have been found to decrease stress levels and increase an employee’s psychological resources to cope with demands and pressures, as well as improve overall wellbeing.

“Being removed from  daily demands and pressure, employees may become more energised and committed after their leave.” Rachel Clements

Organisations can also benefit. The employee may return to their employer with new skills, such as a new language or a professional qualification. Research shows the majority of employees return from a sabbatical with positive attitudes, an increased sense of confidence and an enhanced work ethic.

Sure, there may be the possibility for sabbaticals to limit one’s career if the timing is not quite right and if the details are not communicated well, but the benefits can far outweigh the potential risks. 

Lorraine Farah

Global relationship and learning delivery executive at IBM

Lorraine FarahIBM doesn’t have a formal sabbatical program but has a global culture of supporting different ways to work. While not commonplace in Australia, the practice of taking time out for a sabbatical is quite acceptable. The process is managed between the local manager and the employee. 

I’m almost at the end of a six-month sabbatical from my role at IBM, where I have worked for 18 years. I felt like I was on an executive treadmill that kept getting faster. As a mother of three teenagers with a big job, it was hard to carve out time for me and it began to affect my health.

I was fortunate to have a very supportive boss. He showed no resistance; however, he did want assurance that I would come back! In my situation, my absence has been used to develop others and move work around.

Harvard Business Review: Research shows that organizations benefit when employees take sabbaticals 

So far, the sabbatical has opened my mind to new ideas for IBM and allowed me to look at the world through a different lens. I have stayed home and reconnected with things I love, such as yoga, running and meditation. I’ve learned new skills and gained an executive coaching accreditation. My weeks are full, yet I feel I’m off the treadmill.

“Before raising the idea of a sabbatical with your boss, my advice is to plan how your role could be handled while you’re away.” Lorraine Farah

Before raising the idea of a sabbatical with your boss, my advice is to plan how your role could be handled while you’re away. Point out that it can provide others with a development opportunity. I also suggest keeping in contact with selected work colleagues through coffees or phone calls – but not work email! 

I will go back to work with a new mindset that this “space” has cultivated.

Professional Development: Optimising your work/life balance: Taking control of your stress. This course will explain how the signs and symptoms of stress could be of physiological, behavioural, and psychological nature and where these stresses can come from.

Vanessa Hicks

General manager of human resources at Vodafone Hutchison Australia

Vanessa HicksI believe the business case for flexibility is simple. In my experience, employees who have greater flexibility at work are more engaged, have lower levels of absenteeism and feel there is a greater sense of wellbeing, both at work and at home. 

Flexibility comes in many different forms. This can mean something different to every person, depending on what their personal goals are and at what stage they are in their careers. That’s why at Vodafone Australia we offer a number of flexible leave options for our employees including career break leave, which allows people the opportunity to purchase a three- or six-month career break. 

Career breaks allow employees to pursue opportunities that are meaningful to them, for example, travelling, studying or working abroad. These life-enriching experiences obviously have huge benefits for the individual in terms of their personal growth. 

“Career breaks allow employees to pursue opportunities that are meaningful to them, for example travelling, studying or working abroad.” Vanessa Hicks

Giving our employees the chance to take a career break also benefits the company in terms of staff retention, and the insights and diversity the employee brings back to the business. 

I believe it’s really important to empower employees to work flexibly. This not only sets them up to be performing at their best, but also supports the balance that engages them and makes them proud to work at Vodafone.

The experts

Rachel Clements
Rachel Clements is the co-founder and director of psychological services and principal organisational psychologist at the Centre for Corporate Health and Resilia. The Centre for Corporate Health aims to help individuals and organisations increase emotional resilience and reduce workplace stress. Resilia is a nationally accredited rehabilitation provider specialising in the recovery of employees who have suffered psychological injury or mental health issues at work. Clements is a registered psychologist with the NSW Psychology Board and is a member of the Australian Psychological Society and Specialist College of Organisational Psychologists.

Lorraine Farah
Lorraine Farah is IBM’s global relationship and learning delivery executive. She led the execution of IBM’s Enterprise Learning Agenda and has worked in retail management, banking and HR in the finance and technology industries. She promotes the development of female executives and is passionate about the impact strong leadership can have on a business.

Vanessa Hicks
Vanessa Hicks is the general manager of human resources at Vodafone Hutchison Australia. Hicks is responsible for driving an inclusive, diverse and flexible culture. She is devoted to making Vodafone one of Australia’s best places to work.

Read next: Can a shorter work week help work-life balance?


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August 2017
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