You've got to admit it: there's a certain appeal. Photo: Shutterstock

Friday 10th June 2016

Indian summers

Thinking about a mid-life sabbatical?

Sabbaticals — bible-speak for a career break — are something most people think about quite a lot. Not necessarily the specifics and the preparation, though. More idle speculation on topics such as “Man, I sure wish I was tobogganing down Everest and not at my stupid desk.” and “I would be so much happier if I could finally go pro with my nose flute.”

Unfortunately, working and maintaining your career has a way of stomping all those little pipe (and flute) dreams into pieces. And since the retirement age will probably be 105 by the time you manage to give it all up, you’ll find yourself not quite up to a whistle stop world tour or the extreme breakdance lessons you once daydreamed about taking, and regret not finding the time to cross off some of those bucket list boxes when you had the time and muscle tone.

Research by Investec Wealth Management suggests that one third of us are planning to take a sabbatical, in later life, before we retire. Whatever the case, here are a few tidbits about sabbaticals to mull over, whether you’re thinking of taking one or are looking to deal with those that are.

What are sabbaticals used for?

Just over half of sabbaticals taken are used for travel.

Attenborough: it's his fault. Pic: Mike Dixson
Attenborough: it’s his fault. Pic: Mike Dixson

Our own research suggests roughly 100% of those travel sabbaticals happen after watching a David Attenborough show on the Beeb, or reading a NatGeo in a waiting room.

Aside from checking out those polar ice caps while you still can, taking time out for your family is another common reason to request a sabbatical, as is intending to learn or develop a skill/talent. See above: nose fluting.

When is the best time to take a sabbatical?

This is a question with a number of answers. From an employer’s point of view, it would be during a time where the loss of a staff member would not be a grievous loss, or when that employee has become fatigued and/or uninterested in their work.

From an employee’s point of view, you would ideally have been working where you are for a number of years. That is leverage in itself — replacing and training a replacement you will be costly and a hassle. We also think it might be bad form to sit down on your first day and ask for a sabbatical. Probably.

Aside from that, the obvious answer is: when you feel you need it.

There is the third way too: taking a sabbatical between jobs, rather like a gap year between school and university. This runs the risk of your next potential employer seeing your “sabbatical” as a convenient labelling for being unable or unwilling to find work, however.

How long is a sabbatical?

How long? Pic: Elizabeth Ellis
How long? Pic: Elizabeth Ellis

How long is a piece of string? Probably not more than a metre, if we’re being reasonable. Who carries around metre sized pieces of string? And in the same way, sabbaticals are probably not longer than a year. They can even be a few weeks. The sweet spot is usually between 6 months and one year, though.

Should a person be paid on their sabbatical?

Paid sabbaticals are a rare beast, like a Michelin starred restaurant that serves pizza. You’ll probably never see one, but you should definitely take advantage if you do.

How does this get formalised?

Whether you are being approached or doing the approaching (either way, HR is involved), if there is going to be a sabbatical, the arrangement should be put down in writing. That way neither party can renege on their side of the deal half a year later.

What are the potential benefits of sabbaticals?

They vary immensely: from peace of mind and stress relief, through to skills development, an increase in company loyalty, re-energised performance, and a more positive perception of the company.

A person may end up accumulating a lot of personal commitments and distractions out of work that end up impacting performance. Being able to take a big chunk of time off to sort things out is valuable to an employer as much as an employee.

Sometimes a full reboot is the best solution, and works better than a hundred little changes.

What are the potential drawbacks of sabbaticals?

It can disrupt a system that works and causes bureaucratic headaches such as: who will cover their work, what if they are urgently needed for some business issue, and will they slot back in without issues at the end of their sabbatical?

Cary Cooper. Pic: Monika Flueckiger
Cary Cooper. Pic: Monika Flueckiger

For individuals, Professor Cary Cooper warns, “Go for too long and you will worry about the politics back in the organisation when you come back.”

Not only that, but too long away and you may find yourself out of date, and out of good working habits.

As working life trends towards being more flexible and permissive, in matters of where you work and how long you work, as well how long you stay with an employer, it seems inevitable that sabbaticals too will rise to the fore as a more oft-taken career move — no longer primarily the preserve of universities.

As such, it’s worth brushing on what’s what when it comes to handing them out, as well as considering for yourself whether you would take one, and what you would use it for. The chances that you’ll take one in your career are on the rise.

About the author

Jerome Langford

Jerome is a graduate in Philosophy from St Andrews, who alternately spends time writing about HR and staring wistfully out of windows, thinking about life’s bigger questions: Why are we here? How much lunch is too much lunch? What do you mean exactly by ‘final warning’?