Liz Neate took time off work to do voluntary work in Uganda © Charlie Bibby/FT
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In the pursuit of a good work/life balance, employees are increasingly opting for sabbaticals. They are taking unpaid leave — for weeks or even months — to recharge batteries, pursue a project or even change careers. And despite knowing that some staff will not return, a growing number of companies now offer opportunities to take a break.

If you feel it is time to take a break, how do you decide what type of break you need; how do you prepare; and how do you get the best out of your time off?

Emma Rosen, 26, is author of the Radical Sabbatical: The Millennial Handbook to the Quarter-life Crisis. She left a job she hated and used a sabbatical to try out 25 potential new career options.

Before leaving her job she still thought carefully about how she was going to spend her time and what she aimed to get out of it. “For me, going to a yoga retreat wasn’t going to solve the problem,” she says.

If you are considering time out because you are unhappy then it is important not to make any snap decisions, adds Ms Rosen, as it can be “quite hard to pick apart these feelings”. She advocates taking a week or a month to write a note at the end of each day. “Then you can have a more objective view.”

This will help you decide whether you just need a change of job or a new industry altogether.

If you want to take a “work”-based approach to your sabbatical, Ms Rosen suggests setting out what you enjoy doing and what sort of working environment you want, without any particular jobs in mind. Then you can use these criteria to help you seek out possible work options.

In Ms Rosen’s case, she also had to think about how she would sell her career break to a new employer. She believes there is a misconception that a sabbatical is a big holiday, so it is important to make it clear to employers what you have learnt, she says. It is easier to sell the hard skills and focus less on the soft.

“I learnt about social media, marketing and advertising. I’d learnt to work in an environment of constant change. I showed I had initiative and could challenge norms,” Ms Rosen adds. Following her experience, she is now a writer and speaker advocating for alternative ways of working.

Others just want a break and then to return to their original roles — but perhaps with different working arrangements.

Deloitte, the professional services firm, offers both unpaid leave and longer career breaks of up to two years to employees who have served three years or more. Emma Codd, the UK managing partner for talent, says some may think about what their next move might be once they are back in their job but quite often it is more a case of people wanting more flexibility on their return.

Liz Neate, an assistant director in financial advisory at Deloitte, took four months off to do volunteer work for The Land and Equity Movement of Uganda. She had been involved with the organisation — which helps to support Uganda’s poor to claim their land rights — since 2012 and had ambitions to live and work overseas.

“The only way to do that was to put a pause on my career,” she says.

As in the case of Ms Rosen, preparation is key. Ms Neate informed her team and started planning for the break six months before. “The projects I was working on were very long-term . . . so I had to give a lot of notice to my team,” she adds.

On returning to work, Ms Neate says one of the main benefits was renewed energy and perspective. “Stepping away for four months . . . I think it definitely refreshed my approach to my projects,” she says. The feeling of coming back to projects almost with new eyes “was really beneficial”.

There were also other unintended but positive consequences. Her colleagues and clients were interested in what she had been doing. She also started an arrangement with Deloitte that allows her to work 80 per cent of the year for the firm and the other 20 per cent working for Lemu.

Research suggests that companies also benefit. David Burkus, author and associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University, says sabbaticals allow employers to stress-test the company. Many organisations attempt to operate in as lean a way as possible in terms of headcount, he adds, and “a brief sabbatical allows an organisation to see if it could survive a more unexpected employee departure”.

And when managers and senior leaders take sabbaticals, Prof Burkus says “a company can try new talent in temporary leadership roles”.

Ms Codd says the benefit for the company is that people return feeling “raring to go”. “Employees come back really engaged with the firm and in a great place,” she says.

The downside to taking a sabbatical is loss of income. Even if you do not leave your job, extended time off is generally unpaid so you will need to have funding in place to support yourself.

Ms Rosen decided to leave her job completely, so had lived frugally and saved as much of her salary as she could in the months leading up to her sabbatical.

The downside for employers is the loss of an employee for a time, but, as Prof Burkus adds: “It would be better to know that in a temporary and reversible setting than to learn it the hard way should that employee depart permanently.”

Organisations and employees can clearly benefit from sabbaticals. Either they reconnect refreshed staff with their original companies, or are the impetus for a new direction for both parties: there might be a new corporate hire and a new job for the employee.

When employers realise the benefits of career breaks, they should create an environment where workers feel they can actually take time off. “People won’t take you up on it unless you have a culture that encourages people to feel able to do it,” Ms Codd says.

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