How to keep your job when you take a career break

Fancy a few months off work to tackle a big trip? Here's how to keep your career on-track when you take time out to travel

7 mins

When you're well into your professional stride with a career that’s taken time, energy and skill to build, having a long-term break can feel like a pipe dream. Sure, you'd like to ease off for a while, take a few months to fulfil some of those life-long travel ambitions – but won't your career suffer as a result?

Not necessarily so. Resist the temptation to throw in your resignation and hit the road – instead, take a more measured approach. You'll keep your professional prospects open and your career might even benefit from your travel experience. Here's how to make that career break dream come true...

You might not have to quit

Many corporate companies offer the option of a career break as part of a flexible employment package. If you are lucky enough to work for such a company, you’re well on your way. However, you will probably have to fulfil some set criteria. For instance, most career break-friendly companies expect you to have worked for them for at least two years before qualifying for an extended period of absence.

Many will only allow up to two years off and some place restrictions on what you’re allowed to do when you’re away (like undertaking paid work).

Some companies only give unpaid leave while others may continue to pay a percentage of your salary, or some of your domestic costs (a mortgage, for instance). This is normally only the case if you spend your career break doing voluntary work. Check if your company has signed up to a voluntary placement scheme, like a corporate partnership with VSO. This makes it easier to take short-term business and management placements in far-flung parts of the world.

Be aware, however, that most companies offering a career break will not hold open your old job – only a position and salary at the same level. You don’t have to be the office accountant to work out that the majority of companies do not take such an enlightened (and upfront) view of career breaks.

No sabbatical scheme? No worries...

Plenty of career breakers still manage to negotiate time out where no precedent exists. Sometimes this is easier in a larger company in which there might be more staff to cover for you. Conversely, a smaller company is often quicker to accept new ideas and be more flexible, especially when it comes to retaining good staff (even if it means letting them go for a period of time).

Whoever you work for and whatever the outcome, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying to negotiate a temporary break in your current employment, rather than a more permanent one.

So, when you are ready to broach the subject, remember to:

Do your homework Prepare a realistic business case for your career break. Above all, show what the benefits of taking a career break will be for your company and how you propose to overcome any problems it might present. Your solutions to any negative reasoning from your boss will prove invaluable and show that you have a serious, well-thought-out case for your career break. Rehearse your conversation, and be sure of what you’re asking for and of what you’ll accept.

Plan your timing First, decide how much warning to give your boss when you ask for a career break. Too much, and you risk writing yourself out of forward-planning meetings long before you’ve left. Too little, and there might not be enough time for the company to prepare for your absence. Most career breakers opt for between three and six months’ notice. Second, make sure you discuss your career break proposal at a time when your boss is most likely to be open and accommodating – this is probably not on Monday morning or after a long business trip.

Get it in writing However informal your company procedures, get the terms of your career break in writing. Nail down the exact conditions of key issues such as departure and return dates, any company funding or sponsorship, how your company benefits will be affected (holiday, pension, etc), and what salary and job you can expect upon your return.

Don’t alienate the management If the boss is spitting out your win-win career break scenario as opposed to swallowing it, then switch tactics and concentrate on keeping a good relationship with your manager. If you’re forced to resign, don’t leave on bad terms. You may not need your boss right now but you might when you’re looking for work on your return. Having said this, the vast majority of career breakers do end up resigning from their jobs. If complete freedom and total control is important, then it is often the only way.

Tips to keep your career on track

It isn’t just those taking a paid or unpaid sabbatical that have a soft professional landing when they return. Career breakers who quit their job in pursuit of their dreams can slip back into their professional lives just as easily. To maximise your chances, here are a few tips:

Spend one year or less away
Professionally, it is easier to pick up where you left off if you limit your career break to 12 months or less.

Maintain your contacts It is essential to keep in touch with your contacts while on your break. These are the people who’ll know of work and maybe offer you a job when you return.

Keep up-to-date with your profession Regularly read your trade magazine online.

Be positive Present your career break positively on your CV and talk about it enthusiastically in your job interviews. Stress what you learned, what you achieved, what you gained and what value this will be to your future employers. Feeling reinvigorated and fresh as a daisy will go a long way in making you stand out from a field of tired, drained applicants.

Use your break to change your career Some people take a career break to gain experience in a totally unrelated professional field so that they can break into a different sector upon their return.

Consider how your career break will look on your CV A future employer will look at how you chose to spend your career break. Some activities will enhance your CV – for example, learning a new skill (a language), working as a volunteer (either in a professionally related field or not), achieving personal goals (sailing around the world), or accomplishing an altruistic aim (cycling across Africa for charity). Bodybuilding on Venice Beach or bodysurfing in Bondi all year probably won't impress.

More career break inspiration & advice...

Career breaks: Why you should take one | We've busted the excuses
Career breaks: How to get started | Think big!
Managing your finances on a career break | Advice for UK citizens

Main image: Hikers at Loch Katrine, Highlands, Scotland (Shutterstock)

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