The ins and outs of career breaks

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The emergence in the 1960s of the GAP year as a rather wacky, pioneering approach to learning more about oneself as a young adult has now become the norm rather than the exception. These days it’s clear that many adults are also reflecting on what they really want from life and work on a deeper level than ever before, with generational differences and expectations about the nature of a lifetime career also exerting an influence.

A career break whether for rest and recreation, recharging batteries or learning new skills is a potentially valuable opportunity for people to get the outcome they want. The break needn’t be year – it could be a day a week over two years. 

Employers have embraced and adopted a range of approaches with retention of key talent frequently a driver. My own experience has ranged from sponsoring a two-week school construction exercise in Namibia run by Raleigh International for high potential individuals to an opportunity to ‘save’ a proportion of annual leave for a subsequent career sabbatical. The latter scheme came to an end when it became clear that some long-serving individuals were using this as a means of bringing their retirement forward by some months! 

This does raise the issue of the ‘Return on Me’ the individual may be expecting from their job and career and the ‘Return from You’ the employer is anticipating. So maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that the reaction of one’s employer may not always be encouraging – which for some people may be no bad thing. It’s important for the organisation and the individual to understand both motives and anticipated outcomes and benefits. Arguably even more so in the case of the newly redundant, where time out to review career options may not provide the right environment to consider future options. The paradox is that without sufficient planning, what seems a great idea – and potentially a life changing experience – can fail to meet, let alone match expectations. 

So how should the HR function respond to requests for a career break? For each individual seeking time to discuss a career break there may well have been others - seen as having a future in the business – who decide to go walkabout with no discussion at all. How can we help people work out whether this idea really is the right thing at the right time? In reality this is an area where line managers and HR need to have a shared sense of the criteria used to determine the appropriateness of career breaks and the process by which requests are validated. The key need is to recognise that the lack of any opportunity for a continuing and constructive dialogue about career opportunities will sometimes be the trigger that initiates the process of disengaging – whether in the shape of a career break or starting the search for a job elsewhere.

The typology below may ring a few bells: 

  • The Absconder – ‘I need to get to place where I can reflect and take stock’. Doesn’t always get that far, and for a short while becomes
  • The Happy Hippy – reliving a past that never really happened; after a month or so becomes
  • The Unhappy Hippy aka The Drifter – uncertain of purpose, and not too certain how he/she got into this mess. As they become more uncertain likely to become more preoccupied with money and stress than ever before
  • The Traveller – aims to embark on a journey to look, listen and learn through exploration of new cultures and renewing contact with those previously enjoyed. Can be very productive if based on firm foundations and for someone who knows their own limitations; a six-month Trans-African camping expedition is not for everyone, particularly immediately after a divorce, redundancy or other shock
  • The Learner – wants to develop new skills or to enhance old ones. Has thoroughly researched available programmes and has a budget! Vast opportunities available, but requires lots of self-discipline
  • The Improver – stretch yourself and take your ambition to a new level. There may be less to talk about when you return, but self-improvement provides its own reward
  • The Contributor – putting something back through voluntary work need not include travel, although there are now many opportunities to combine travel with volunteer work. Opportunities closer to home through charities provide endless scope to make a difference
  • The Reformer – changing and campaigning – supporting a cause with time and or money
  • The Builder – putting down foundations and stimulating growth - in some cases literally putting down foundations and building one’s own home. This may also be the time when a hobby begins to emerge as a business opportunity or a second career
  • The Adventurer – aims to get out there and enjoy things. Not to be confused with The Absconder, this individual is self-aware and has realistic expectations, and is much more likely to gain from the experience

Many managers know surprisingly little about the pattern of career moves and motivations of their people. A dialogue based on a ‘Career CV’ focussed on an individual’s direction of travel, their likes and dislikes can put the desire for a career break into a clearer context. Based on a number of themes, notably the reasons for moving on from previous roles and lessons learned, the process evokes a level of discussion that will be markedly different from the one that is played out in selection interviews and performance reviews. Here the focus is on understanding the rationale for the actions taken rather than an assessment of their appropriateness. This biographical look at an individual’s progress and experience may trigger thoughts by both the manager and the individual about future roles which could potentially suit their skill set. It may also highlight the difference between an ‘Absconder’ or ‘Adventurer’!

Stuart’s new book - Successful Career Management - will be published in June 2014 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon. Among his previous incarnations is Executive Board Member for HR at Swiss Re Life & Health and Global HR Director at GE SeaCo.


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