Career breaks for over-45s

Posted on: 12 January 2010 by Mark O'haire

All sorts of people can benefit from a career break, according to a new web resource.

More and more British workers are taking career breaks - one study reported that three-quarters of the workforce was thinking about it.

But if you’re in your late 40s or early 50s, a career break could prove difficult. You might not want to wait until you retire, but then, you don’t want to take a step of the corporate ladder in case you can’t get back on again. But help is at hand. We’ll show you a few things you can do, so even if you don’t end up taking a career break, at least you’ll have tried!

First, make sure you’re clear in your mind about what obstacles you’re facing. Once you start tackling them, you may find that they are not as big as you imagine, or you will find ways around them.

The first thing you can do is find out what the company policy and attitude are with regard to career breaks.

  • If someone else at your company has taken a career break, speak to them about it (even if their circumstances are different from your own) Get hold of your company handbook and see what (if anything) it says about career breaks or sabbaticals.
  • Sound out the HR manager and/or your boss, if you can do this without raising suspicion (perhaps mentioning a friend at another company who is taking a career break).

Then, decide what your approach is going to be. Your basic options are:

  • Request a paid sabbatical
  • Request an unpaid sabbatical
  • Resign (then look for another job when you get back)

It is worth mentioning that paid sabbaticals are quite unusual, even if you’re not being paid your full salary. They are generally only available to people who’ve been with the company for a long time. Even for an unpaid sabbatical, most companies require you to have been working there for at least 2 years.

If you decide to ask for an unpaid sabbatical, make sure you’re flexible about when you go. It’s also a good idea to give as much notice as possible (3 - 6 months). Try to understand your boss’s point of view, and show how your career break will help the company. For example:

  • You will develop useful skills which you can bring back to the company (eg communication)
  • You can learn skills that you can’t learn in your current job (eg negotiation)
  • You may also learn practical skills (eg a language)

You may also note that it could be cheaper for them to allow you to take your unpaid sabbatical, than it is for you to resign and for them to recruit someone else. You might like to make suggestions for a temporary replacement if that is necessary - this will show that you’re trying to make it as easy as possible for them.

If you’re granted a sabbatical, congratulations! Make sure you get the terms of your sabbatical in writing, and remember to ask the following questions:

  • Can I do other paid work? (Usually not unless it’s for a charity - and make sure this covers voluntary work where you might be paid expenses or ‘pocket money’)
  • Is my job guaranteed when I come back? If so, is it at the same salary as when I left? (It’s unlikely you’ll get a pay rise if you’re away at review time).
  • Can we discuss my other company benefits? (Eg, your company car, gym membership etc).
  • Will I be able to rejoin the company pension scheme? If not, is it possible to freeze or reduce payments for the duration of my career break?

Decide what you want, and what you’ll settle for. If you can’t reach an agreement with your employer, and you absolutely have to take a career break, you may choose to resign.

If you do resign, you might be concerned about getting another job when you get back. Make sure you have enough savings to tide you over for a few months when you return from your career break, while you look for a new job. Do a little research into your industry before making your decision. If it’s booming, you might feel you have nothing to worry about, but if there’s been a recent downturn, you may be reluctant to let go of the security of your job. Don’t forget though, that many career breakers don’t stay in the same industry but do something completely different when they return. Some set up their own businesses, some go into a different career - and some don’t come back at all!

What you really need to decide is what is most important to you - and once you’ve done that, you’re already halfway there!

This article was written by Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, founder of The Career Break Site.

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