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Should I take a sabbatical from work?

You may be craving palm trees and sandy beaches, but is it the right move for you long-term?
You may be craving palm trees and sandy beaches, but is it the right move for you long-term?
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Even the lucky few among us who really, really love their jobs occasionally dream of taking a break from the hustle and bustle of working life. For those who aren’t so head over heels about their roles, thoughts of taking a sabbatical can come fairly regularly. Occasionally in a career, the stars may align in just such a way that those daydreams actually become feasible. Still, most are hesitant to follow through with taking time off from their careers – and with good reason. The idea behind a sabbatical is the intent to return when it’s over, but in the competitive job market there are no guarantees that you’ll have anything to return to when the time comes to wade back out into those waters. Still, it can be done – and it is, frequently. Whether you’d like to take the time to pursue a passion, have children, continue your education, spend time with family, or just relax and catch your breath, you can gain quite a bit by sacrificing a few short months, or even a few years, of your career. So the question becomes, even if you have the means and the will to take the coveted furlough, is it the right decision?

As with most difficult life questions, there is no easy answer. You intuitively know that rejoining the workforce after a significant period of time off is no easy task. Still, taking some time for yourself is important, and it can be very rewarding to give yourself enough time to pursue a meaningful goal. The thing to determine before you take that leap is whether or not you truly have the means to take the time off. You have to include the unknowns in this equation; if you don’t find a job right away once you’ve determined you need to get back to work, will you be able to sustain yourself? You must also think about the emotional toll. A break might seem like a great idea, but it may turn out that all you really needed was a vacation. Some good, old fashioned self-reflection is necessary. Many people find that they just can't stomach not working and that they will become antsy and feel unfulfilled without their careers. Once you’ve determined that you can reasonably take a career recess from a financial and an emotional perspective, you must then start the process of determining how to best set yourself up for reentry.

The first thing to be cognizant of when taking a sabbatical is how you’re going to frame it when the time does come to start hitting the job interview circuit once again. Saying, “I took a year off to pursue my Master’s Degree” (or start a family, or travel the world, or be with my aging parents) is going to sound a lot better to a hiring manager than saying, “I took a year off because I was burnt out.” Burnout is understandable, but that’s going to plant the seed in his or her mind that you may be easily overwhelmed or flaky. You’re already going to be at a disadvantage, looking to rejoin the workforce after a significant break, so make sure you set yourself up for success. Be sure to secure references from your employer upon leaving, to show that you did so on good terms and out of your own volition. This also means that, no matter how tempting it may be, you shouldn’t just take three months off to re-watch the entire Deep Space Nine Series. Doing something meaningful and rewarding, such as a mission trip, consulting for a non-profit or in an industry that you really love, continuing your education, or being home with your children while they’re young will show a potential boss that you’re passionate about things, and most importantly that you didn’t just skip out of the talent pool because you could, but rather to pursue one of those passions. Future bosses are going to be concerned with your long-term potential, so make sure to be direct about the break and let them know that you are looking to focus once again on your career, now that you’ve taken your break, and that you have no intentions of exiting the workforce again anytime soon.

The next thing to think about when planning a career break are your expectations for rejoining the ranks of the employed. When you’re searching for a new job opportunity from a place of gainful employment, you can reasonably expect a significant salary and responsibility increase for your next move. That is not the case when you’re searching after a stretch of unemployment or under-employment. Don’t expect to waltz through the door of your next employer and start negotiating salary based on where you were at your last company. Understand that, in order to get your foot back in the door of the working world, you may have to come in at a lower rate of pay or in a lessened capacity than you are used to. This is just the price of getting to pursue your dreams and shouldn’t be seen as a setback. Let potential employers know that, while you’d like to return to a comparable place as your last role, you are flexible on your conditions for the right job. Frame these expectations by drawing attention to your ambitions and make it clear that you have every intention of rising through the ranks and back to your previous level. This is a fine line to walk, however, because taking a step too far back can hinder your career in the long run. Before you begin your sabbatical, you must first determine where you’d like to be upon reentry and where you’re willing to make concessions or compromises. You can afford to be picky since, as you’ll remember, you have already determined that you can afford not to be rehired immediately, should a suitable fit take a while to find.

If all of the countless moving parts in your life do happen to line up in such a way that it might be possible for you to finally take that break you’ve been dreaming of, then you owe it to yourself to give it some due diligence. It’s an absolutely liberating and fulfilling experience to take some time off and truly live life on your own terms, but you have to do so methodically. As long as you keep in mind how your actions could impact you in the future and make sure you are ready to communicate your position to potential employers before you hand in that letter of resignation, you’ll set yourself up to not only make the most out of a well-deserved break, but also give your career the jump start it is going to need to keep going when the time comes to focus once more on work.