16 November 2005
by Rob Griffin
Are you feeling stuck-in-a-rut? Is work getting you down? Well, why not swap the boring nine to five for trekking through the Himalayas or working on an environmental project in Mongolia? Taking a career break has become an increasingly popular trend. An estimated six million people in the UK have quit their jobs to travel around the world in recent years, according to a new survey from Direct Line Travel Insurance.
Those working in media, advertising, tourism and aerospace engineering were the most likely to get itchy feet, according to the study, with Australia and New Zealand high on the list of destinations.
The findings don’t come as a surprise to Charlotte Hindle, coordinating author of The Career Break Book. Taking a sabbatical is no longer a luxury reserved only for gap year students, she says. Professionals in their 30s and 40s are just as keen to recharge their batteries.
“People take breaks for a variety of reasons and it’s a very good way of re-prioritizing their lives,” she says. “Some are dissatisfied with the career path they are following, while others are just unhappy with the organization they’re working for.”
The most common way of spending this free time, adds Hindle, is through a combination of volunteer work, learning a new skill – such as a language – and some independent travel.
However, the secret to a successful career break is in the planning. We have consulted leading experts in personal finance, taxation, property and employment to compile a list of key areas you need to consider.
Consider your options
A career break is a period of unpaid leave from work – usually up to five years – which has been agreed with your employer who will guarantee you a similar role on your return. Pay and benefits will normally stop during this period.
Sabbaticals, on the other hand, are periods of time off in addition to your annual holiday entitlement, and usually awarded on the basis of length of service. They can be paid, unpaid or partly paid.
The third option is just to give up altogether and hope you can find a new job when you return to the world of work. Consider your personal circumstances. Are you looking for a career change or do you just want time away? How long do you want off and how will you fill your time? Do you want to learn new skills or work as a volunteer on an overseas charity project? If you’re stuck for inspiration, have a look at career break websites. Once you have an idea what to do, you can start pursuing the dream.
Talk to your employer
Apart from the new parental leave regulations – where you can take off up to 13 weeks for each child – you don’t have any legal entitlement to a break from work, says Jonathan Swan, information and policy officer at Working Families. It comes down to negotiating with your boss.
“The problem is there are no hard and fast rules so you’ve got to be sure of your worth to the company,” he says. “You’ll need to sell the idea to your employer that time away will enhance your skills and benefit their business.”
Although a survey by the Confederation of British Industry found one in four companies offered breaks, the terms of these packages vary enormously.
Check your bank balance
Carefully planning your finances is essential before you pack in work, insists Anna Bowes of independent financial adviser Chase de Vere, regardless of whether or not your time off is being paid for by the boss.
“It won’t be any fun taking a break from work if you go into debt,” she says. “You’ll need to make sure your mortgage payments are covered and that you have enough savings to pay the bills. It could be worth setting up a number of direct debits to ensure you don’t fall behind."
Another important consideration is whether taking a sabbatical will impact upon any income protection policies you have taken out. Check the small print and, if in any doubt, give your insurance company a ring to clarify the position.
It’s also worth sparing a thought for your pension planning, says Mark Dampier at independent financial adviser Hargreaves Lansdown. “If it’s a company policy you should see if it is affected in any way and whether you can make up any shortfalls,” he says. “You should also see if your life insurance will be affected.”
The good news is that going away doesn’t always mean missing out financially – even if your company stops your wages – as you might qualify for an income tax rebate.
“If you took a few months off at the end of the tax year then you might not have received the full benefit entitlement which means the Inland Revenue could owe you money,” explains John Whiting, tax partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “However, if you are self-employed then it won’t make much difference because you’ll simply be paying less tax because you’re not earning as much.”
You will also need to decide how to fund your travels as the average 12-month break costs between£11,000 and £15,000. Have you got enough? Is it possible to borrow the money from a friend? Can you afford a bank loan?
People renting out their homes while they go travelling is fairly common, says Malcolm Harrison, spokesman for the Association of Residential Letting Agents. The important thing, however, is to appoint a reputable agent who can look after your home while you’re not on hand to supervise tenants.
“An agent will make sure the rent is being paid on time and are there to sort out any problems for the tenant,” he explains. “Before you go, you’ll have to let your mortgage and insurance companies know what you are doing.”
As well as generating extra income, letting out your home may enable you to claim a rebate on your council tax and television licence.
Even so, there are things to consider before going down this route. For example, even if you want your house vacated after three months, tenants actually have the legal right to stay for up to six months as long as they are paying their rent on time.
Also, if your travelling plans suddenly hit a snag and you need to return home, where will you live? Where are you going to store your personal items while you’re abroad?
The amount of time required to organize your break may seem daunting but it’s an essential part of the process, says Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, founder of www.thecareerbreaksite.com. “Every five minutes you spend planning may save hundreds of pounds,” she says. “You will probably only taken one career break so you don’t want to spend it worrying about things at home.”
Searching for cut-price flights, finding affordable accommodation and taking out travel insurance can result in substantial savings. If you are going abroad it could be worth getting a credit card with the Nationwide Building Society, according to Peter Gerrard, senior researcher at Moneysupermarket.com. “You’ll be guaranteed not to pay excessive charges,” he said. “Nationwide doesn’t charge for credit card transactions and only 1.5 per cent (minimum £1.50) for cash withdrawals.”
Don't be afraid
When accountant Leighanne Springate, 30, was granted a six-week unpaid sabbatical, she used the time to fulfil her long-standing dream of visiting Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “My boss gave me the break as an incentive because I had been with the company for almost six years and had been working hard on my accountancy exams.”
Leighanne, who lives in London, saved money by moving into cheaper housing for three months leading up to her departure and used her savings to fund the £3,000 trip.
“I thought I was going to hate going back to work but it actually made me realise how much I enjoyed my job,” she says. “The trip gave me a good break and allowed me to think about where I was in my life.”
Similarly, Tim Burrows has taken three career breaks as a volunteer for youth development charity Raleigh International and says the experiences have changed his life.
The 40-year-old self-employed tree surgeon, who lives in Belfast, initially signed up for a four-month trip to Namibia back in 2001. And he enjoyed it so much he ended up going to Borneo for five months in 2003 and has recently got back from Chile. “My role was to teach the participants basic building skills so they could complete projects for the local communities and help develop their teamwork and leadership skills,” explained Tim. He recommends that anyone looking for a life-altering challenge should consider signing up for a Raleigh trip.