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Weighing the Pros and Cons of a Career Break

Career breaks have never been more popular, as overworked employees look for some time away from their same old, same old routine. Most often people have one of two motivations for taking time off: either other priorities demand attention, or there’s a need to get away and gain some perspective about career direction. There are many positive reasons to consider taking a break: starting a family is the most common one, but caring for family members, traveling, going back to school, or even scratching an entrepreneurial itch can set people thinking along these lines.

Sometimes we just want a break from the parts of our jobs we don’t like. Office politics, pressure, or periods of upheaval can take their toll, and some time out allows us to rest up, recharge our batteries, and revisit our core values.

If you decide to take a career break, you should consider what your options will be once you return. You may come back with a fresh outlook, yearning for new challenges. Many companies now are willing to look favorably on career breaks, and some organizations—reluctant to lose the investment they’ve already made in you—may agree to breaks hoping you’ll eventually return to employment with new skills and an increased zest for work.

What You Need to Know
While it would be difficult to justify time off doing nothing as a brilliant career move, attaining some personal goals during your break could actually give your career a boost. Others will respond positively to your having had the tenacity and initiative to pursue a dream. That said, take care to stress clearly and positively what you’ve gained from your break when you’re refreshing your résumé. Emphasise the benefits when you describe what you’ve been doing, and quantify your achievements if possible. For example, if you have a talent for financial management and you spent some time volunteering abroad for a charitable organisation, you could say: “I helped to apply for and secure government funding for a clean water initiative. The provision of ten new water pumps brought clean water to more than 500 people.”

Will my skills become outdated?
Unless you work in a very technical environment, in most cases, a year away from a job won’t have that dramatic an impact on the skills you offer. The longer you’re away, though, the more you’ll need to do to get back up to speed and get on top of current trends and developments.

Some industries are also better attuned to the needs of returning workers than others. For example, it’s so crucial to keep trusted employees in the healthcare profession that some employers not only have no problem with workers taking an extended break, but will also pay for them to train during their break or when they get back. In other areas, it may be up to you to take the initiative in getting yourself back up to speed. For more specific advice on this area, talk to the relevant managers in your company or organization, or contact an industry body for advice. If you belong to a labor union or professional organization, they may also be able to help.

Talk It Over with Family and Friends
It’s not just you who may be affected by your career break, especially if you have dependents, so talk through your plans with the important people in your life and make sure that you have their backing before you put your ideas into action. You can, of course, ignore what they say if they don’t back you up, but you should ask yourself whether your break is more important to you than your relationship with that person (or those people). Perhaps there’s a compromise solution to be found?

Once you’ve fully decided to go ahead with your career break plans, the next person to deal with is your employer.

Be as clear as you can be about what you want when you raise the issue with him or her and take some notes as prompts if you need to. Plan what you’re going to say so that you’re not vague about what you’re asking for: in particular, be clear about how long you plan to be away, how likely it is that you can come back to your current job, what will happen with pay and benefits, and so on.

Unless you’ve been trailing the idea for some time, remember that your announcement may come as a shock, so don’t be surprised if your boss is unenthusiastic about the idea, at least at first. To help them out, make the idea seem as attractive and realistic as possible and explain the benefits your break will bring both for you and for the organization. Make a case that would encourage your employer to get behind your request. Let’s say you’ve been wanting to learn Chinese for some time. You work for a multinational organisation, so you could say that the skills you’ll gain on your break will be useful when you return, as you’d be able to communicate more quickly and work more effectively with your organisation’s branches mainland China.

However you phrase your request, your employer may be prepared to accept your request, or suggest a compromise. Be flexible and carefully consider any counter-offers you receive. If your request is coming completely out of the blue, it might be useful to e-mail your boss about your idea first, giving just a rough outline that you can talk about in more detail: this may lessen the shock somewhat when you discuss it in person.

Be Prepared in case your request is turned down
It is possible, of course, that things may not go according to plan. If you receive a flat “no” to your request, take a few deep breaths and find out what prompted that response. Providing for career breaks is usually at the discretion of your employer, but if they are available only for maternity leave or only to people at a certain level within the organisation, you may be able to prove discrimination

Now is the time to look back over the notes you took when you were daydreaming about your career break and to begin to prioritize your objectives. Which are most important to you? These are the basics of what you hope to achieve. You’ll also need to come up with contingency plans for dealing with any obstacles you could hit. You won’t be able to plan for every possible situation, of course, but thinking about the most obvious ones (what will you do if you lose your passport/money/ID documents?) will make your plan more realistic.

Investigate the gap between where you are now and where you want to be, as well as a time frame to get there. As you make your plans, try to break them up into small sections, with milestones along the way. For example, if you want to take on humanitarian work overseas, your first section will be to find out which organizations operate in the area you want to visit, and the first milestone will be to find out how they recruit or assess volunteers.

Having a plan is a great way of moving toward your goals, but you can be flexible: don’t worry if you need to change it. For example, you may decide to rethink your objectives or some of the steps along the way as a result of experiences you have early on. It’s okay to make these changes, as long as you remain focused on your general plan.

If you’re going to leave your existing job when you go on your break, you want to head off under the best possible circumstances so that you’re in line for an excellent reference. This also leaves you the option of being able to apply to your previous employer for work at some point in the future.

It’s even more crucial to hand over well and finish up any key projects before you go if you think you’d like to return to your job. Train your temporary replacement as well as possible so that there is a smooth transition, and also create a list of key contacts and duties well in advance of your leaving date so that coworkers have a useful reference. If possible, schedule a crossover period during which your successor can shadow you around the office to see what the nuts and bolts of your job really are.

Reference: CNET Networks courtesy of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Jamaica
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