Fast Track: How will you fill the gap?

A six-month sabbatical from work - it sounds like a dream, but it could be part of your job contract.
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The Independent Culture
Taking a gap year, employers are increasingly recognising, is not such a bad thing. If you've travelled, you'll have gained independence, a sense of adventure and an appetite for challenge. And even if you spent it at home, you're likely to have gained some kind of additional expertise.

Imagine, then, how much more employers could gain from providing their staff with a chance to take a break during employment. "One assumption is that they'll lose money as well as suffering from employees losing touch in their absence," explains Angela Baron of the Institute of Personnel and Development. "But more and more organisations are realising that it allows employees to take time to self-develop, to fulfil their dreams, and to return to work with renewed enthusiasm."

Apple Computer is perhaps at the forefront of sabbatical programmes in the UK. After five years' service, it forces staff members to take a one- month paid break, on to which they can add annual leave. "It gives people a chance to do that Australia trip, or take up a course," says a spokesperson. "And we gain, because it induces staff to stay with the company as well as working hard because there's such a generous reward. For some, it's more enticing than a promotion."

Likewise, at McDonald's, a paid leave of eight weeks is given to employees with ten years' service. "Often, employees simply use the time to reflect what direction their career is going in - so when they return, we have the benefit of getting the very best out of them," comments spokeswoman Fenella Burns.

Even career breaks - which are generally longer than sabbaticals as well as being unpaid - can benefit companies enormously, says Angela Baron. "If the choice is between losing a good employee that you've invested a lot of effort and money in training, or allowing them a year off to climb a mountain or bring up their kids, there shouldn't be any contest."

Tesco, for instance, finds its enhanced career-break scheme an effective way to retain people with skills and knowledge, as well as avoiding any costs of recruiting newcomers. Like most schemes, the supermarket chain's allows qualifying candidates to take up to five years off work.

Naturally, many employers require a formal interview first. In this case, says Jean Balcombe of the Industrial Society, it is essential to identify your real value to your employer; the costs he or she would have in replacing you; your skills, experience and knowledge; and how your plans fit into your employers' future development and planned growth. "Where possible, suggest doing a number of job assignments in your absence - keeping you up-to-date with changes," says Balcombe.

Gillian Cann, 37, recently took a five-year career break from her job at Abbey National. "You've got to be pro-active about keeping in touch - it's so easy to lose confidence when you're away from your desk, especially when, like me, you've spent the time at home bringing up children."

It's also essential to ensure that employers make careful plans for your return. Rachel Howarth, 28, took eight months off in 1997, after working as a customer services manager at Tesco for 18 months. "Upon my return, I was given instant advice on relevant opportunities - and soon after, was promoted to personnel manager in a bigger store, and am set to become store manager in 12 months' time. I guess Tesco realised that there is a lot of competition in the retail market for head-hunting staff, and they were careful not to let that happen with me. It's worked, because they've been so caring that I wouldn't want to work anywhere else."

Perhaps surprisingly, some organisations have an extremely low take-up rate for career breaks. This is certainly the case at county council offices. Similarly, at Unilever, it is reported that very few male employees take up the option, while women only tend to use the break if they're having children.

"Many people - especially graduate recruits who have not been with the company long - may be concerned about not feeling needed," explains organisational psychologist, Mary Aitkinhead.

Another explanation is that, in an uncertain job market, employees are concerned that the job may not be there when they return, or that their replacement may prove more competent. There is also, of course, the potential loss of income, even in paid leave, if large bonuses or individual performance related pay is a normal feature of employment. And there are some drawbacks for the employer, such as the danger that disgruntled staff will take a sabbatical or break and then resign.

Nevertheless, research carried out by Conference Board recently found that over 24 per cent of participating US organisations now offer such breaks, and Britain is not far behind. "Graduates are at a particular advantage," says careers adviser Camilla Saunders. "Not only because they have the opportunity to take a belated gap year, but also because it's an excellent opportunity to step in and prove yourself as a replacement when you hear that a colleague in a higher position is taking leave of absence."