A year of living differently

Rat race getting you down? Running away from it all could be the best career move you ever made, says Elisabeth Winkler

I wake up every weekday feeling drained,'' says Suzanne, a legal executive. ''The thought of going to work fills me with dread and my eczema has got worse. I long for time off but I can't afford to stop. I feel trapped and depressed.'' Suzanne is exhibiting classic signs of burn-out, the exhaustion phase of occupational stress, when working life is having a damaging effect on mental and physical health.

For some people, feeling ground down by work is not in their job description. They have become part of a growing movement that places a higher value on lifestyle, and are choosing to do other things than grimly hang on indefinitely. In the Sixties it was called dropping out. The Nineties version is called a sabbatical, during which you can recharge your batteries while enhancing your position in the market place.

Every year two per cent of Britain's GNP is lost through occupational stress. This figure only registers days off sick and experts agree that it's only the tip of the iceberg. ''It's short-termism and counter-productive to exploit employees,'' says Ben William, an Edinburgh-based chartered psychologist. ''A sabbatical is part of a more positive approach to managing stress and is more cost-effective than paying out on redundancy fees, recruitment and training someone new. When an employee comes back recharged, not only is company loyalty increased but optimum performance is restored.''

''In a global market, we can't afford to get stale. I have argued for years that we should have a national sabbatical system,'' says Professor Cary Cooper, the occu- pational stress expert based at Umist. ''Employees need to be exposed to new ideas; industry benefits when a person returns to their post stimulated, retrained, rejuvenated.''

In 1994 Guy Jarvis took a year's unpaid leave as a science teacher to obtain a Mountain Instructor's Award. His secondary school lost nothing and gained a teacher with a climbing certificate. ''My gap-year between school and university had opened doors in my mind and I needed a similar life-changing experience,'' says Guy, 31. ''I purposefully didn't teach and concentrated on climbing, which I love. Financially it was a struggle but I knew my bank balance would fill up once I started work again so I didn't worry unduly. When I was in Nepal, everything came into focus. It's such a special, unmaterialistic place that all my old concerns dropped away. I felt centred, able to make clear decisions. I had been considering a career change but I missed teaching in school; I've since come back with a clearer drive. I've also struck a better balance in my working life with a four-day teaching week and weekends spent taking students climbing.''

Sabbaticals are undoubtedly beneficial for employees, but can they spell career suicide? Dianah Worman, policy advisor to the Institute of Personnel and Development. "For the old-fashioned employer, sabbaticals are a nuisance. But it's an attitude they can't afford to take. We all know the consequences of the long-hours culture, and when the recession eases off, employers who don't offer sabbaticals, family-friendly hours and other non-financial rewards will run the risk of losing their employees."

Professor Cooper points out that a year out may be too long for some. ''A three- month break which is work-related is the most acceptable, risk- free way of getting a break and has limitless possibilities.''

In 1990, inner-city doctor David Memel, 43, took a three-month sabbatical to work as a GP on a remote Hebridean island. ''When you are in a practice for life, there is a danger of getting stale, so I proposed a sabbatical scheme to my five partners; the deal is we each take one every seven years and pay for our own locums,'' he explains.

Time away brought unexpected results. ''Working as a single-handed GP on a remote Scottish island was quite stressful in its own way,'' he says, ''and I returned to Bristol more appreciative of my colleagues. I felt a bit restless too and as a result I now work part-time as a GP and part- time as a lecturer.''

The sabbatical was a family experience and Deborah, David's wife, recalls living on the Isle of Tiree with their three young children as a ''creative, energetic time''. But in retrospect Deborah, an occupational therapist, wishes she'd asked for unpaid leave instead of quitting her job, as it took several months on their return to find another.

Professor Cooper underlines how crucial it is to have a partner's support. Miriam Akhtar, 32, a freelance broadcaster, says: ''If I've ever had wobbly moments after leaving the BBC, my partner has always encouraged me that I did the right thing. Should the worst happen, I know I won't end up on the street.'' If you're fantasising about taking time off, it may be a sign that you need time to rethink. ''Feeling you have no control over your work situation is one of the principal causes of stress,'' says Ben Williams. ''A sabbatical can give a person time to think through how to best take control of their work lives.''

Fleur Howles, 36, took a year out of paid employment to do a MSc in Computation at Oxford. ''I had become allergic to work, literally, and developed a nervous cough. Basically I was stuck. Going to Oxford was great fun, the best thing I ever did. Afterwards I got a job in telecommunications in charge of project development, a creative job that wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't taken that year off to study. Although it was risky, it paid off, and has increased my self-confidence and belief in taking chances.''

Fleur has worked with a team set up by her company to investigate how to retain employees, and one of their strategies has been the promotion of sabbaticals. ''It's popular in America and I hope it catches on here,'' says Fleur.

One of the fears behind taking a sabbatical is that once let off the leash a person will never want to go back. Sally Courtis, 30, left Marie- Claire magazine as a fashion editor and spent six months back-packing with her partner in Central and South America. ''We left tired and jaded and I was worried that I'd end up thinking fashion is bollocks. But I was really excited to return to the buzz of London.''

Sally is now a freelance fashion editor at Harpers. ''The most valuable thing about a sabbatical is time - to read, stare out of the window, and decide what you want out of life,'' she says.

We spend more of our waking hours at work than at home, so when emotional health is at risk, sabbaticals become vital whether they are sanctioned or not. Frankie Whittaker, 39, took a year off from teaching at the beginning of 1995, after a previous year of staffing problems. National Curriculum deadlines and the emotional blow of her mother's death had made matters worse for her. As head of faculty for the performing arts, she asked her secondary school for a sabbatical to develop the musical skills she'd been partly hired for. ''I was burnt-out. I was no good to anyone in this stage, crying in my car every lunchtime. The governors regretfully said no. So I decided to give myself a sabbatical. I had money saved for a rainy day and I thought maybe I was the rainy day! Giving myself a year off was an instinctive act of self-protection.''

Frankie has used her year to rock climb, learn Word Perfect, compose music, see friends, do voluntary work and work on doing up her new house. ''All the things that make a person who they are but usually come low down on the list of priorities,'' says Frankie. ''I've developed inner fibre and a sense of choice and while I'm not complacent, I feel fairly confident the right job will come along.''

For those who pale at the thought of leaping into the unknown without a safety net, bridge-building may be the answer. Malcolm Stern, psychotherapist and author of The Courage To Love (Piatkus) was an estate agent in the 1990s and recalls how shaky he felt on his first escape bid when he went to work in a health food shop. ''One day a mate from my professional life came in and said ''Malcolm, what have you done to yourself?'' I was so ashamed that I left that job. I thought if I wasn't a 'suit' earning a decent salary, I was a non-person. I returned to being an estate agent but this time I combined it with psychotherapy training, so when I left the second time, I was on safer ground.''

Sometimes security, certainty and status can become a soul-destroying rut - jumping into the unknown is scary but it may be a fair exchange for bringing energy back into your life. In 1995 Marcelle d'Argy Smith sent shock waves through the media world when she left the editorship of Cosmopolitan. Now a freelance journalist and broadcaster with her own weekly current affairs programme on Granada Sky, she explains the why she left.

''However much I loved Cosmo, I knew I couldn't continue in an increasingly frenzied corporate culture. My managing director and I came to mutual decision about my leaving. When he asked, 'what else can we offer you?' I heard myself saying 'what I really want is maternity leave','' says Marcelle, 50.

In the first months I felt like a parachute gently opening - quietly thrilled. Listen, I'm not saying it's easy and there are times of uncertainty and insecurity. But you can never put too high a price on freedom and having time to do what you've always wanted to do. I've dropped out before, once when I was 21 and the second time in the 1980s when I went to New York. Leaving a job is a rite of passage, like leaving home or university. There comes a time, you have to graduate.''

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