A sabbatical needn't be a pipe dream. Annalisa Barbieri on why time off is good for you - and your company
For most of us, the working week starts again tomorrow. Does this idea fill you with dread or eagerness? Or are you just too tired even to care? Once upon a time, two weeks' holiday fully recharged your batteries, but now does it merely stop you from falling apart?

"I used to have time off to go on holiday; now it's just a recovery period," says Jayne Moore, 35, a very stressed-out management executive. She's not alone. If you've been working solidly for a decade or more with no more than the standard two or three weeks off at any one time, the chances are you're heading for burn-out. And what you need is a good, meaty chunk of time off so you can properly unwind. A sabbatical.

The idea of sabbaticals has traditionally been associated with academics as a (usually paid) way of taking a break to travel or study. Joyously, however, they are becoming available to people in less lofty occupations. Although most companies are cagey about their sabbaticals policy, the consensus is that they are treated on an "individual basis". Midland Bank owners HSBC, Marks & Spencer and Boots all allow them.

This doesn't mean they will be handed out willy nilly; you will need to have been an employee for a certain length of time. The norm seems to be five years, and it helps if you are a key player and pretty vital to your employer. If you are, they will want to keep you happy and productive.

"In the long term it is counter-productive for employers to ignore employee stress," says Nick Aisles from the Institute of Personnel and Development, "because it could lose the company the competitive advantage if key employees are absent, or leave, due to stress." And, according to the IPD, this work-related stress causes 40 million lost work days a year - 60 per cent of work absence is due to it and it costs the economy pounds 71 billion.

Remember this if you are about to start a new job, and ask if a sabbatical can be built into your contract as an option for you to take after five or so years service. If you are already in employment, your company may allow you to take a sabbatical anyway, but don't expect them to offer it to you on a plate. You will have to be confident and ask for it, and you automatically increase your bargaining power if you're prepared to take an unpaid break.

This need not fill you with dread and prevent you from taking a well- needed career break. Primary school teacher Nicola Mackey, 32, took her first sabbatical after five years of teaching and, although her job wasn't held open for her (state teachers aren't allowed sabbaticals), she left anyway. "I took nine months out and temped for about six months," she says. "But because I didn't care about these jobs, I didn't get at all stressed. When I went back to the classroom I felt like I had so much more energy, like everything was new." Sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

This is especially true for doctors in general practice. "Burn-out is very common amongst doctors, especially GPs," explains Dr Patricia Lilley. "Not only are you expected to stay in the same job without any change in status but you also grow up with your patients so there's no change in `scenery'. One way you can avoid that is through taking sabbaticals."

Catch-22 situations for doctors abound, however. In general practice, unless the time off is to be spent doing something work related, the doctor concerned won't get health authority funding for a locum. Which means that their colleagues will have to take on the extra work.

Hospital medics don't have it any easier. Before they can take a sabbatical, they have to find their own replacements, adding to an already stressful situation.

The best time to sneak a long stretch of time off is in between jobs - and this is often the only time the majority of us get a chance to do it. "The best rest one ever has," says Anthony Husborough, director of a multi-million-pound retailing company, "is that taken `between jobs'. That's always what I recommend people joining my company to do if at all possible. You leave the responsibilities of the previous job behind and you haven't picked up those of the new one yet. Pure bliss."

And if you still think sabbaticals are just an indulgence, then a study by the British Household Panel, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, makes chilling reading. Their study (which has been following 5,500 households for seven years) has so far found that people who work for more than 60 hours a week over at least three years will suffer irreversible effects. They will have higher blood pressure, stress and have complaints of pains in the limbs. Even worse news is that - if this is you - you will never recover your earlier health levels. So it's best to avoid getting into such a state in the first place.

And if you can't rest, be in control. According to Richard Scase from the University of Essex, this is a key factor. "Stress is thought to be directly linked to the degree of control an employee has," says Scase. Which is why, in his studies, he has found self-employed people show lower stress levels and higher levels of contentment, even though they may work long hours. So if you recognise yourself in any of this, think beyond a two-week break. It's not only possible; it is essential to your long- term productivity. And don't wait for total breakdown before negotiating time out. Get your sabbatical sorted before you get too tired to take it. Like tomorrow.

Additional research by Ingrid Kennedy.