Looking for a way to see the world and keep your job

More professionals are taking career sabbaticals these days, says Thea Jourdan. And companies are all for it

Gap years are not just for students. Young professionals aged 25 to 35 now account for more than 60 per cent of people who choose to take a life-enhancing break. Baby boomers, in their fifties, are also reaching into their well-padded wallets to expand their horizons in record numbers, (although you are more likely to find them in Winnebagos in Nebraska than refugee camps in Vietnam). The sabbatical travel industry is worth an estimated £1bn a year, dwarfing the school-leaver sector.

Gap years are not just for students. Young professionals aged 25 to 35 now account for more than 60 per cent of people who choose to take a life-enhancing break. Baby boomers, in their fifties, are also reaching into their well-padded wallets to expand their horizons in record numbers, (although you are more likely to find them in Winnebagos in Nebraska than refugee camps in Vietnam). The sabbatical travel industry is worth an estimated £1bn a year, dwarfing the school-leaver sector.

Employers, once sceptical, are warming to the idea, too. Career gaps can be the ideal way to keep valued but disillusioned employees who need some down time. Happy individuals mean well-run profitable firms, and blue chip companies operate various policies to accommodate employees who want to go AWOL for a while.

In some cases, employers will even consider paying a percentage of salary or offer sponsorship. Marks & Spencer, employing 62,000 permanent staff, gives workers up to nine months off, unpaid, as long as the employee has at least two years continuous service with the company.

"Benefits and pension contributions are made throughout the period and the employee is guaranteed a job at the same level when he or she returns," Andrea Aron, M&S's policy adviser on employment standards, says. "We feel it's a good thing for us and our staff and we plan to make our policy even more flexible in future."

One petrochemicals giant, no doubt mindful of the public relations benefit, encourages employees who want to volunteer for conservation projects.

Tom Griffiths, who founded the specialist gap year online marketplace, gapyear.com, six years ago, has charted the huge rise in the number of people who decide to drop out of the rat race for a while. Studies now suggest 150,000 people choose this option every year, taking an average of three months off. The ideal sabbatical blends elements of voluntary work, adventure and far-flung climes. Around 70 per cent are women and the average spend is £6,000 to £9,000.

"The rise is down to a variety of factors, including shifts in working patterns, increased stress and the new 'me' generation," he says. "People don't just want to be cogs in the machine any more. They are looking at their lives and asking themselves, 'What is it all for?'"

He points out that the once- overwhelming social pressures to commit to a settled family life and the daily grind have almost vanished. "TV shows like Friends and Sex in the City encourage the view that is it possible for thirty-somethings to live without strings." Redundancy, break-up of a relationship, or a death in the family can all trigger the desire to take a career gap.

Donalda Noble, a director with BBC Scotland for the past 20 years, is planning to go on a gap year when her youngest daughter goes to university in 2006. Now in her mid-40s, she feels that she is ready to take time out for herself. "I'm a single mother and I have had a lot of responsibilities up until now," she says. "I really feel the time is right for a career break as a refresher. I am lucky because it is an option." The BBC offers employees up to two years' unpaid leave, as long as their departments can cover their absence. "I've been listening to the girl's stories about gap years and it sounds a great idea." Ms Noble is considering downsizing and selling her home to release extra capital.

Like many professionals on sabbatical, Ms Noble wants to combine a round-the-world trip with an altruistic purpose. Her ideal journey would take her to South Africa and the west coast of America, Hawaii and Australia. In New Zealand, she is planning to do voluntary work with a local charity. "I don't just want to be on a permanent holiday," she says. "I want to do something worthwhile too."

Clients of Global Vision International, a specialist travel company for people on career breaks, are equally keen to salve their social conscience. "Our most popular destination is South America," Erica Redgewell, of GVI, says. "People would rather work with disadvantaged children in Guatemala than lie on a beach in Hawaii." Volunteers, who are trained before they start work, live in home stays or basic accommodation. Importantly, communication is very limited. "Often they can't keep in touch because the site is too remote," Ms Redgewell says. "For many people who are used to highly stressed lives and being on call seven days a week, the isolation is the real blessing."

Planning is key to a successful career break. Deirdre Bounds, who sent 2,700 paying volunteers to 24 countries last year through her company i-to-i, advises clients to look at their finances carefully. "A career break is costly, and most people will not be receiving salaries during their time off," she says. "It is important to save in advance and budget carefully."

Organised trips cost from £495 for a week to £1,700 for up to three months. Planning the re-entry into society is just as important as organising the departure.

Most employers need at least six months' notice of an intended sabbatical and temporary cover will need to be found. Mortgages, charge cards and pension payments may need to be renegotiated, which is time consuming. Treating a career break as yet another step on a career ladder is also a bad idea. "You can plan but you should not determine in advance exactly what you expect to get out of the experience," Ms Bounds says. She travelled the world for four years when she was 25, before launching her travel company.

"I met a highly paid stockbroker at a travel show recently and all he seemed to want was to reach fixed goals and achieve certain outcomes. I told him he was better off staying in his high-powered job because he had missed the whole point."

'Nothing can faze me now after my travels'

Sarah Bailey, 35, worked for Marks & Spencer's finance division for seven years before she decided she wanted a career break, in December 2002. The company agreed to keep her job open for her, although she was not paid for the time she was away. She travelled the world then returned to the company.

"I was at the stage in my life when I was getting itchy feet," she says. "A lot of friends had already taken a gap year and I felt I was missing out. I am ambitious and driven, so I would be in the office by 8.15am and still there at 6pm.

"It felt like life was passing me by. I did not have a marriage or children, so I could think about my own needs. Luckily, my boss was great when I spoke to him. I think I was the first person to ask for a sabbatical. Marks & Spencer now has a proper policy for staff who want a career break.

"I planned for six months and got all my financial affairs in order. I gave notice on my rented flat and I put my car in a friend's name. I bought a round-the-world ticket from Trailfinders for £1,300 and flew to South Africa. Then I went to South-east Asia and Australia and New Zealand and stuck to a budget of £35 a day. The experience was very different from a holiday. It was amazing to wake up to something other than the alarm clock. The stress fell away. When I came back, I had a fresh perspective on life.<</p>

"Travelling on my own gave me a new sense of confidence and achievement. Nothing can faze me now."

'The break put our lives in perspective'

Libby Pearson and Nick Sutton, decided it was time to get away from it all.

Ms Pearson says: "We're both in our late twenties and thought this would be an excellent point to get way. I qualified as a general practitioner last year and decided to take the opportunity of the natural break in my medical career and have six months out to travel.

"I had been planning this with my boyfriend. Nick works in the media and his employer has been very understanding, giving him unpaid leave and buying out his untaken holiday entitlement.

"We had been saving for the break for three years. We also decided to help pay for it by renting our flat in London to my sister. That way we also know the place will be looked after, the bills paid and we don't have to worry about that side of things at home.

"Our round-the-world ticket was from the Star Alliance consortium of airlines, which includes Air Canada, Air New Zealand, British Midland, Lufthansa, SAS, Scandinavian, Singapore Airlines, and United Airlines. They offered us several mileage fares, with the choice of 29,000, 34,000, and 39,000 miles. We paid £1,500 each, say £1,700 including taxes, for the 29,000-mile options.

"Since May, we have been to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia, where we are now. We plan to tour Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia and go trekking in Nepal before going back to work.

"It's amazing how much more you can see on a trip of this sort than when you're rushing around on two-week breaks. It's put our lives in perspective, although Nick's such a news junkie we never seem to be far away from events at home."

FACT FILE CAREER BREAKS

* Raise funds. A career break costs an average of £6,000, including at least £900 to £1,200 for a 12-month round-the-world ticket. (Prices vary depending on departure time, route and number of stops.) Some people will have savings or a redundancy package but there are other ways to raise extra revenue. Sell your car, get a deposit back on your flat, have a car boot sale.

* Mortgages: Get in touch with your provider. Some will give you a mortgage holiday or can arrange for you to pay less for a set period. Think about renting your place while you are away.

* Taxes: UK residents are entitled to an individual income tax allowance of £4,615. If you work abroad and do not have UK earnings, you may be able to get a rebate on your unused income tax allowance.

* Pension: Check if you can have a pension holiday or lower payments for the time you are away. If your period of employment in the UK was less than two years, it is possible to take a refund of pension contributions.

* Post: The Royal Mail can hold your mail for two months for £15.75 or redirect it to another UK address for £6.30 for one month and £21 for six months.

* Insurance: If you are travelling abroad it is important to get travel insurance that includes medical bills and the cost of repatriation. Shop around for a deal.

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