Career breaks are no longer the sole preserve of university graduates looking to broaden their horizons on gap years before plunging themselves into the world of work. In fact, about 90,000 people every year – 60 per cent of them women – take some sort of career break. Typically, these individuals are in their late twenties or early thirties, although an increasing number are in their forties and fifties.
A career break is a period of unpaid leave from work which is agreed with your employer, who will allow you to return to a similar role on your return. Pay and benefits will normally stop during this period. A sabbatical, on the other hand, is time off in addition to your annual holiday entitlement and is usually awarded on the basis of length of service. This can be paid, unpaid or part-paid and is often used for career development purposes.
There are a variety of reasons for wanting to take time out, from being made redundant to becoming disillusioned with a job, according to Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, of the Career Break Site (www.thecareerbreaksite.com).
"The number one reason is simply to do something different," she says. "Whether a career-breaker chooses to travel, learn something new, work or volunteer, it is a desire for a change and to see the world."
Ms Morgan-Trimmer speaks from experience. She embarked on a four-month world trip that took in South-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand while she was working for a gap-year company. "My inspiration was that I was jealous of all the youngsters I was advising," she recalls. "One of my main aims was to be brave and try new things. It's easier when you're away from home because you're forced to face challenges."
She also uncovered a hidden talent for scuba-diving. "I was the typical chubby girl who was always last to be picked for the teams at school, so to be told I was good at a sport was a pleasant surprise," she jokes.
Her return to Britain saw her set up a business advising other would-be career breakers. "I had found it hard to organise everything before I left, particularly boring stuff such as council tax, so used my experiences to help make it easier for others."
The most common length of break is four to six months, although a year is not unusual and some take up to two years, particularly those on placements with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), for which such a commitment is required. However, they can also last a matter of weeks.
These mini career breaks are increasingly popular. "They're a chance for someone to try something out in their holiday time before committing to a longer-term project," explains Ms Morgan-Trimmer.
This was the option chosen by Sandrine Paillasse, 32, a French teacher from London, who spent two months of last summer's school holiday working on an environmental project in Costa Rica organised by Raleigh International. "I loved my job but was feeling a bit stale," she explains. "As I was considering moving into charity work full-time, I thought a trip would be the perfect opportunity for me to see what it would be like and to learn more about myself."
Ms Paillasse raised £1,500 in sponsorship from family and friends to fund the trip, which unlocked a whole mix of emotions.
"I really enjoyed it and made some really good friends but it was physically and emotionally tough because it was very remote being in the jungle and it rained non-stop," she recalls.
The trip also reaffirmed the positive aspects of her life. "It was an eye-opener and, although I would be happy to do more charity work in my spare time, I don't want to live that far away," she adds. "I realised I loved my job too much to give it up on a whim and actually ended up getting a promotion soon after I returned home."
Although a career break may sound idyllic, there are potential downsides, points out Justin Modray, founder of the Candid Money website. Top of the list is struggling to find employment when you return to the UK.
"If you currently have a steady job and are unsure of your employment prospects on returning from travels, I would think twice before giving up this security," he says. "If your boss promises to keep your job open, make sure you have this in writing and fully understand any conditions that they might impose."
This point was raised two years ago in a report from Mintel entitled Adult Gap Years: International. It acknowledged that a person's ability to take a gap year was governed by their employment status, but said 26 per cent of employers had a career break policy.
"Government, public sector, finance and insurance entities are reported to have the most pervasive programmes, with 40 per cent having a sabbatical or career break policy," it said, highlighting companies such as Barclays Bank, HBoS and McDonald's.
If you can prove that whatever you intend doing will have some long-term benefit for your company, it will increase your chances of it being approved. Consider what's available and see what skills you are likely to pick up. This is why a career break needs to be planned carefully. Ideally, you should decide where you're going at least four months ahead of your intended departure date to give yourself enough time to get everything sorted out.
Don't underestimate how much will need to be done. As well as booking your tickets, ensuring your passport and driving licences are up to date, sorting out any required vaccinations and organising visas, you also need to get a handle on your finances.
It's certainly worth having a plan in place and working out a budget so that you are not constantly worrying about money, points out Geoff Penrice, a financial adviser at Honister Partners.
"You need to know how much capital is needed to fund the break, as well as having some spare funds in case things end up costing more than expected," he says. "Of course, if you can secure employment for your return it will reduce the financial risk."
Before setting off on travels ensure you have sufficient insurance. Prices vary widely so it's well worth shopping around, adds Mr Modray. "You should also get a debit or credit card that doesn't charge for overseas transactions, as this could save you a small fortune over the year. Halifax and Nationwide both offer these cards."
The mortgage arrangements also need to be taken into account. If you are planning to travel for some time you might be able to let your property out, but this will need to be agreed with your lender in advance.
"The other long-term consideration would be the effect on your pension benefits," adds Mr Penrice. "If you are in a 'money purchase' pension you will have missed a year's contribution. If you are in a 'final salary' pension scheme the effects could be much more serious and it would be worth taking advice."
However, he is adamant that financial concerns should not deter people from taking a once-in-a-lifetime break. "The important thing is to achieve what we want out of life," he adds. "It is no good regretting missing out on things you want to do because of short-term financial considerations. The main thing is to be aware of the implications and plan accordingly."
Take the plunge
'I went out on a boat every single day and swam near whales'
Kirsty Beavis had always wanted to work with dolphins – and finally turned her dream into reality earlier this year after being made redundant.
Deciding to take an extended break from the workplace, the adventurous 30-year-old (pictured) raised almost £4,000 in sponsorship to join an environmental project organised by Conservation Africa, which saw her spending two glorious months in Mauritius.
Her time was spent working alongside marine biologists, contributing to the development of conservation legislation, carrying out projects and talking to tourists and locals about how the marine wildlife can best be preserved.
"I went out on a boat every single day and got the chance to swim near whales, which you are no longer allowed to do," she says. "People would pay a small fortune for those kinds of experiences but I was doing it every day."
Her return to England in March also saw plenty of changes. Not only did she swap Buckinghamshire for Cornwall to be nearer the sea, she immediately began training to be a fitness and aerobics instructor.
"The trip changed my attitude to life," adds Beavis. "I knew I was only going to be out there for two months, so really made the most of every single day – and I have really tried to carry on that approach to life since I've come back."
* Career Break Site: www.thecareerbreaksite.com
* Raleigh International: www.raleighinternational.org
* Conservation Africa: www.conservationafrica.net