Nobody wants to live like a worker bee. Making time for your passions is one step towards achieving a good work-life balance, but many people have ambitions that are too grand to fit into a long weekend. Despite the growing financial pressures of modern life, more and more people are handing in their notice – or at least arranging a sabbatical from work – and setting off to fulfil a lifelong dream.
However, taking a career break can have all sorts of implications for your financial stability and future career, so it's essential to plan ahead. Whatever your ambitions, make sure you have enough money to cover all your expenses until you return to work – including the cost of running your home – with some left over in case job hunting takes longer than expected.
The options for career breaks are as broad as your imagination, whether you have your heart set on a round-the-world flight or a trek across the Sahara. And a whole industry has sprung up to help people make the most of a grown-up gap year. "With a bit of advice from gap year organisations, there is nothing you can't achieve," says Helen Marriott from One Life Live, an event designed to help people make life-changing decisions, which takes place at London's Olympia from 29 February to 2 March. "The most important thing is making the decision to do something."
You don't have to give up your day job to take a career break; many employers will allow employees to take a sabbatical on the understanding that you come back and work for a minimum period of time on your return. However, you are much more likely to get approval for a structured career break with clear goals. A year-long holiday will impress employers less than a year of volunteering or participating in a once-in-a-lifetime expedition.
The website Gap Advice (www.gapadvice.org) is an excellent starting point for planning a career break. Another tip is to talk to other career breakers – most gap year organisations will be happy to put you in touch with former participants for a warts-and-all account of what the experience was like. Don't be afraid to ask for a tailor-made programme – organisations that arrange career breaks are used to dealing with experienced people who want less hand-holding and more control over the activities they get involved in.
The most prolific career breakers are young professionals in their early thirties, seizing a window of opportunity before buying a house or starting a family. However, it's never too late to take a year out. According to Simon Palferman at Mondo Challenge (www.mondochallenge.org), "Older career breakers have resilience, diplomacy and practical life experience, which means they are among the most effective and successful of all our volunteers."
One of the most popular options for career breakers is a round-the-world plane ticket. Independent travel agents such as STA Travel (www.statravel.co.uk) can put together an itinerary for as little as £750, with stops in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. Many people use these tickets as the basis for a structured year out.
Another popular experience is an overland tour. Specialists such as Dragoman (www.dragoman.co.uk) offer rugged cross-country tours through parts of Africa, Asia and South America in specially converted trucks.
A year out doesn't have to involve exotic foreign travel. Plenty of people use a career break to gain new skills to advance their career. Of course, there's nothing to stop you studying abroad – language courses overseas are a perennial favourite. Cactus Language (www.cactuslanguage.com), EF Education (www.ef.com) and others offer intensive courses around the world, from Paris to Shanghai, offering a total immersion in the local culture.
Some people use a career break to start off in a completely new direction. For Alan Maishman, redundancy from a senior position in publishing was the springboard to a teaching qualification and a new life as an English teacher in St Petersburg. "After 20 years of worrying about deadlines and profit, I wanted a rest and a job where I could feel I was doing something worthwhile. Becoming an English teacher changed my life – I've worked in Brazil and Russia and I know that my skills are in demand all around the world."
If you plan to teach English abroad, a good starting point is a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) qualification. Courses run by Cambridge CELTA (www.cambridgeesol.org) and Trinity CertTESOL (www.trinitycollege.co.uk) last four weeks and prices range from £600 in Eastern Europe to £1,000 in the UK. You can find listings of courses worldwide at Cactus TEFL (www.cactustefl.com).
Most schools will help you find a teaching position at the end of the course, or you can track down a job on the web – www.tefl.com, www.tefl.net and www.eslcafe.com are good job sites. Schools that employ TEFL teachers generally provide subsidised accommodation and sponsorship for work permits, and some also throw in free flights.
Finding other paid work in a foreign country can be tricky. British citizens are allowed to work anywhere in the European Economic Area – the EU, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – but opportunities are limited unless you speak the local language. To work anywhere else, you'll need a work permit, and in most cases, a local employer must apply to the immigration authorities on your behalf.
However, there are some interesting short-term opportunities, particularly for younger career breakers. America is a notoriously difficult place to work, but the H2B visa allows foreign workers to take seasonal jobs, usually in agriculture or tourism (particularly the ski industry). Visas and jobs can be arranged directly with US employers or through agencies such as Alliance Abroad Group (www.alliance abroad.com) and Real Gap Experience (www.realgap.co.uk).
Another useful route is the J1 visa, which allows university graduates or experienced professionals aged 38 or under to travel to America to take up a traineeship for up to 18 months. Once you find a US employer who is willing to sponsor you for a traineeship, agencies such as Real Gap Experience can arrange the necessary paperwork.
Working holidays are another option. Australia and New Zealand offer working holiday visas for British citizens aged 30 or under that allow you to work in any job for up to a year (see www.immi.gov.au and www.immigration.govt.nz). Canada operates a similar programme for under-35s, administered by the British Universities North America Club (www.bunac.org). Going Global (www.goinglobal. com) provides details on working in dozens of other countries.
Joe Bindloss is co-author of 'The Career Break Book' (Lonely Planet)
The quick guide to volunteering
'You learn a few home truths in difficult situations'
Volunteering overseas is probably the most popular motivation for taking a career break. There are thousands of charities and non-governmental organisations around the world that need volunteers, and hundreds of agencies ready to link up volunteers with suitable projects. Every volunteering organisation is different and some volunteer programmes are definitely better than others.
Good volunteers look for organisations that focus on the needs of local people rather than simply providing a feel-good holiday. Ethical Volunteering (www.ethicalvolunteering.org) provides some excellent guidelines for choosing an organisation.
Kate Simpson, the company's founder, has the following advice: "Look for an organisation that wants to meet you before it sends you anywhere and which matches your skills and the languages you speak to the placements that are available. Avoid organisations that will send you anywhere, at any time, to do whatever you want."
Listings of sending agencies and aid projects can be found in volunteering guidebooks such as Lonely Planet's The Career Break Book and Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide. Alternatively, you can start your search on the web: www.workingabroad.com, www.worldwidevolunteering.org.uk and www.volunteering.org.uk have extensive listings.
The personal rewards of volunteering overseas can be immense, but joining an organised programme can be expensive. As well as giving your time for free, you must cover all your expenses, including flights, visas and insurance. Most agencies charge an admin fee and you may be asked to make a donation to the running costs of the charity – the total can run to several thousand pounds.
Not everyone has the qualifications to be a nurse or counsellor, but overseas charities and NGOs are looking for volunteers with a broad range of skills. Development projects need drivers, managers and IT staff as well as teachers and medics, and environmental charities have openings for press officers, lawyers and engineers as well as biologists and conservationists.
Nikki La Niece was working in events when she took a break to volunteer in South Africa and Botswana with African Conservation Experience (www.conservationafrica.com). "I learned about teaching, animal research, and how to communicate. I also came to know myself more. Being in the middle of the bush gives you a lot of thinking time and you learn a few home truths when you are in difficult situations!"
Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO; www.vso.org.uk) offers a two-year programme for skilled professionals with a full package of benefits and a local salary in the host country. Judith Brodie, VSO director, says a VSO programme can have genuine professional benefits for volunteers, as well as helping people in need. "We surveyed our volunteers and 80 per cent said they returned with expertise they would not have gained in the UK. Almost all said they were now better at handling different cultures and three-quarters felt they had become better communicators."
There is no minimum or maximum time period for volunteering, but as a general rule, the more time you put in, the more you can achieve. If you only have time for a short placement, make sure that your skills will be used effectively and look for an organisation that will continue the work after you move on.
'You can give as much or as little time as you like'
When it comes to volunteering, there is some truth in the idea that charity begins at home. By volunteering in the UK, you have a head start in terms of language, experience and cultural understanding, and you can avoid the costs associated with living abroad and maximise the time you devote to helping others.
British charities need people with a diverse range of skills, from teachers and nurses to drivers and business managers. Plenty of people fit in regular volunteering in the evenings or at weekends, but some take out months or years to volunteer.
The first point of contact for any would-be volunteer should be Volunteering England (www.volunteering.org.uk), a huge online resource for volunteers. There are similar websites for volunteers in Scotland (www.volunteerscotland.org.uk), Wales (www.volunteeringwales.net) and Northern Ireland (www.volunteernow.co.uk).
Tracy Saunders at Volunteering England has the following advice: "You can give as much or as little time as you like, but be realistic. Some people are able to give a weekly commitment while others only have time to participate in one-off activities. With changes in technology, more opportunities are opening up for 'virtual volunteers', for example, moderating an online message board where people with a particular illness offer each other support."
For some volunteers, personal experience of illness or a family tragedy provides the inspiration to help others facing the same problems. June Higgs became a volunteer counsellor for the charity Breast Cancer Care (www.breastcancercare.org.uk) after suffering breast and cervical cancer. "I wanted to give something back and help other women through this journey and help them to feel good about themselves again," she says.
Health care is the largest source of volunteering opportunities in the UK. Organisations such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society (www.mssociety.org.uk), Marie Curie Cancer Care (www.mariecurie.org.uk) and Macmillan Cancer Support (www.macmillan.org.uk) have openings for volunteers in all sorts of fields, from nurses to office staff, across the UK.
Mike McGuckin has been volunteering as a driver for the Multiple Sclerosis Society day centre in Swansea for 12 years. "When I started, I was a single parent and I wasn't working," he explains. "I wanted to do something valuable with my time so I started driving for the day centre. Helping other people is its own reward; it really helps to put your own worries into perspective."
Conservation is another field that depends on volunteers. The National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) has one of the biggest volunteer programmes in the country; if you are over 18 and can contribute 21 hours a week for three months, you can help out at historic buildings, public gardens and natural parks.
Charities that work with children are another good place to offer your skills. Although a background check is normally required, there are opportunities for carers, teachers and assistants at day centres and other child-oriented institutions. The Children's Country Holidays Fund (www.childrensholidays.org.uk) has regular openings for volunteers at its holiday camps for children from deprived inner city neighbourhoods. JB
'I wanted the chance to see the polar landscape and push myself to the limit'
Alex Henney, 30, is a stockbroker in the City. He took a career break to compete in the Polar Race to the North Pole (www.polarrace.com)
What inspired you to take on the Polar Race?
I wanted the chance to explore a region of the world where fewer than 400 human beings have been, to witness the amazing polar landscape and wildlife and to push myself to the limit! At the time, life was very good, but it wasn't exciting. Participating in the race was an opportunity to do something amazing.
What did you gain from the experience?
I think the most important thing the trip gave me was a sense of reality. Worrying about getting the Tube on time pales into insignificance when you've spent a month and a half worrying about whether you are going to get frostbite while putting up your tent!
What tips do you have for other career breakers?
Make the decision to do something and stick to it. This was a two-year project and it would have been easy to pull out when things got tough, but I stuck to it. Keep looking at the long-term goal when you are wobbling in times of indecision and above all, enjoy the experience!
Do you have any more expeditions on the horizon?
The experience of walking to the Pole has given me the thirst to get involved with other expeditions. I'm aiming to go to the South Pole in 2011 with the same team and next year I'll be part of the first team to hovercraft to the North Pole (www.hovercraft tothepole.com).
'Travelling gives you the time and space to reflect on what's important'
Steve Gale, 32, was working as an e-commerce manager when he decided to travel around the world. Gale has turned his experiences into a cookery book, The Gap Year Gourmet (www.gapyeargourmet.com)
What inspired you to make this trip?
London is a cripplingly expensive place to live and we needed to move out of the city so we could think about raising a family in a house, not a one-bedroom flat. The trip was a rather flamboyant way of breaking our ties with London and taking the scenic route to Bristol, via El Salvador!
What was the motivation for writing The Gap Year Gourmet?
Travelling on a budget, you can eat some staggeringly bad meals, but you also find some gems if you're willing to be adventurous. I had a policy of ordering anything that I didn't recognise on the menu and I ended up with a journal full of brilliant regional dishes. I spent the next three (unemployed) months recreating these dishes at home, and this book was the result. I'm now looking around for a publisher.
What did you gain from the experience?
Travelling gives you a sense of freedom – something you rarely get in modern life. Everything you own is in your backpack, so you can move without baggage, both physically and metaphorically. You can stay in a place if you love it, or move on quickly if you don't – there aren't many other times in life when you can do that.
Has taking a career break changed you?
I didn't "find" myself on a mountain in the Himalaya, I doubt many do. What travelling does give you is the time and space to reflect on what is important. I'm back in a nine-to-five job so there has been no miraculous life transformation, but if a publisher takes my book then perhaps a career change might be on the cards!Reuse content