Career

How to Take a Break From Work Without Destroying Your Career

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Joanne Poh

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Long working hours in Singapore are taking their toll, and for young workers these days, taking a break from the rat race is becoming quite common. In fact, in the last two companies I worked at, colleagues took off for periods of 4 to 6 months just to recharge and pursue their personal goals.

However, just because other people are doing it doesn’t mean you can immediately assume you can stroll into your boss’s office tomorrow and say you’re thinking of excusing yourself from the office for the next six months. Make a misstep and you could return to the office at the end of your sabbatical to find someone new sitting at your desk. Here’s what you have to do to make sure your boss is happy to see you when you’re back.

 

Know when it’s possible and when it isn’t

If you’re on generally good terms with your employer and have been working at your company for some time, your request for a break will sound totally reasonable except to the most unreasonable bosses.

As a general rule of thumb, you should have worked at your current workplace for at least 3-4 years before you can even think of asking for a long break. Your relationship with your bosses doesn’t exactly have to involve hugs and kisses, but they should at least not hate your guts and you shouldn’t have been the star of any disciplinary or performance issues in the past 6 months.

Of course, the better you are at your job, the more likely your boss is going to have no choice but to agree, for fear that you’ll take your business elsewhere. In general, the more irreplaceable you are, the more you can get away with. If you fulfill most of the above criteria, you have a good chance of getting your request approved.

On the other hand, if you are a relatively new employee and are still learning the ropes, asking for a break of a few months is going to send the signal to your employer that you’re not committed to your job. It also means you’ll need to relearn some things when you get back, which wastes time and resources. Even if your boss accedes to your request, there’s a high chance he’ll be looking for someone new while you’re away. I’ve seen it happen and it’s not nice.

Make sure you ask your boss well in advance, as taking off at the last minute will leave your coworkers in the lurch, which will then heighten your chances of having no job to come back to. Speak with your boss at least 3 to 6 months before your proposed sabbatical. If you have plans such as further studies or a volunteer trip, be sure to tell your boss, as providing a “valid” reason (even if the real reason is that you need to catch up on sleep) will reflect much less badly on you. If you’re going on sabbatical to try for a baby (someone at one of my previous workplaces did that) or for health reasons, don’t be afraid to speak up. Giving almost any reason is better than one.

 

What should you do to prepare?

Never leave a request for a sabbatical vague. The second you step into your boss’s office, you should already have a plan laid out. Here is the information you need to give your boss:

  • the exact dates of your sabbatical
  • what you intend to do on sabbatical and how it will benefit the company (if applicable)
  • the projects you are currently involved in at work
  • whom you intend to hand over your work to and how you will go about doing so
  • timeline for handover of work

 

How long should your sabbatical be?

In general, periods of 1 to 3 months don’t shock bosses too much, and if your employer is already prepared to grant you a break, you should have no trouble getting approval for that period of time.

You should have a shot at getting longer periods of between 3 to 6 months if the company views you in a positive light and you have been performing well.

Anything longer than 6 months is pushing it, because the company has to hold your spot until you return. The only exception is if you are in academia or your company officially offers sabbaticals every x years.

 

How long can you afford to go on sabbatical?

The sad truth is that not everyone can afford to go on sabbatical. You will not be paid for your time off, and your bonus will be pro-rated. You will thus need to calculate whether you can actually afford to go on sabbatical.

If you have no other sources of income, you will need to save up a lump sum equivalent to your expenses for the entire duration of the sabbatical. This includes not only your usual living costs such as phone bills and food but also the cost of any extra activities you intend to fill your time with, such as vacations or courses. If you are in debt, you will need to ensure you are able to continue repaying your loans while you are away from the office.

If you have other sources of income such as income from investments or freelance work and are able to cover your basic cost of living, you can take as much time off as you like without worrying about digging into your savings.

You might want to take up part-time work during your sabbatical so you can afford to take more time off. For instance, one of my friends taught English while she was backpacking through Europe on a one year break from the rat race. Another became a day trader before returning to the working world.

To be honest, I think that if you can afford it and have been working hard for some time, going on sabbatical can be a great idea. Being stuck in a tiny cubicle every day for years can really make you lose perspective, especially if you work long hours and don’t have time for much else. The trick is to do so in a way that’s financially sustainable, which means finding ways to avoid digging into your savings.

Have you ever gone on sabbatical? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.