Money & Career

A Gap Year

A Gap Year

Illustration by iStockPhoto

Money & Career

A Gap Year

Yes, you can take a sabbaitcal from work. In fact, you should. Here's why and how.

We’re willing to bet you’ve thought about taking a break from your everyday. Maybe it’s hit you while jammed in a subway car during the morning rush. (We feel you.) Or maybe you’ve daydreamed about finally taking up a certain hobby while sitting in (yet another) super boring meeting.

For Toronto-based Kathryn Mills, it was upholstery. After serving as a civil servant strapped to her desk for about a decade, she ready to get away from her office walls. “I felt like I hadn’t had a real break from work, ever. I’d started right after finishing university and never stopped,” says Mills. “I’d never had a maternity leave or educational leave; never taken a temporary assignment with another branch. I wanted to spend more time with my husband while we were both young and healthy enough to enjoy it.” She was wiped from her daily routine—hurrying to the office, then spending evenings and weekends trying to fit in all her errands, shopping and appointments. Plus, she yearned to learn to upholster furniture, but had never found the time.  

A sabbatical seemed like the right choice. These periods of leave are basically a time-out—a way to hit the reset button without having to quit your job and start from scratch. Intended to rejuvenate and replenish your motivation and satisfaction with your 9 to 5, sabbaticals definitely have the potential to help a career, says London, Ont.-based Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario. “If you use it to learn something new that you can leverage at work, if it reinvigorates your engagement and if you come back with a new vision of your path for your career that inspires you, you’ll avoid becoming plateaued and indifferent about work,” she says. Plus, there’s something to be said for checking out of the daily grind for your mental health—it’s like taking months worth of personal days in one go.

But folks are often deterred from sabbaticals because of the misconceptions—”they’re just for academia” and “I’ll lose seniority at work” are the biggies. The truth is anyone can take a leave, as long as plan and prep in advance. And if you do it right, the break can be exactly what you need to get you through to retirement. Here’s what you need to know before you go.



Illustration by iStockPhoto


How to Take a Sabbatical

Question Yourself

How will you spend your time off? Are you a self-starter? You need to know, says Konrad, if you can, say, structure and fill your days (it may not sound onerous but it can be a chore). “You might be surprised when you find yourself wishing for a deadline to get you focused.” 


Pick the right time personally and financially...

Mills was nearly 43 when her six-month leave started a couple of years ago. “We had worked diligently to pay down debt and our mortgage,” she says, adding she and her husband planned and coordinated their time off together. “It took two years, and it was something of a reward for making earlier financial sacrifices.” 


…and be ready professionally.

Timing sabbaticals involves strategy, Konrad says. “Early in your career is time to build knowledge, abilities, your social network and self-management skills. But in mid-career, when you’re feeling stale or demotivated, a leave could be the right choice.” Sabbaticals are designed to help rekindle the flame that drew you to your career in the first place, so you should be ready to deepen your skillset and find new perspectives you can take back to the office.


Find out what your company offers.

After speaking with her manager and HR rep, Mills says she opted for a self-funded leave, where 20 percent of her salary would be set aside and administered by a trustee for two years. “I was then able to get monthly payments from this fund while I was off,” which definitely helped when her regular paycheques weren’t deposited every two weeks. 


Don’t disconnect entirely.

You’ve spent years in the game—don’t drop off the face of the earth for a year. No one wants to be forgotten about, and if you completely disengage from your work life, it’ll be tough to transition back to full time. Mills says she made the effort to lunch with her team and meet up with other colleagues while on sabbatical. (Bonus: You’ll be in the loop when you’re back.) 


Make the most of it.

The experts say this isn’t the time to sit on a beach for six months sipping mojitos. But if you’re passionate about travel and have an interest in learning about other cultures, like Mills does, a couple of months exploring new places (Croatia, Hungary, Argentina and Chile were on her list) will feed your soul. And even though upholstery has nothing to do with her day job, Mills recovered two chairs on career hiatus. Not bad for six months off. 


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Money & Career

A Gap Year