Taking a sabbatical often requires meticulous planning and a little bit of courage. In a new four-part series, Ros Walford draws on her own experience to explore why and how to take a sabbatical, and what to do with your career break.
The canoe slips silently upriver. Palms drape from the dense jungle along the banks into the tar-black water, leaves slicing through its silvery surface. With the sun sitting low, a red slash of high cloud burns across the sky and the only sounds are the lullaby of birdsong and monkey shrieks from high up in the tree canopy.
It’s a peaceful moment that ought to last forever but the vision is shattered by a babble of human voices and you’re back at your desk. Rain clouds are gathering outside the window. If only you could take a bit of time out: see the world, have the space to relax, collect your thoughts, and do the things you’ve always wanted to do. But the mortgage is lurking and the train prices keep rising, so the thought of giving up your job is way too risky.
Fortunately, there is a way to realise your dreams and have security. It’s called a sabbatical, or career break, and it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day.
A sabbatical is a kind of gap year for grown-ups who get to take their job back at the end of it. According to the dictionary, the word has a Biblical origin meaning a “Sabbath” time during which land is left fallow. It’s also a term for a period of leave traditionally granted every seven years to university lecturers to carry out research.
Today, it has come to mean an agreed period of – usually unpaid – leave for long-term employees for whatever purpose they choose, whether to travel, study, volunteer, spend time with family or otherwise. People who take career breaks tend to have a personal or professional aim because they appreciate that it’s a time-limited and probably one-off opportunity. However, the point of a sabbatical is that it’s a break – a rare moment in life when there is no pressure. The aim isn’t necessarily to achieve the goals but to have fun trying. It’s also an investment that may lead to future benefits.
In 2012, I jumped at the chance to take a sabbatical. I had served 9 years in the same company and felt that it was time to take a break from the routine and push myself in different ways. Once I’d plucked up the courage to ask my boss, the rest was easy. The boss agreed to my proposal and a few months later I packed up my belongings, headed off into the great unknown and didn’t look back until I was on the plane home a year later. The great unknown was South America, a place I’d fantasized about ever since school history lessons about the Incas and Aztecs put the continent onto my rudimentary world map. Sitting at my desk before my trip, I would never have imagined that I might find myself flying in a bi-plane over the Nazca lines, watching an avalanche at close range in Patagonia, or searching for anaconda in the Bolivian jungle.
I had some goals in mind: not simply to travel but to take my time and explore a region fully, to make a South American city my home, learn to speak Spanish fluently and acquire a new skill: teaching. For years, I had regretted not doing a course like several of my peers who had taught English abroad and this challenge would develop useful presentation skills and fine-tune my grammatical knowledge – all of which went down well with my company.
Sabbaticals are not just for the young and single. I met career-breakers of all types during my trip, including a French family with teenage children. They had taken advantage of a scheme offered in France to take their kids out of school for a year in order to travel. Their trip around South America was proving to be a bigger education than any classroom could offer, even though the children’s exam results that year may not have been as successful as usual. It was hard to tell if the moody teens were enjoying themselves as they moved from hostel to hostel, but it’s something they’ll probably look back on as a trip of a lifetime.
Ros at Machu Picchu
So what did I gain from my sabbatical experience? Well, I’ve learnt to appreciate what I have at home: my friends and family, a comfortable bed and good coffee. I have a host of new contacts and invitations to stay at homes around the world. I have thousands of beautiful photographs and happy memories. I feel slightly wiser and more self-sufficient, as I know I can get through demanding situations. I now know that I can teach, after all, and I understand some of the finer points of English grammar a little better. What I failed to achieve was total fluency in Spanish although I have improved. Ah well, as I said it’s the trying that counts…