If you’ve been reading this blog up until now you may have recognised the fact that we’re not all born to work 40 hours a week every year for 40 years with a few week long holidays thrown in every summer.
Instead we know that it’s critical to ensure that you take the time to relax, reset and take time away from the corporate work life. In https://thenomadwallet.com/mini-retirements-why-you-should-be-taking-one/ we discussed exactly how taking regular periods away from your workplace will likely benefit you massively in both your personal life and career.
The purpose of this week’s blog is to discuss and give actionable steps of how to successfully ask for a temporary career break. If you’ve not read the above post then you should check it out either before or after this upload.
What is a Career Break?
Put simply (and like Ronseal) it does exactly what it says on the tin. A career break is a period of time in which an employee is given an extended period of leave by their employer. Usually these are unpaid but you are retained as an employee of the company and will have a guaranteed career to return to afterwards. These are also know as sabbaticals although generally these are for an entire year.
My last career break was for 4 ½ months between November 2019 and March 2020 and thankfully I only had to cut it around 2 weeks short due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During a career break you are free to spend your time as you see fit but usually one of the stipulations of your employer is that you cannot take up full time employment elsewhere. The most common reasons for a career break are:
- Travel/Backpacking – this is exactly how I spent my career break as I backpacked my way around SE Asia
- Parenthood – Although new parents are granted additional maternity/paternity leave it may be that the parent wishes to spend a greater amount of time with their newborn.
- Development of new skills – Perhaps you hate your job and want to change industries but don’t have the confidence to quit and then learn a new employable skill. With a career break you could spend a few months mastering something you enjoy whilst having the security of knowing you can return to your old job if it doesn’t work out.
So now that we all understand exactly what a career break/sabbatical/mini retirement is, it’s time to document a step by step plan of how to ensure your request has the best chance of success.
Step 1 – Plan your break ahead of time
It is critical that before applying for something like a career break with your employer you hold a number of cards in the negotiation. Employees are paid a wage by their employer because they generate value for the business and therefore in most cases it is not in the companies best interest to approve long term leave even if it is unpaid. The best way to gain approval is to have an agreement that meets both yours and their interests. In order to achieve this it is much easier if you give yourself time to complete actions by planning ahead of time. During this time you need to:
- Decide on a rough plan of how you will spend on your career break and what you will be doing. Whether you plan on asking for one month or one year unpaid may drastically affect other steps you may take.
- Create a rough budget of the money you will need during the break – I know if I repeated my last career break I would require roughly £2,000 a month to live the way I did before.
- Build up an FU fund – as you will likely be unpaid during your career break it is essential that you have the money saved to enjoy yourself – don’t go into credit card debt to achieve this. Also the bigger your savings pot the further you distance yourself from being ‘owned’ by your employer and desperately needing your paycheck each month.
Doing the above gives you time to prepare for your potential career break and your employer is more able to pre-arrange cover for you.
Step 2 – Understand how your employer will be affected by your absence
Before you can put anything in place to mitigate your absence you need to understand exactly what are:
- The key roles of your job
- Who you are working for – Is it your direct supervisor, outside of this or both
- How critical each key role is for the company
- Determine if these roles are year round or seasonal
Do the above and you should end up with a version of the table below. This table is mine from my last career break. To help you make more sense of it I was the apprentice manager at a power station for roughly 20 maintenance apprentices. Day to day these apprentices were based either within the maintenance teams completing tasks or at college and the apprentices were either employed by my power station or a new one being built very close to us (by the same company).
|Apprentice Manager Role – Step 2|
|Key Roles of Task||Who This is For||How Critical is This? (1-5)||Year Round or Seasonal|
|Individual Monthly Apprentice Reviews||Maintenance Manager||1 (Most Critical)||All Year|
|Daily Walkdowns of work sites||Maintenance Group Head||2||All Year|
|Review of Apprentice on Site Training Records||Maintenance Manager||3||All Year|
|Review of apprentice HNC/Foundation Degree Progress||Maintenance Manager||4||During College Terms|
|Line Manager Role – Sickness, holiday, pay etc.||Maintenance Group Head||1||All Year|
|Teaching of training courses||Maintenance Manager||1||Summer Only|
|Liaising with maintenance team leaders||Maintenance Team Leaders||4||All Year|
|Liaising with managers at new power station (employed 1/2 of the apprentices I trained)||New Power Station – Head of Training||2||All Year|
|Liaising with other apprentice managers in the power station fleet||Maintenance Manager||4||All Year|
|Liaising with college instructors/manager||Maintenance Manager||5||During College Terms|
|Design of new training strategies||Training Manager||3||All Year|
|Personal Training||Maintenance Group Head||3||All Year|
Review the above table and create your own relevant to your own job.
Step 3 – Create a plan of how to minimise the negative effects of your absence
The easiest way to have your career break request approved is to make your absence have the least negative consequences to whoever has the power to approve the request. Once you have created your own version of the above table you can begin to delve into how you have eliminated this as an issue for your supervisor/employer.
This will be a much easier step if you have formed good relationships with colleagues and supervisors around you who will want to help and allow you to have the trip of a lifetime. During my employment I had cultivated many of these relationships and was generally very happy to help and support others – this allowed me to call in favours.
Once you have completed this you should end up with something similar to the below.
|Apprentice Manager Role – Step 2|
|Key Roles of Task||Who This is For||How Critical is This? (1-5)||Year Round or Seasonal||Plan to Minimise Diruptions for Employer|
|Individual Monthly Apprentice Reviews||Maintenance Manager||1 (Most Critical)||All Year||Mechanical apprentices to complete with mechanical team leader (TL) Elec apps with Elec TL|
Instrument apps with instrument TL
|Daily Walkdowns of work sites||Maintenance Group Head||3||All Year||Weekly by relevant team leader as part of their walkdowns with their team members.|
|Review of Apprentice on Site Training Records||Maintenance Manager||3||All Year||All planned ahead of myself leaving for the duration of time whilst person I knew well in the training department agreed to deal with any emergent issues|
|Review of apprentice HNC/Foundation Degree Progress||Maintenance Manager||4||During College Terms||Minimal importance and would be covered by TL in monthly review meeting|
|Line Manager Role – Sickness, holiday, pay etc.||Maintenance Group Head||1||All Year||Delegated on HR system to previous apprentice manager who was now a maintenance TL|
|Teaching of training courses||Maintenance Manager||1||Summer Only||Took career break outside of summer break|
|Liaising with maintenance team leaders||Maintenance Team Leaders||4||All Year||Minimal importance – No need to arrange cover|
|Liaising with managers at new power station (employed 1/2 of the apprentices I trained)||New Power Station – Head of Training||2||All Year||TL would sent notes from monthly meetings to contacts I gave them.|
|Liaising with other apprentice managers in the power station fleet||Maintenance Manager||4||All Year||Quarterly meeting in person – Notes sent to me to catch up when returned.|
Bi-Weekly Meeting – Missed and any major changes sent to previous apprentice manager
|Liaising with college instructors/manager||Maintenance Manager||5 (Least Critical)||During College Terms||Minimal importance – No need to arrange cover.|
|Design of new training strategies||Training Manager||3||All Year||No need to cover for period of time I was away for|
|Emergent Issues||Maintenance Manager||1||All Year||Previous apprentice manager and one other maintenance team leader agreed to cover emergent issues between themselves|
From the above table you can see how critical it is to have formed good and real relationships with colleagues as without this it would have been incredibly difficult to have secured the support I needed.
It may be that you are unable to find support for a critical role you undertake, if so is there the possibility to take your break when this isn’t an issue or can you front load the work so that it’s completed before you leave? If not then your supervisor may be able to find the solution or delegate it. If you want to be a little more crafty then there is also no need to mention every single role you complete before you gain written agreement.
Step 4 – Outline your request to your direct supervisor
Even if your direct supervisor is not the person who has the authority to approve the career break request it is still essential to speak to them first and use the strategy in step 3 to gain their approval. This approval can then be used as ammunition when requesting the break to whoever has the authority to approve this lengthy absence.
If they don’t understand how you can minimise the effects of your absence then bring in those you have created ‘agreements’ with for assistance to help fight your case.
If your supervisor is unreasonable and your points are being ignored then it become more difficult but go above them for approval if necessary.
In this case I find the best method for this discussion is a relaxed, informal chat over tea or coffee in private. Bring the table from step 4 with you as a prompt and make sure you really take the time to be enthusiastic about the trip and how much you are looking forward to it etc. It will be much harder for them to say no if they like you.
Step 4 – Outline your request to manager with authority to approve
My personal preference for this step is to initially open the request through an email but with a meeting planned at a later time to discuss in person. Immediately after sending my email I requested a private meeting in person through outlook. This forces the person to review your request and then you can chat informally in person to answer their questions and try your best to win them over.
Your email should roughly follow the template below although this was personal to my situation:
As you know, early this year I spent 3 weeks on holiday travelling across Thailand alone. During this time I met new friends, had amazing experiences and really fell in love with the culture. At the end of the 3 weeks it was hard for me to return home but I am committed to my career and want to continue to develop myself within this organisation.
Since returning to work I have found myself more enthusiastic and engaged and my performance within my role has improved but part of me is longing to return and explore more of the world. I am writing this as I would like to request the possibility of an extended period of leave from my role as apprentice manager to return to SE Asia and develop myself as a person whilst having the trip of my lifetime. The period of time I would like to request is (insert dates or number of months).
I understand that I have an important role in your department which carries a number of responsibilities and I have spent a large amount of time working on a solution to minimise the disruption that my absence will cause. In relation to this I have attached (table from step 3) which I would please ask you to review before meeting me in person for a friendly discussion (I have organised a follow up appointment with your assistant).
As someone who has worked here as an apprentice since 16 I genuinely believe that taking a break from my employment and taking the time to travel to new countries and cultures will allow me to gain a huge amount of confidence and skills that will benefit me in my future career path within this organisation.
I look forward to talking to you, answering any questions you have and working towards any further solutions that would make this a possibility.
In this email you need to be clear with exactly what you want, how it will benefit the company, how it will benefit you and your career path and how you have managed to minimise disruptions. Make sure to adopt a friendly manner (base this on your relationship with the person) and try to make them feel guilty about saying no to you.
Step 5 – Begin to take action and prepare for your break
Once your career break has been approved it is imperative that you now take action on the agreements you have made with your supervisor. You will need to do the following:
- Create ‘how to’ lists for those covering roles your job entails. These lists need to be clear enough that the person helping you has their life made as easy as possible. Alongside this you do not want to be getting constantly contacted on your break for explanations.
- Get ahead of the game where possible. If you have actions that you normally complete every x number of weeks/months do these ahead of time so that they are ‘in the bank’ for use whilst you are away. An example of this was when I created a training course early that would be needed around 3 months into my career break.
- Complete a handover document. This document needs to list your to-dos, contact details for stakeholders as well as any information needed for somebody else to take over your role.
- Create calendar appointments – plan ahead of time as far as possible to make it simple for your replacement. For example I booked outlook appointments throughout my career break for the relevant persons to attend and discuss the subject. It’s unlikely they’re experienced at your job so make life easy.
- Handover period – During the last month begin to invite those covering you to appointments and meetings so they can learn the role and ask questions whilst you are available. You should also take the time out to show them exactly how to complete some of your most common (or complex) issues.
Additional Potential Steps/Tips
- Push for and take as much employer paid for training as possible – if you give an ultimatum (after they turn down your request) they are more likely to back down if they have spent large sums training you. In my case I completed 4 very expensive years of apprentice training and a paid for engineering foundation degree. Be aware however that this may make it more difficult for you to leave – balance this against your risk tolerance and whether you would be willing to or in a position to threaten to leave over the outcome.
- Offer to work remotely part time – It may be that in step 3 you found a critical role that cannot be delegated to another person and it cannot wait for you to return. Discuss whether it would be possible to complete this remotely (maybe 1 day a week etc.). This will of course depend on the role and your plans.
- Commit to additional responsibilities when you return – is there a small job that nobody wants that causes headaches for your boss. If so (and if possible) offer to take this on upon your return on the condition that your request is accepted. Do not offer to do this before initial discussions have taken place.
- Discuss if your career break is split across two years – If it’s not possible for you to miss such a large period of work in one chunk can you split it into 2? I spent 4 months away during my last period and I would have accepted two months off for two years in a row instead. Again do not offer until initial discussions have taken place.
- Look for opportunities within your role – perhaps you are consultant and your period with a customer is ending in a number of months. If there are no plans for you after this use this as an excuse as to how your absence will benefit the company. In cases like this it is also possible to discuss something like a retainer although the tone of the email/discussion will need to change.
- If you have to choose between arranging cover for your roles choose the one for which whoever is approving the leave is directly responsible. If it won’t be their problem they will likely have less of a concern.
These steps are certainly not applicable to many situations and generally do not commit to things you do not want to do unless you know there is no hope otherwise.
Finally ask for at least the maximum of what you want – If you request a 6 month break it is likely that your employer may offer 3 and you will potentially both settle on 4-5 months. In the same case if you had asked for 3 months you may only be offered 2 etc.
During the writing of this post one thing has stood out to me the most and that is the sheer importance of fostering great relationships with your colleagues. If the people around you have no interest in your happiness and do not want you to take the break I can see how it would be extremely difficult to gain approval.
Take the time at work to be friendly, talk about their lives and their hobbies and most importantly offer your help without the expectation of something in return. Do this often and when the time comes that you need something someone will want to help you achieve your goals.
For me the approver of my request was the maintenance manager of a large power station and he was responsible for over 150 people. The approach I have found with those in a position of senior leadership is not to ‘suck up’ but actually try and have a fun conversation with them. Generally everyone else will talk to them exclusively about matters relating to the company thinking this will make them seem engaged, caring and a ‘company man/woman’ – instead have a laugh and a joke whilst discussing your role, what you have been undertaking but also interesting experiences in your private life. Become someone they will want to stop and talk to and it will become much easier to get what you want.