How to take a sabbatical.

Source: Financial News
Date: 12/2/2003

Byline: Sarah Butcher

A few weeks holiday a year can be totally inadequate. After deducting time for seeing relatives, doing up your house and building sandcastles, an activity such as learning a foreign language or writing a novel is usually out of the question. For that, it may be necessary to take a sabbatical.

Sabbaticals have their roots in academia, where university teachers have traditionally been granted a year of paid leave for every seven or so years worked. They are increasingly cropping up in financial services

Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB), Schroder Investment Management, and Watson Wyatt, the investment consultant, are among the employers that sometimes allow staff periods of extended leave.

A Citigroup spokesperson said sabbaticals were part of its commitment to providing work/life balance: "Any individual can request an unpaid sabbatical leave of absence up to a maximum of one year.'

Robert Hingley, head of German investment banking at Citigroup, took a year off starting in April to study history. After 18 years with the bank, his motivation was simple: 'I wanted to have a break and do something that has no purpose other than pure interest in the subject.'

Other people take a break to further their career, by doing an MSc, for example. Whatever your motivation, disappearing for months on end carries risks. Before taking a sabbatical, it is worth paying them some attention.

Brian Sullivan, former head of the US financial services practice at Russell Reynolds, a headhunter, says employers and clients have short memories: 'When you are in a deal-driven business, your clients won't wait for you to come back. Relationships grow old and someone else will step into your place.'

Sullivan took a sabbatical from Russell Reynolds in the US in February 2002 and says he intended to return full-time. But 16 months later he opted to work for it just one day a week, while devoting much of the rest of his time to setting up a real estate business.

As well as eroding client contacts, he says, sabbaticals can lead to an unforeseen change of heart: 'What you find on sabbaticals is there is a whole different world out there: there are other ways to make money than 80 hour weeks and lots of overnight flights.'

This can be advantageous if you are thinking of changing career. Simon Broomer, a consultant at Career Energy, a career counselling firm, says he deals with many bankers for whom sabbaticals are an opportunity to look at life from a different perspective: 'Banking is very intensive. Sometimes people need time away just to think about how they got there.'

If you do expect to go back to your earlier role, you will need to prepare the ground carefully. Broomer advises his clients to talk candidly with employers about their intentions, and to discuss the feasibility of keeping their existing job open.

When Robert Gall, former head of European fixed income at Schroder Investment Management, took a sixth-month sabbatical to go travelling in December 2002, he secured a guarantee that he would be able to return to a similar role.

Even without it, he says he would have gone anyway: 'It was something I really wanted to do before getting married. I would have been prepared to go, and look for another job.' As it turned out, he did not return to Schroder.

A senior trader who took a paid sabbatical for a year received a similar guarantee. 'I had an understanding with management that they would offer me a portfolio of possible roles. But at a senior level roles don't come up very often, and it is difficult to find the right fit.' He eventually came back, but to a sales role.

Whether you intend to return to a similar job, or do something completely different, it is worth planning carefully what you will do during your time away. Gall says six months can easily be squandered:

'Plan ahead. Time will fly. While six months spent doing something you are really interested in can enhance your career, six months spent wondering what to do next will not.'

Outside assistance can help. Organisations such as i-i Ventures can structure voluntary working breaks. I-i offers everything from assignments teaching English in Africa, to working with a women's collective in Bolivia.

Simon Chambers, a consultant at i-i, says an increasing number of people are taking time out. 'All our applicants used to be students on their gap year. During the past year that has changed. Over 50% are now aged over 35.'

Many people regard sabbaticals as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Joshua White, author of 'Taking a Career Break' says improving career prospects should not be the major motivation for taking time out.

'The break should be.......a unique opportunity to step back and examine one's life and lifestyle and to enrich and broaden interests and experiences', says White.

Some employers agree. Watson Wyatt offers sabbaticals of up to one year for all employees with more than 10 years' service. A spokesman says: "People are free to spend the time as they choose.

"It's about letting people become refreshed and recharge their batteries. No one has lain on a beach so far, but if they did, we wouldn't object.'