What Nobody Tells You About Taking a Sabbatical Break

Around a year ago, on March 2016, I embarked on a mini-career break and hopped around 43 European cities. Later that year, I pulled a September break to 25 Morocco destinations + 6 days in Jordan + Abu Dhabi layover.

Having lived through a long and winding year, I feel I have finally let enough time to sink in to reflect the experience on a wider perspective. I aim to give this my honest thoughts instead of over-romanticizing the idea, and hopefully this can be a guide for those considering to take a career break.

Should I take a sabbatical from work?

At one point in life, we chanced upon the thoughts of taking a career break.

It isn’t a simple decision. I spent many nights jotting down pros and cons, discussing with my parents and closed ones before coming into a firm conclusion. Here are a couple of things to reflect thoroughly.

Evaluating your real motivation

There are different reasons why people take a career break.

  • Maybe you needed to re-charge after spending years in the rat race of a modern life.
  • Perhaps it’s time to follow your life-long dreams to see the world and immerse in different cultures.
  • Some people may be considering to take professional education or development abroad, and put their career on hold while doing so.
  • Or it could be a major life milestone. Honeymoon, special anniversary, divorce or death of a loved one can make us question our life priorities.
  • Perhaps you’ve decided to forge a new path for yourself—to close a chapter of your life and open a new one.

Whatever your motivation is, ask yourself this question: “Will this career break help you improve (or heal, or better realize yourself) in the long run, or are you just seeking a quick escape from a spur-of-the-moment problem?”

Problems do not vanish just because you are one thousand miles away from home. If you run into relationship disagreement or work difficulties, the best way is to face the problem and resolve it through discussion with your partner or supervisor.

A sabbatical will not “magically” make you a better person

Let me tell you the story behind my two breaks.

For my first break, I was actually doing quite well at work. I had a managerial job with decent pay, colleagues were nice and I gelled with my bosses. But it was time to pursue my career aspiration in travel industry, and having spent 4 years outside the industry, it was now or never. If I stayed longer, I’d be “over-qualified” for an entry-level position yet “under-qualified” for lacking relevant industry experience.

I couldn’t be happier as the trip did partially bridge me into a travel career.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

My experience in Arab countries made me a better planner for Middle East packages,
which turns out to be a good asset since I was aiming for a career in a travel industry.

On my second break, I was lucky to be in between jobs and had some time before my new job commenced. Unfortunately, a few days before my scheduled departure, I fell into a row with a closed one. The trip couldn’t “heal” anything. Throughout the trip, there’s a lingering thought which prevented me from fully enjoying the trip. The prolonged problem worsened the situation and by the time I returned, it was beyond rescue.

It affected me badly and took a toll on all aspects of my life for months. And while the travel break was already planned before we had a row, it did illustrate how destructive the trip became.

It’s important to be honest in knowing the real reason behind your break.

Is it the right time for you to take the sabbatical?

Taking a sabbatical is not a small matter, and understanding how your non-presence affects others is crucial.

It is important to talk to your closed ones and see what they think about it. For instance, if you have a sick relative, old folks or young children, you may need to re-think your decision or figure out a way to ensure they will be well taken care of while you’re away. And let’s not forget that bringing your family together on the road is an option too!

At work, a haphazard resignation could result in burning bridges, which could potentially harm you as potential employers will often ask your former companies for character reference. Timing your exit right, however, could even get your employer to support on your way towards your new path.

In my case, I was the only manager in the department and so I offered to extend my notice period to 2 months so that there’d be sufficient time to hire new people and I personally trained a few people to take over my duties. I am glad that my former employer wrote me a glowing reference and had since been helpful in my subsequent job interviews.

What about the money? Isn’t travel expensive?

Travel can be as cheap or as expensive as you want.

Many countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central America, South America and Eastern Europe can be very budget-friendly. Even when it comes to expensive places like Scandinavia, knowing how to cut cost when it comes to accommodation, food, transport and entertainment can make a difference to your wallet. For instance, read my guide on How to Travel Europe on a Budget (including Scandinavia).

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest cost me only EUR 19 in total, including accommodation!

Of course, that being said, money doesn’t fall from the sky. There are many ways to make money on the road. For instance, you can teach languages, do online freelance jobs or work in local establishments such as hostels, restaurants or cruise ships.

The easiest way? Save up and cut down your daily expenses on secondary stuff. One less branded bag or staying put with your perfectly fine iPhone 4 while resisting temptation to buy the latest model can feed you for months on a low-cost country.

Do estimate how long your saving will allow you to be on the road. In the case that you do not have a job secured already, make sure your saving is also sufficient to sustain you for at least 6-12 months upon your return.

Speaking of which…

Returning to work after a career break

Before leaving your job, the best case would be to negotiate a sabbatical break and agree to return to the same job or have a new job contract already signed with a later start date. Or if you run your own company or have a family business, this could be an option too.

If you are mentally prepared, you can always look for a job once you return. Needless to say, you will be asked about your resume gap. However, this is not something to be afraid of. If you had a good reason for your career break to begin with—which boils back to evaluating your motivation—this shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.

It’s also a matter of being able to demonstrate how your sabbatical shapes you into a better employee. Planning, budget management, problem-solving, international/cultural exposure are just some of the many desirable work skills which you gain as you travel.

Myth: Career gap makes you unemployable
Fact: It could take weeks/months before you are employed again

I actually landed a job contract just within 2 weeks upon returning, which I turned down because it wasn’t the best fit. I was also in talk with a few other companies, three of which expressed strong interest to hire me, but it took 1.5 months before we officially signed on the dotted line.

Recruitment takes time, so you still have to be mentally and monetarily prepared for the possibility of being out of work for a couple of months.

This is keeping in mind that 2016 was considered a bad year economically and there were talks about low job vacancies in the market. Fairly enough, this can differ between industries and job functions.

Of course, you also have to have the right expectation. If you had been working as an accountant all your life (and doing a good job at it), you’ll get a job much faster if you apply for an accountant role; but you might be out of job for a longer time if you are switching to a completely different role. And if you hadn’t exactly been good at your last job, chance is employers won’t be exactly lining up to hire you either.

But overall, I believe that if you are a good employer and had parted with your old company on a good note, this will speak for itself and it’s just a matter of time before you return into the workforce again. And any company who choose to unfairly judge you for a resume gap without evaluating your rationale probably is not the kind of company you want to work for anyway.

A few other things to take note of…

  • Visa: Check all the visa requirements before traveling. Can it be applied while you are in your home residence? Can it be applied while you are on the road, and in which cities do they have embassy/consulate? Also, some visas are easier to get if you apply while you are employed.
  • Insurance: Make sure you are insured because things can sometimes go wrong while you are on the road for a long time. Read about my most memorable travel misfortunes here, here and here.
  • Vaccination: Know exactly what you need to be vaccinated against. Consult with your trusted doctor if you’re unsure.
  • Passport: Make sure it has a minimum of six months’ validity at the time of your return (e.g. if your sabbatical is from 1 January to 31 March, your passport’s validity must be at least 31 August or later). Else, check where you can get it replaced while you are abroad.
  • International adaptor: We live in a digital age and sockets differ greatly between countries.
  • Currency: Change at least to a reasonable amount to allow you to live comfortably for the first week.
  • Pack lightly: Heavy luggage can drag you down, or even make your journey less enjoyable.

Last but definitely not least, enjoy your travel break!

Also Read: Best Places to Visit for a Sabbatical Break. And make sure you like my Facebook page to receive more travel inspirations on your newsfeed.

Have you ever considered taking a sabbatical break before?

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