I’ve been working solidly for 25 years and would now like to take a sabbatical. As a senior team leader in my industry, some colleagues think I am wrong to take my foot off the pedal. But I’m in my late 40s and feel I need a break. I plan to take six months to travel from the top of North America to the bottom of South America. Am I committing career suicide? HF, Dubai
While many dream of taking time off mid-career, few have the courage to do so as they fear they will have to return at the back of the line. Yet popular articles and videos on social media now show that the number of people taking lengthy sabbaticals earlier or later in life is increasing. We all deserve a break from mundane work life now and again, and 25 years in the workplace certainly warrants some time out. Companies today are also more open to the idea, especially for those who have shown their loyalty through years of service. Some companies even offer this time off as a retention tool as they know the physical and psychological benefits of providing breathing space for their employees.
Progressing into a senior position in your industry is something you should be proud of. But, you also say you need a break. Feeling drained, tired and depleted is unfortunately common for workers who have spent most of their lives contributing to organisations and in simple terms are burnt out. Realising this feeling is one thing yet doing something about it is another. It is a testament to your own self-awareness and insight that you are willing to take a big step out of your comfort zone and give your batteries a much-needed boost – even if this decision is surprising and daunting to your co-workers.
Corporate life can also get extremely repetitive sometimes as we find ourselves fighting the same battles day after day. I also sometimes feel like I am in the film Groundhog Day, following the same routine daily. Yet we bring it on ourselves, finding safety by falling into the same traps over and over again. Research says that 80 per cent of our behaviour falls under autopilot mode. Sometimes this can be helpful as it helps us conserve energy; but other times it leaves us completely stuck. This feeling can be rather frustrating and we need to do something drastically different to shake ourselves out of it. That is exactly what you are doing, but rather than join a cooking class and learning to cook Mexican food, you have decided to take the radical leap to taste real Mexican salsa first-hand.
Your colleagues are probably envious as you are willing to do something very different and leap outside your comfort zone to experience fulfilment rather than sticking to safe decisions. I wouldn’t say you are taking your foot off the pedal at all, but instead learning a new driving style that will help you keep fuel in the tank for longer. It is highly likely that many of your colleagues will be running on empty when you return.
If you think about your 25-year career so far, six months is nothing in comparison to your overall business contribution. Rather than seeing it as a step back, view it as a personal development project in which you will learn, grow and develop in ways that are impossible stuck at the office. This experience will enhance your ability to lead, as you will encounter new and interesting people on your travels. It will help to shape you better, personally and professionally. You will return to the workplace energised and with a greater sense of purpose.
To put this perspective, I was recently talking to a working mother about returning to work after a period of maternity leave. I asked if she was nervous about getting back to work after six months and she confidently stated that she was not. Her brand was built around her expertise, competence and attitude and these things don’t have an expiry date. Be confident in yourself and the knowledge you have gained, and give yourself the six months you deserve, as the experience is worth many years more.
It takes courage to break out of the safety net of habits that underpin our working lives, but if working solidly for 25 years doesn’t give you a six-month pass to North and South America, then nothing will. Appreciate what you have achieved in your career so far, keep in mind the different and beneficial experience you will gain during the travel journey, and when you return re-energised and ready for the next 25 years of your career, others will too.
Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on any work issues.
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