From time to time, you might find yourself taking a break from your career. Whether as part of an effort to recover from burnout or as the result of job market fluctuations, this could be an ideal opportunity to recharge and take stock of where you are and where you’d like to be.
However, taking a break from your career can raise concerns. How will taking an extended break affect your career in the long term? Will it cause problems down the road? How can you play the experience to your personal and professional advantage?
It’s possible—but only if you plan accordingly and maximize the positive aspects of your leave. It all depends on how you spend this time to make it into an opportunity for future growth in your career.
Taking a sabbatical.
It’s tempting to think of a sabbatical as a long vacation. Sure, a temporary leave from your job can be a good time to refresh and recharge, but it can also be an opportunity to network, hone your skills, and explore your field.
According to the Journal of Applied Psychology, sabbaticals promote well-being: They can reduce stress and burnout, replenish health and energy, increase professional knowledge, and contribute to professional advancement. The journal also reported that greater well-being during a sabbatical, even if it’s temporary, is a good indicator of higher productivity after returning to work.
A sabbatical can and should be much more than just a vacation if you’re serious about advancing your career. Use your sabbatical to meet new people—online and in person—and to reconnect with your existing network. Attend seminars and professional association meetings. Read books relevant to your chosen field and use that knowledge to overhaul your approach to work. Mixing rest and relaxation with activities that enhance your motivation and productivity will put you in good stead with your employer—and maybe with future employers.
Going back to school.
Going back to school is one of the best reasons for taking a break from your career. It’s also a great way to enrich an unexpected break, like a furlough or layoff.
But the impact it has depends on how well you take advantage of your education. Your primary objective should be self-development and self-improvement; you should fully understand—and be able to articulate to prospective employers—how the coursework or training will translate into practical know-how and applicable skill sets.
In other words, you have to justify why the education you’re after warrants taking a break from your career—not only to employers, but to yourself as a developing professional and individual. Your temporary pivot from work to school must be not just a stepping stone but a springboard that helps you add value to any team, project, or company. Your coursework should be a career accelerator—not just a time to listen to lectures and complete assignments, but a time to develop and apply real-world skills.
Leveraging your schooling to your professional advantage means tapping into the vast knowledge base of your instructors and the academic support staff. They are allies and resources that can guide you and answer your questions. From admissions all the way through alumni services, an accredited school ought to be your guidepost in transforming your career gap into a career booster.
Sharing your time, effort, and talent through volunteering is not only an admirable thing to do; it’s also a worthy way to add to your skills and your knowledge base, and you should approach it as such. Employers appreciate proactive people and self-starters, and helping out in your community is proof that you weren’t sitting idle during your time off from your career.
Pro bono work is “the kind of thing you can brag about,” says Great Place to Work partner Jonathan Becker, as long as it provides leadership opportunities and the chance to pick up new skills in addition to providing a personal reward. Your best strategy is to identify volunteer work that’s relevant to your career path and that can help you showcase your work ethic, leadership abilities, and take-charge attitude—if you plan it right, a volunteering stint that makes you irresistible to your next employer.
Parlaying your volunteer experience to your professional advantage shouldn’t be your only reason—or even your main reason—for pursuing volunteer work. Still, you should collect new network contacts along the way, add new skills or sharpen out-of-date ones (e.g., event planning, canvassing for donations, serving on or leading committees), and jump at every chance to prove that you’re a community leader and a go-getter in any given situation.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to taking a break from your career or maximizing one that was unexpected. The common thread is to make the most of your sabbatical, schooling, or volunteer opportunity and to optimize the potential for personal and professional growth. If you do, you can leverage your break into a breakthrough as you continue on your chosen career path.