To work or not to work, that is the question? I think for most people who go on a grown up gap year this is one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make. I guess that choosing what to do about your job while you’re away very much depends on the reasons you’ve decided to make your trip in the first place. If it’s because you a) hate your job b) hate your boss or c) hate the people you work with (or, possibly d) all of the above), then it’s a bit of a no-brainer. But it’s not always as black and white as that.
For me, quitting my job was the only option if I wanted to go travelling and a number of things eventually led me to make that decision, most of which I wrote about here. I also felt like I needed some time away from my work to see whether it was the career I wanted to continue with in the future. Although being a journalist was all I’d ever dreamed of doing, and there were still so many aspects of the job I loved, I’d also become a bit disillusioned with some things along the way and I felt like a break would do me good and give me the time to think about what I wanted.
However if you enjoy what you do and it’s just a case of needing a change or a bit of a break then the prospect of packing it all in for the sake of a few months can seem daunting. That’s why sabbaticals are so great. They give you the chance to go away, have a bit of freedom, safe in the knowledge that when you get back your job will be waiting for you.
I think more companies are now cottoning on to the idea that happy employees are more productive employees and many now look quite favourably on allowing their staff to take a career break. I also met some people on my trip who had used the current economic climate to their benefit by asking for a year off work from companies who were quite willing to pay one less salary for a time.
As I have never been brave enough to do it, I spoke to the lovely Lucy Dodsworth, of www.ontheluce.com, how she went about asking her boss for a ten week sabbatical to visit New Zealand.
What was your situation when you decided to ask for a sabbatical?
I’d been working for a London university for about three years as a publications officer, producing their range of three annual prospectuses. It was a really hectic job for about nine months of the year, but in the autumn it got very quiet. I’d been on a round-the-world trip through Asia and Australia about five years before, but ran out of money before I made it to New Zealand, and I really wanted to go back and see the country. I worked out I needed about 10 weeks to see what I wanted in New Zealand and do a couple of stopovers, which I could fit into my quiet period at work.
Why did you decide to take a sabbatical?
I’d already give up a previous job to do my round-the-world trip and although I managed to get a job when I get back, I didn’t know if it would be so easy this time. Also my last trip was a long-term one and this time I didn’t plan to be away so long so it was less worth the risk. Plus I did still enjoy my job, I just wanted to be able to travel too.
How did you go about asking your boss for one?
I asked about six months before I wanted to go away to give plenty of time to sort out the details. I tried to plan out for any questions she would have in advance, by setting out a schedule for the year and showing how my trip could fit in with it, and suggesting how any problems could be dealt with while I was away. I picked a time to have the meeting just after the last set of prospectuses had been launched and everyone was really pleased with them too! I ended up taking four weeks of holiday (so had to ration it for the rest of the year) and six weeks of unpaid leave.
How did your colleagues react to your decision?
The company did have a formal sabbatical scheme set up, but you had to have been there for five years and I didn’t know of anyone in my department who’d taken one. I don’t think my colleagues were all that surprised as I always took a lot of holidays and they knew all about my passion for travel. My job was unusual as it was on such a seasonal schedule so the company didn’t have to worry that lots of other people would want to do the same as their situations were different.
Was your trip it worth it? (An easy one I’m sure!)
Definitely! I loved New Zealand as much as I thought I would and managed to see everything I wanted to in the time I was out there, plus I fit in stopovers in California and Hong Kong on the way out and back. I’d saved up before I went, but knowing I was coming back to a full-time job meant that I didn’t worry about money so much and could splash out on a few things.
Was it difficult to settle back into the workplace having been away?
Not really as there had been someone covering any day-to-day updates so I didn’t have too much to catch up on and went straight into working on the next prospectus. It was a bit hard to motivate myself to start with but I came back to work in December so I didn’t have long until the Christmas break which helped. Long-term though it made me realise that I didn’t want to be tied to a nine-to-five job, so a year later I left to go freelance which is what I’ve been doing since.
What would be your advice to anyone thinking about taking a sabbatical?
Make sure that you think about any questions or concerns that your boss might have so you are prepared. Also try and be as keen, helpful and good at your job as you can be in the run up so they see how indispensable you are!
What was your situation when you decided to ask for a sabbatical?
I was working as assistant sports editor for a group of newspapers, running the sports production department. I’d been in journalism for 20 years, working in Cardiff for nine years, was honing in on my 40th birthday and with a mortgage – not exactly a normal candidate to jack it all in.
The trip was from London to New York without flying, heading across Europe to Moscow, through Russia and Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Beijing, a loop around China and a cruise ship across the Pacific to Alaska. We then took a sleeper bus across North America to New York. That all took three months and I then spent a couple of months on a road trip before heading home. The original plan was to head off on my travels again after a bit, but I’m still working on that one. Got a bit sidetracked, but travel has sort of taken over my life.
Why did you want to take a sabbatical?
Strangely, I’d never really wanted to do the traditional gap year when younger – not sure I’d have made the most of it. I did a few bits of travel writing with work, mainly skiing, which set me thinking about that line of work and then really caught the travelling bug when I did manage to get six weeks off work a few years back and went on a US road trip with a mate.
From then on, the idea of doing something bigger was kicking around in my head and then the same friend found the London to New York trip online and it seemed the right thing to do and the right time to do it.
How long a sabbatical did you ask for?
Six months, which is what my contract allowed after five years’ service – as I said, I’d been there nine.
How did you feel when your sabbatical request was turned down? Did you instantly make the decision to quit your job or did you have to think about it?
Not too surprised, it was the way things were going at the time. It took quite a while to get the final verdict, which was frustrating, but was what I expected – not sure any have been granted since then. In the end, it turned into a good thing as the trip – the first of its kind – was delayed a year.
A few months later, we were sat having a few beers after work (some journalism traditions are harder to kill than others) and the subject came up again. Pretty much there and then, my friend and I committed to go, went back to the bar and toasted our big adventure. I went home, booted up the laptop, sent the company organising the trip an e-mail and, miraculously, it still seemed a good idea the next morning. Within a couple of days, I’d booked.
I didn’t actually have to quit my job for a few months, but the decision was pretty easy.
My dad had always told my mum he would take her to Singapore and Malaysia, where he did his National Service, when they retired. As it turned out, neither of them got the chance before they died and that made up my mind – don’t put it off until tomorrow, because you never know what is round the corner.
How did your boss/colleagues react to your decision to quit?
I spent three months denying that I was leaving and the next three explaining why. It slipped out that I had applied (without success) for the latest in an endless series of redundancies, so it was a pretty open secret. Boss was not happy when he had two senior staff hand their notice in on the same day (my mate did the same), but worked hard to keep it amicable – doing some freelance work back there was my fall back when I returned.
Was your trip it worth it? (An easy one I’m sure!)
Undoubtedly. It was the best thing I’ve done and it has changed my life hugely. Make a lot less money now, but that is nothing compared to what I learned, what I saw, the memories I’ve got and, most importantly, the friends I made. And there’s, hopefully, another trip not too far away (unless my boss reads this, in which case I’ve got nothing planned. Honestly).
How easy was it to get a job when you returned? Did you stay in the same career area?
Remarkably easy. When I first returned, I got enough freelance subbing shifts back at my old office to live on and have a few beers – somehow ended up duty editing a paper one night, which they’d never let me do when I actually worked there (even if it was just so somebody could go home early on a Saturday night).
I’d kept in touch with the small company that had run the trip and applied for a job as a tour leader. They turned that one down due to lack of experience, but they took me on in the office, dealing with marketing, the website and dealing with clients – I got paid to write and talk to people about travelling and I can do that for hours.
Sadly, the company had a few problems, got taken over and the new owner decided he didn’t want to run the long overland trips (he’s since shut the company down), so I left. I’m back in journalism in Cheltenham, living back home in Gloucester and, in my spare time, running Epic Overland with a former colleague. We set up the company running the London to New York trip and London to Sydney which the former company did. Neither of us wanted to see these great journeys die out.
What would be your advice to anyone thinking about taking a sabbatical or quitting their job to travel?
The simple answer is do it, but that’s not right for everyone. But if you have a trip you want to make or place(s) you want to visit, don’t put it off until another time. You never know what is around the corner and there will always be an excuse not to do it. Excuses are easy to find, but there’s always an equally valid reason to say yes – even if it is only that it will be great fun. There’s usually a way round most of the obstacles which appear to be in the way and, personally, I feel I got more out of the trip than if I’d done it at a traditional gap year age. There’s a lot more tales to tell from travelling than sat in an office.
You can catch up with Rob at travelmarmot.com or on Twitter @robglaws. For more info on Epic Overland, which runs three trips a year – one from London to New York and two from London to Sydney – visit www.epicoverland.com or follow @epicoverland.
If you’re still trying to decide whether to take a career break or sabbatical then this may help and if you’re worried you may be too old to take a gap year, then check out this post.