The idea of taking a career gap to travel, volunteer or learn a new skill is growing in popularity. But while more people are making time for mid-career sabbaticals from work, and organizations are becoming increasingly open to the idea, there is still a stigma attached to it.
We assume that stepping off the career ladder, even momentarily, will damage our prospects in the long term. The conventional wisdom is that our working lives are one-track, unbroken trajectories that don’t stop until our minds and bodies are too broken to continue. Taking extended time off work for anything other than raising a family is unnatural, or so we have been conditioned to believe.
But when you consider how we live our everyday lives, taking breaks is the most natural thing in the world. During a year, we take holidays. At the end of every week, we have the weekend. Our daily grind is broken up by lunch and other downtime. Breaks like these exist in almost every culture on the planet.
We don’t need convincing that weekends are a good idea. They’ve existed for as long as we can remember, and they make perfect sense. A couple of days to rest and recharge the batteries makes us far more productive overall. It’s not hard to justify.
This isn’t just a quirk of society, either. The value of taking breaks is backed up by science. Evidence shows that time off is good for our physical and mental health, reducing stress levels, keeping us motivated, and improving our decision-making and productivity.
In fact, research in the USA has shown that when employees stop taking lunch breaks, their performance – and their mental wellbeing – suffers.
So why do we apply the opposite logic when it comes to our careers? In our culture of continuous work, the idea of a year off to explore the world is seen as a major risk, a cowardly escape, a step backward, a midlife crisis.
In reality, taking a career break can be extremely beneficial, for very similar reasons to those we accept to be true about holidays, weekends and lunch hours. The chance to stop, reflect and recharge for an extended period can lead us to develop in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It can help us to find new strengths, improve our weaknesses, be more effective in our work, or even find a new and better path altogether.
Have you ever had a situation where you collided with a brick wall in trying to solve a problem, took a break from it, and found that the answer hit you when you least expected it? Or perhaps you came back later with fresh eyes, and everything fell into place? The same thing can happen when you take a career break but on a much bigger scale.
Taking time off to travel and self-develop is not only a highly rewarding thing to do in itself, but it can also bring major long-term benefits. And it doesn’t have to mean the death of your career. It can reignite your passion for the work you do, or you might find an entire new path to follow.
The day that the career break becomes as common and accepted as the weekend, the better our lives will be.