The strict definition of a sabbatical is a period of paid leave of up to one year, where an employee will not perform their usual duties, but will later return to the same job. In reality, a sabbatical for most people means an ‘adult gap year’ or career break, and while the time off can be used for anything from career-related training to volunteer work or travel, there is usually no income during the period. People Management spoke to career coach Paul White about the value and challenges of taking a sabbatical in the Middle East.

What are the risks of taking a sabbatical?

It has to be carefully planned because in the UAE, if you’ve not got a job then you’ve got no visa and no income. While it is a good idea to take a sabbatical, it’s best to make it part of a 10-year plan, so you have the chance to put money aside. But if you’re just doing it on a whim, you can’t live without an income because the UAE is expensive.

I deal frequently with people who end up taking sabbaticals due to redundancy. They have money in their pocket from a pay-off and so they can take a sabbatical at short notice.

What do recruiters generally think of someone who has taken a sabbatical?

From the employer’s perspective, if someone is taking time off to study and enhance their skills then there’s a risk of that person leaving for a better role elsewhere, so it’s not common for employees to take time off to study and then return to the same employer.

The UAE is very career-focused. If there’s a gap on someone’s CV that doesn’t have an employer on it, I would advise them to try to explain around it because I don’t think employers are very open-minded. They are looking at the performance they are going to get, and the experience people have had. So even though recruiters may say that they would like to employ more rounded individuals [who have taken sabbaticals], I’m not sure that that’s really the case.

What are the positives of having a career break?

People tend to do things such as MBAs while on sabbatical, but they usually have a spouse who is able to support them financially because not only are they losing income while taking time off to study, they also have to pay for the course.

When people think about career they just think about work, but when I think about career I think about the whole of life – so for lifelong fulfilment people should consider taking time out, because otherwise they get to retirement age and think ‘what did I do? I just filled someone else’s pockets’. You can find fulfilment in doing that, but I think sometimes you have to take some time out just to reflect on what you’ve done – initially, a sabbatical can be to rest and rejuvenate, but it also gives you the freedom to do something out of the ordinary. Perhaps it could even lead to a change of career.

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