Take a break

Gap years are no longer just for college leavers. While times are lean, forward-thinking employers are letting staff have time...

Gap years are no longer just for college leavers. While times are lean, forward-thinking employers are letting staff have time out from their careers to pursue other interests.

Times are lean at work, you know your company is looking to reduce staff overheads and you worry that your job could be on the line. But, instead of redundancy, imagine if you were offered the chance to take a break from work for a few months, with a guaranteed job on your return.

"Smart employers are offering employees career breaks during the economic downturn," says Imogen Daniels, advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). "Cisco, for example, is offering staff a third of their salary to go and do something charitable for a bit. It keeps costs down and means they don't lose the bright staff they will need again when the situation picks up."

Consultancy services are always hit hard by a downturn, and last year Accenture found it had a surplus of graduate starters. Its solution was to defer the joining date for many of them by a few months, keeping them on 50% of their salary while leaving them free to go travelling or follow other pursuits.

Accenture also introduced a career break scheme for employees who have been with the company for a year or more. It allows them to take six to 12 months off work on 20% of their salary plus standard company benefits. "The aim is for us to better balance staffing levels," explains Tim Robinson, HR director UK and Ireland at Accenture. "We cannot afford to lose our top people. This way we get to keep them and they get to do something they have always wanted to do. People can do whatever they like - except work for a direct competitor."

Almost 200 Accenture employees have taken up the company's offer so far. Richard Burrill, senior manager of communications and high tech at Accenture, is putting the finishing touches to a CD he created in his six-month break. "I have been making and recording music," he says. "I have been balancing my career with being a singer for 10 years, but this scheme has given me the opportunity to get some songs together with my band."

Burrill believes any company that allows a person to fulfil a dream in this way will be rewarded by increased loyalty, motivation and enthusiasm on their return. "People have lifetime objectives and they are going to want to pursue those passions," he says.

A study carried out in December by recruitment company Reed Executive and the CIPD found that 80% of the 870 people polled thought that, instead of redundancies, their company should consider alternative cost-cutting schemes during hard times.

The most popular alternative mentioned was employers issuing grants to employees to enable them to do some studying (28%). Other options included letting people work fewer hours, with a proportionate cut in pay (26%); offering unpaid leave (15%); and letting employees work for a charity on reduced pay (7%).

Kevin Speight, a desktop computer analyst at the Yorkshire Building Society, jumped at the chance to fulfil his ambition to get a degree. "I have taken the time out to do a one year top-up course for my degree," he says. "It is something I have always wanted to do and I hope it will help me in my career."

Once the year is up, Yorkshire Building Society has said it will re-employ Speight on the same terms and conditions that he was on before.

However, the legal aspect to taking time out from a company needs to be thought through very carefully. Is it a sabbatical you are taking? Will you still receive company benefits such as a pension and health and safety insurance? Or is it a career break, where your contract is terminated with a right to be re-employed when the time is up?

Remember, a sabbatical is an extended period of leave, usually unpaid, when you are still employed by the company. A career break is literally that - a break from the company.

Richard Lister from the employment law department at law firm Lewis Silkin warns that all of this needs to be put down in writing before you go. "Make sure it is explicitly agreed and that you will be entitled to come back on the same salary and benefits. Find out what, if any, benefits will continue during the break," he says.

If things are not made clear to both parties from the outset, it may result in problems later.

Lister recalls a recent employment tribunal case. "A woman took a four-year career break after maternity leave, and her continuity of employment was to be preserved," he says. "All of her benefits were suspended though." Four years after the woman had returned to work she was made redundant. Her employer tried to exclude the four-year break from her period of service, even though she was still employed by the company. She had to take the firm to the tribunals to receive the full redundancy sum.

The Government is actively encouraging businesses to offer sabbaticals and career breaks as part of its drive to improve the work/life balance. The Department of Trade & Industry has set up a Challenge Fund to which companies can apply for a slice of the £10.5m allocated to set up flexible working initiatives.

Daniels thinks the Challenge Fund and the fact that employers are realising the business benefits of letting staff take time out means the practice is going to become increasingly prevalent. "More and more companies will adopt it, and more and more individuals will ask for it," she says.

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