Making the Most of a Career Break

Using Time Off Work Productively

Making the Most of a Career Break - Using Time Off Work Productively

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Learn how to thrive away from the world of work.

At some point in our lives, many of us will take time out from our jobs, either by choice or by chance.

There are numerous reasons why we might find ourselves absent from the workplace for weeks or even months. Examples include illness, accidents, having a baby, taking a sabbatical, caring for relatives, unemployment, and military service.

But extended time away from work can cause us anxiety. We may fear losing the skills, knowledge and relationships that we've carefully built up. Or, we may worry about how a gap on our résumé might appear to potential employers.

But a long-term absence also presents opportunities. You can use the time to develop your skills and knowledge, and to gain new experiences. And you can still keep your finger firmly "on the pulse" of the world of work, in anticipation of your eventual return.

In this article, we'll look at how you can make productive use of a career break.

Use Your Time Wisely

Here are four things you can do while you're away from the workplace:

1. Keep up to Date on Your Industry or Organization

One of the biggest fears about being "out of the loop" is that you could be left behind. But there are ways to keep abreast of what's happening in your industry.

Stay informed by reading industry-specific websites, social and broadcast media, blogs, and trade magazines. You can also attend trade shows, conferences and networking events. See our article, Keeping Up-To-Date on Your Industry, for more useful tips and strategies.

If you're returning to the same organization, you can stay informed by receiving company emails and reports from your line manager, and reading your company's social media pages.

Keeping in contact with your manager or your HR team can also help you to feel connected and motivated while you're away, and to remain informed about any developments that may affect you.

You might be able to continue to contribute in some small way, such as writing a blog post, suggesting ideas, or working on an occasional freelance basis – depending on the nature of your absence. Also, ask to be included on relevant training sessions and workshops.

You may be legally entitled to other options. In the U.K., for example, people are entitled to some paid "keeping in touch days" ("KIT days") when they're on maternity, paternity or adoption leave, to enable an easier transition back to work.

2. Improve Your Skillset

Time spent away from work is a great opportunity to update your skills or to learn new ones. By developing your strengths and addressing your weaknesses, you'll put yourself in a better position to rejoin the workforce.

Conducting a Personal SWOT Analysis is a great way to start. Your findings will highlight areas to focus on and identify opportunities that will flow from your efforts. These may involve taking a course, working toward a qualification, or using your skills voluntarily for a non-profit organization, for example.

Prioritize the actions you want to take, frame them as SMART goals, and then fit them into the time available with the help of our Effective Scheduling article.

3. Take a Vacation

When you're away from work, taking a vacation may seem like a frivolous or indulgent thing to do, especially if money is tight. But vacations are more than just luxuries – studies have shown that they are good for your health and can reduce stress.

Vacations can help to establish a healthy work-life balance, and they are a great way to reconnect with friends and family. See our article, Ready for a Real Vacation?, for more information on how to make the most of a planned holiday.

After a vacation, you'll likely feel more rested and reinvigorated, and ready to rejoin the workplace.

4. Socialize

One of the joys of work is the sense of belonging to a group, so a lengthy period of time spent away can lead to feelings of isolation. You can combat this by socializing, by meeting your co-workers or former colleagues for coffee, for example, or by attending networking events with them.

If socializing is difficult or out of the question for you, you can always "go virtual" and use social media to interact with your work community. But beware of an over-use of, or over-reliance on, social media, as that in itself can be an isolating experience.

Be Kind to Yourself

Depending on your circumstances, time outside of the workplace can feel either invigorating or distressing. Travelling on a sabbatical, for example, will literally open your horizons, but you may succumb to anger or depression if you are laid off.

People can react to job loss in the same ways that they might react to grief. They may experience the "five stages of loss:" denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We explore this further in our article, Life After Job Loss.

There are steps that you can take to combat the negative emotions that can follow job loss. Try to get plenty of exercise and sleep, eat a healthy diet, and enjoy some fresh air and natural light. Both exercise and sleep can refresh your brain, helping you to perform better, reduce stress, and feel healthier. So, take advantage of not being stuck in an office!

Plan and Structure Your Days

Think back to when you were at work. Chances are, your average day was pretty structured. You had a diary, meetings to attend, and deadlines to hit.

Get away from the office for a while, though, and your days can become less disciplined. For example, you may be trying to shoehorn your agenda around responsibilities like looking after a baby or a sick parent, or your days are almost empty and you're struggling to fill your time.

By planning and structuring your day, you can eliminate timewasting and streamline your obligations to make the most of every minute of free time that you have.

Also, when you're away from the "cut and thrust" of work, it can be hard to stay motivated so it's important to monitor how energized and stimulated you feel. Create a personal working space, keep distractions to a minimum, and stay focused on your goals to keep your enthusiasm high.

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Re-Evaluate Your Life

Sometimes, for whatever reason, you might hanker for a more fundamental change in your life. Perhaps you long for a career change, to emigrate, or to take an extended sabbatical.

An extended period of time outside the workplace is a great opportunity to rethink your future and to turn your dreams into reality. By looking "into yourself," setting ambitious goals, and reorganizing yourself to work toward them, you can set out on a more radical path to finding fulfilment. Our article, Personal Goal Setting, can help you to choose where you want to go in life, and how to get there.

Prepare for Your Return to Work

Returning to work will require some adjustment, no matter how productively you've used your time away, and the key to success is preparation.

Finding out in advance what will be expected of you will lessen any anxiety that you might feel. So, ask for an early meeting with your line manager to discuss the latest projects and your likely role in them. You might even be able to arrange to ease yourself in gradually, by starting part-time and working up to your full hours.


For more information on returning to work after an extended absence, see our article, I'm Back!

Key Points

It's possible to survive, and even thrive, when you're out of the workplace for an extended period, whatever the reason for your absence. But it takes some thought and effort.

Keep in touch with the world of work, by staying in contact with your colleagues, and up to date with developments in your industry. Use this valuable time to develop your skills or to learn new ones, and to enjoy the benefits of a proper vacation.

Use your time wisely, look after your emotional and physical well-being, structure your days, and keep yourself motivated. Take the opportunity to consider your wider future – and then prepare for your return!

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Comment (1)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    An extended career break often gives us objectivity about something that we can't see clearly while we're in the thick of things. I know it has certainly been the case for me. Once I was removed from the situation I had,
    1) Time to think clearly;
    2) The opportunity to look at all the role-players (including myself) from a distance;
    3) The luxury of dipping in and out of my thinking and problem-solving processes as and when it suited me.
    I was able to make a decision without dealing with the stress of a demanding job role and a difficult situation at work.