Gap years and career breaks are no longer the preserve of backpacking students and job-hopping 20-somethings, with everyone from burnt-out high-fliers to grandparents opting for one.
Some organisations now allow staff breaks of anything up to five years. From the police - the Metropolitan Police has 226 officers on sabbatical - to Asda, which is at the forefront of innovative work-life balance policies, offering ‘Benidorm leave’ for the over-50s (up to three months, unpaid).
There is every indication that, faced with the prospect of working for the best part of 50 years, gaps like these could become a necessity rather than a break from the norm for the UK workforce.
“Some individuals may take a career break at 30 or 40 and then again at 50 while they are still active enough to enjoy it and then work until 70 or 75,” says Tim Osborn-Jones, client director for tailored qualifications at the HR management and organisational behaviour faculty of Henley Management College. “Or if pensions aren’t sufficient, some people may find that what they thought was retirement becomes a career break.”
Career breaks can be seen as one of a package of flexible working options that organisations are having to provide to attract and retain staff. The war for talent may not be raging to the same degree as it was five years ago. But set against a backdrop of work-life balance and general shifts in employment patterns and thinking (ie, there is no job for life any more), companies are aware they need to offer a range of incentives and benefits to remain competitive and bolster the employer brand.
“People request career breaks for various reasons – from travelling, to learning, to looking after the grandchildren – and employers recognise that if they don’t give people the opportunity to take a break, they run the risk of losing them,” says Alexandra Jones, researcher at the Work Foundation.
“If they’re run effectively, they can benefit both sides and the employee is more likely to be committed to the organisation,” Jones says.
Ensuring that both sides benefit is where HR comes in. Although no specific legislation relating to career breaks exists, a raft of legal issues, along with practical and moral considerations, are associated with taking one, including:
- Does the career break count as continuous service?
- What is the effect on benefits?
- What happens to that individua