Taking a Year Off Work: How To Take a Gap Year

Pulling off a midlife ‘gap year’ is possible

Person sitting on couch at home
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How many years have you worked through the grind? While the typical 9-to-5 workday may be less common than it used to be, the mental fortitude it takes to succeed in your career is not. Typically associated with post-high-school trips, the gap year doesn’t have to happen in your teens. After all, many academics take sabbaticals for professional growth or research, and the trend is catching on in corporate America, too.

Let’s look at the different aspects of taking a year off work, including the pros and cons of such an endeavor and things to consider before leaping.

Key Takeaways

  • Gap years can occur at any period during your life.
  • Prepare for a gap year in advance.
  • A career break can provide various personal and professional benefits.
  • After your gap year, prepare to share your experiences.

Pros and Cons of Taking a Year Off From Work

Pros
  • Growth opportunities

  • Improved work/life balance

  • Career rejuvenation

Cons
  • Career setbacks

  • Expensive

  • Feeling lost

Pros Explained

  • Growth opportunities: Dedicate time for personal insights and development while traveling the world or for professional growth while earning new certifications or skills.
  • Improved work/life balance: Nonprofit leaders who took well-planned sabbaticals said the sabbatical improved connections with family, physical health, and work/life balance, according to a study from nonprofit consulting firm TSNE.
  • Career rejuvenation: Nonprofit leaders who took well-planned sabbaticals returned with fresh vision and ideas, greater confidence, better workplace relationships, and stayed on with their organizations, according to the TSNE study.

Cons Explained

  • Career setbacks: During a year away, you might miss out on career-building experiences, potential networking, and available job promotions, or you may worry about how taking a year off looks.
  • Expensive: Although costs may vary, taking a year away from work can quickly become a costly experience if you need to pay living expenses and go without income.
  • Feeling lost: A sudden lack of structure when leaving your job can be overwhelming. Without a plan to fill your days and multiplied by an entire year, it’s easy to see how a midlife gap year could become a negative experience.

Preparation for Your Gap Year

According to one study, factors that led to sabbatical-takers enjoying greater well-being included feeling more detached, having a more positive sabbatical experience, and spending their sabbatical outside their home country. You may enjoy more benefits of your year off with a little preparation.

Set Goals You’ll Achieve in Your Year Off

Setting achievable goals could help you feel better about yourself and provide you with a sense of accomplishment at the year’s end. Try planning specific, achievable goals for your midlife gap year. Examples might include:

  • Traveling to five new countries
  • Logging 100 hours in volunteer time or humanitarian efforts
  • Earning a management certificate that advances your career
  • Learning a specific skill such as cooking, outdoor rescue, or public speaking
  • One job-shadowing experience or three informational interviews for a career switch

If you think you might need assistance, ask a therapist or career or sabbatical coach for help planning your sabbatical.

Decide on Your Gap Year

After you’ve thought about possible goals, consider why you really want to take your gap year and how you want to go about it. Do you hope to switch careers? Or perhaps you simply need a long vacation due to burnout—a several-month work break could do the trick versus an entire gap year. Consider the following:

  • How long you’ll leave
  • Date you’ll leave
  • Destinations, programs, or other objectives
  • Financial resources available

Prepare Your Workplace

Some academic institutions, nonprofits, and companies offer sabbatical leave programs, which allow you to take unpaid or paid time off with the safety of returning to your job at the sabbatical’s end.

Typically, sabbaticals could last from four weeks to six months, according to research from The Sabbatical Project, a site that brings together advocates, companies, and academic researchers to increase awareness and implementation of sabbaticals. So getting an entire gap year may be challenging. Read your company policy, speak to your supervisor or HR, and learn how to ask for a leave of absence from work. Your employer isn’t obliged to provide you with leave, so also prepare to professionally resign from your job.

A 2017 report from human resources organization SHRM found that only 5% of companies offered a paid sabbatical program and 12% offered an unpaid sabbatical program.

Budget for Your Gap Year

Much like student life, gap years are necessarily frugal. You won’t be working, so your expenses won’t be offset by income. To reduce strain, budget for your gap year well before it begins:

  • Save extra money monthly.
  • Seek passive income methods to help funnel in money each month.
  • Reduce expenses, such as cutting streaming service subscriptions or an unused gym membership.
  • Avoid debt, especially high-interest debt such as credit card balances.
  • Investigate health care coverage; you may qualify for COBRA health insurance through your former employer.

Your Gap Year

According to stories from The Sabbatical Project, people have taken time off work to heal, spend time with family, pursue lifelong dreams, travel around the world, or write a memoir. What will you do? Here are some aspects to consider working into your gap year.

Use Your Gap Year To Upskill

No matter which goal you set for your gap year, try to acquire skills that will make you a more competitive job candidate—which could lead to a new career or a promotion when you return to work. Short-term career credentialing programs can help you get a leg up on the competition during your downtime. Various four-week to six-month certificate options exist in business technology, social media, bookkeeping, data science, and more.

Try Something New in Your Gap Year

Use a gap year’s freedom of time to explore, take some risks, and create new experiences. How often do you have the time to do whatever you’d like? If you’ve wanted to travel, maybe take a slower approach instead of jamming a dozen different countries into two weeks. If you’ve hoped to write a book, now’s the time. How often can you take time for yourself in your adult life?

Transform Your Gap Year Time

Losing structure may make you feel lost, especially if you’re set in your routines. It’s a slippery slope from sleeping in until 11 a.m. for a week to only putting pants on when the clock reaches 3 p.m. Setting daily mini-goals will allow you to create your new routine—even if it’s just going for a walk each morning.

After Your Gap Year

Getting back into a working mindset can be difficult. To get yourself into the groove, make a clear delineation between the time you were away and how life is now that you’re back—and plan to reenter the work world.

Plan for Reentry

If you’re returning to your previous job, communicate with your employer and coworkers about any planning or scheduling changes, and get caught up on what’s happened since you were away. If you aren’t returning to the same position, rejoin the workforce after a career break by assessing your career and job needs and wants, and networking, attending conferences, and diving into your industry.

Outline Lessons Learned

Reflect on what you learned and make a list of experiences, skills, and stories you acquired in the past year. Think about how you’ll apply those experiences and skills to your career and how you’ll answer interview questions about employment gaps.

Impress Employers

Worried about an employment gap on your resume? You’re not alone. Many worry about this. Harvard Business School alumni were seven times more likely to worry about how others would perceive their time off versus judging others doing the same, according to research from The Sabbatical Project. But because you set goals and outlined lessons learned in advance, you’ll effortlessly explain how the time you spent away furthered you as a person or professional.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much does taking a year off from work hurt your career?

How taking a year off impacts your career is highly subjective and will depend on your situation and career. To help determine this, consider the overall economic outlook and the current job market. Is it in a period of slow growth? Also, determine if you’re on the cusp of a promotion, how quickly your industry moves, and whether you’ll be able to keep up with your skills while you’re away.

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an established time away from work with the employer’s agreement, either paid or unpaid. The time is intended for renewal or expanding professional or personal development. In the academic world, a sabbatical may also be known as a research leave absence or educational leave. A college professor doesn’t typically use a sabbatical for a vacation. However, in the professional or work world, a sabbatical can also encompass other meanings or amounts of time.

Article Sources

  1. TSNE. "Creative Disruption."

  2. Davidson, O. B., Eden, D., Westman, M., Cohen-Charash, Y., Hammer, L. B., Kluger, A. N., Krausz, M., Maslach, C., O'Driscoll, M., Perrewé, P. L., Quick, J. C., Rosenblatt, Z., & Spector, P. E. (2010). “Sabbatical Leave: Who Gains and How Much?Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 953-964.

  3. The Sabbatical Project. "Company Sabbatical Policy Database."

  4. SHRM. "SHRM Customized Employee Benefits Prevalence Benchmarking Report."

  5. The Sabbatical Project. "Stories."

  6. Leung, J.G., Barreto, E.F., Nelson, S., Hassett, L.C., & Cunningham, J.L. (2020). "The Professional Sabbatical: A Systematic Review and Considerations for the Health-System Pharmacist." Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy, 16(12).