For Dipika Mukim, 33, taking a sabbatical wasn't born of a sudden whim.
A former human resource (HR) manager with Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) in Mumbai, Mukim had initially planned to take a break in 2016. “But unfortunately the company wanted me to take up a project for a few months, which eventually took a year. I did tell them, though, that I would be taking a break, post the assignment,” says Mukim, who resigned from HUL in March 2017.
Mukim is not alone in her break. For an increasing number of young professionals today, taking a gap in between jobs to catch up on their interests and passions in life before reviving their career goals is perfectly acceptable.
Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, a Bengaluru-based CXO search consultant, says about this small but growing tribe, “These sabbatical takers are, by all means, pretty regular souls. These, however, are people who are increasingly prioritising happiness and fulfilment over more material goals.”
That said, money and savings play a critical factor in planning for a break. Professionals on sabbaticals need to ensure that their savings are enough to be able to support them or that they have some sort of familial backup. Make sure that you are completely debt free. For someone with financial obligations (house/vehicle EMIs, credit card dues, and loans) and family to support, a career break can often be an impossible dream.
Mario D’Souza, 33, a Bengaluru-based advertising and marketing professional agrees. Now on a year-long sabbatical exploring his options in academics, while also fulfilling his interests in design and the social impact space, D’Souza says, “I definitely had to plan financially for this break. The lack of income has meant rationalising expenses and cutting down on indulgences such as eating out, watching movies and ordering food at home. It’s been great, though! The amount of money I spent on indulgences was an eye-opener, which I realised only when I put myself on this embargo.” Prior to his break, D’Souza was lead, strategy and management at Fryed Advertising.
D’Souza, who is single and lives alone, in a rented house in Bengaluru had to plan his savings keeping in mind his basic monthly expenses for a year that typically includes: house rent, house-help and cook’s salary, grocery and utility bills and other miscellaneous expenses. He indicated that for him, it was a corpus of about Rs 5 lakh that sustained him during the sabbatical.
“Besides the basic and variable expenses such as once in a while eating out, watching a film or short-domestic trips, it is critical to keep aside an emergency fund of about Rs 50,000 minimum,” says D’Souza.
Mukim received her MBA degree from XLRI - Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur and joined HUL, the global FMCG giant, in 2009. She worked for eight years before taking her sabbatical. Mukim’s husband of five years, advertising professional Vedant Varma, was supportive of her move, though her parents took a bit longer to warm to her decision. “I always maintained that if I quit HUL, I will take some time out. I didn’t want to leave a job on a Friday and join the next one on a Monday. That’s not me,” she says.
Mukim too admits that financial planning is critical: “If I had planned it better, I would have more money to spend on my break. I had to restrict my international travel due to shortage of funds.” Mukim’s husband was working while she was on a break.
However, during her sabbatical, Mukim has kept herself busy with vipassana (meditation) courses, yoga, travel, and trekking. She even dabbled in baking cakes and breads. Mukim has now joined Amazon India.
Living for experiences, not money, is what many are looking for. This new mindset finds itself being accommodated in business as well, as HR policies have grown to become more flexible and inclusive. Indeed, there is now an increased level of respect for an employee’s personal choices among corporates.
Recruiters believe that sabbaticals are far more mainstream today. “Earlier, HR policies were very different. Leave without pay for too long was considered to be a kind of black mark in the career. Today the war for talent is so high that companies don't mind obliging special demands of employees. They try and find ways of working around it,” says Rajagopal. She does maintain though, that not all industries are uniformly accepting of such personal choices, just yet.
According to Rajagopal, sectors such as mining, manufacturing, utility, power, and hospitality aren’t very amenable to employees taking a sabbatical, as jobs in these sectors demand constant physical presence. While the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and other government services like banks and railways are very open to the idea of an employee taking time off, among private sector enterprises, IT companies fare much better than FMCG and pharma.
Software-services major Infosys, for example, has a well laid-out sabbatical policy aiming at encouraging employees to work on community development projects while receiving monetary support from the company and returning back to work within 6 months to a year.
“We pay them half their salary for a year when they go for community programmes,” says Richard Lobo, executive vice president and head HR at Infosys, adding, “We give added value to someone who has done something out of the ordinary, provided they can demonstrate how their experience adds back into the role they are being considered for.” Lobo feels, that there is a greater sense of confidence and self believe among today’s workforce.
Anuradha Bernadette Tekkethil, lecturer, (sociology) at St. Joseph's College, Bengaluru attributes this trend to a change in mindsets and increased global exposure. “There’s a thirst to do more. A change in terms of how you measure what life is worth. Society has evolved: today it is more accepting of people who has done something unusual from their regular career path. “Someone, who gave up his or her secure and highly-paid job to be a chef is exciting and bold to everyone,” says Tekkethil.
While sabbaticals for travel and higher studies are common, for Mumbai-based Aishorjyo Ghosh, 31, a former finance professional, it was a step closer to a new career. He realised that a career path isn’t just one direct line. After receiving his masters degree in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Ghosh joined the workforce in 2008. Having worked with investment bank Morgan Stanley and financial services firm Religare, he took his first sabbatical in November 2012 for five months.
Ghosh’s finances were in order. He maintained a corpus of Rs 6.5-7 lakh for the sabbatical, which included his basic monthly expenses (house rent, utility bills, food and miscellaneous expenses) and domestic travel.
During his time off, Ghosh, explored the social sector as a full-time career option. “A break drives you closer to what motivates you as a person. There is no peer pressure. During my investment banking days we would discuss mostly numbers (salaries, bonuses, etc) with friends whenever we would meet up. But as you move away from all that, the drive to achieve something meaningful resurfaces,” he says.
Post his sabbatical in 2013, Ghosh joined the US-based non-profit organisation TechnoServe in Mumbai where he worked for four years in a business development role. Last year he quit his job and is on his second break. “I’m exploring few options: probably would sit for GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) and pursue an MBA degree or meanwhile, get a job in the social sector. Sabbatical helps you recharge and clear your thoughts,” he says.
Taking career breaks in your early 30s, is sacrilegious for many. But, for former Bengaluru-based business journalist Shreya Roy it worked out just fine. After quitting her job from The Economic Times, an English-language financial daily in 2014, Roy decided to take a break. She spends a few months attending a residential yoga programme at Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai. Her savings were enough to last her a couple of months, and she anticipated going back to work in three to four months.
“I made half-hearted attempts to rejoin the workforce, but that did not go well. Eventually, I did a teachers training programme early last year, where I learnt asana practice as well as Vedanta philosophy, which had a big impact on my thought process. I stayed in the ashram to teach kids,” says Roy. She doesn’t regret her decision of quitting journalism after seven years in the profession. 32-year-old Roy now teaches yoga and Vedanta philosophy at the Sivananda Ashram. She is also pursuing an advanced teachers training course in the ashram, followed by a degree in yoga therapy.
Do sabbaticals work differently for men and women though? Marriage and motherhood was almost a certain death knell for a woman’s career, not too long ago. Rajagopal draws a comparison between maternity leave and sabbaticals, “Earlier, maternity leaves were given very grudgingly. You hire a woman, this is what happens - was the prevailing mindset. Today companies want to look at equity across genders and personal choices are respected. I will apply this shift to sabbaticals as well. Something which was considered odd or different is now more widely accepted.”
Abhishek Sen, vice president, human capital & consumer experience at Myntra, weighs in, “We have work from home, flexible and part time work policies for returning mothers to enable them to manage their work life balance at this critical juncture in their lives. Any individual who takes a break retains their current position when they return and are considered for career moves as per performance/potential protocols.”
“Having a break listed on one’s resume is no more a taboo. The ability to sell how they have grown, is all that matters,” concurs Alka Dhingra, general manager at recruitment firm TeamLease Services.
Is there a higher order benefit to taking time off? D’Souza seems to think so, explaining that a sabbatical provided the opportunity to take a breather and step off what he calls the ‘corporate treadmill’. “I’d been working for eight years, and while I felt I was taking all the steps I was supposed to take, my life remained in exactly the same place. I want to do something for myself and something meaningful as well. But most of all, I want clarity and purpose to life, and this break has helped me define that sense of direction,” he says.
For today’s young professionals, taking time off from their corporate schedules is fast becoming an active consideration, rather than just an indulgence. All they need to do, is make it work.