grown up gap years

Grown up gap years: avoiding burn out

Mid career gap years. How to stay sane and avoid burn out

Just before Christmas I had an email from Thailand from an ex-business associate. He was in between jobs and had negotiated a six month career gap. At 45 he had been working his socks and body parts off for over 20 years and needed a time-out to re-charge the flagging batteries. It was the best thing he’d ever done he claimed, wished he’d done it earlier and felt gap years should be mandatory for all executives.

You don’t know how tired and under performing you are until you actually stop. I also realised how worn out many of my team and peers were too, especially after the last 2 to 3 years fighting for survival during the recession. It’s not good for concentration, impacts the effectiveness of both the team and decision-making process and ultimately impacts the bottom line.”


Another colleague is about to take off on a gap period to do some “Voluntoursim” a relatively new concept where individuals combine voluntary work with travel. One site describes this experience as .. “The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination

He had no specific job lined up for his return, but his employer had agreed to keep a position open for him “Yes “ he said ” there’s some risk, there are no guarantees that any openings will be in line with my expectations, but I wanted to do something different, give back and travel. This seems ideal. I’ll take my lap top and i-phone with me, keep in touch, but I just need to clear my head. I also want to do this while I’m physically fit and intend to come back refreshed and ready to go!

Savvy organisations will realise that this can only help them be more profitable

No longer retirees

When I looked on Google there are literally dozens of organisations, companies and blogs set up to cater for this new trend of older people taking career breaks and going to destinations as diverse as India, Ecuador and the Arctic Circle. Grown up gap years are booming.   These trips of a lifetime were frequently associated with post retirement plans ( or even post graduation), but as those days are being bumped further into the future by economic and social change and retirement may now not start until employees are in their late 60s, many want to take those trips while they can. My own father, sadly, was diagnosed with cancer the week before he retired and was never able to fulfill his dreams. Today, many are not prepared to wait and take a chance.

Flexible working

A new study (“Flexible Work Models: How to bring sustainability in a 24/7 world”) of 3,300 professional men and women published by Bain & Company on the adoption and effectiveness of flexible work models finds that a lack of availability of these programs, as well as their poor utilization, can dramatically increase the likelihood that employees stay with their current company and more effective implementation can improve retention of women by up to 40% and up to 25% for men.

Despite the fact that flex models are one of the hottest recruiting and retention tools, they aren’t sufficiently used at many organizations,” said Julie Coffman, a Bain partner and study author. “Companies can no longer get away with just offering cookie cutter options; they must tailor them to their employees and also provide adequate levels of support and resources to ensure better cultural acceptance.”

10 Steps to burn out

So what would cause an executive or any other employee to start internet researching and reach for their credit card, when to the outside world they have great careers. According to the Bain report, a combination of 5 of any of the criteria mentioned below, identify the hallmarks of a challenging work situation, which could lead to a need for a break:

§ Unpredictable work flow;
§ Fast-paced work under tight deadlines;
§ Inordinate scope of responsibility that amounts to more than one job;
§ Work-related events outside regular work hours;
§ Expected to be available to clients or customers 24/7;
§ Responsibility for profit and loss;
§ Responsibility for mentoring and recruiting;
§ Large amount of travel;
§ Large number of direct reports;
§ Physical presence at workplace at least 10 hours a day

When employees work in excess of 50 hours per week, that can also contribute to a feeling of burnout. This is of course without factoring in any of the usual domestic pressures or any other specific difficulties, which routinely crop up in most people’s lives and contribute to overall life stress.

Not surprisingly, by mid -career many wish they could take a break. Seemingly, those that can, are actively trying to make that happen in ever-increasing numbers which is why mid career gap years are increasing in popularity.

Organisational view

One HR Director I spoke to said ” At one time it was mainly women who wanted flexi-time arrangements or sabbaticals to extend their maternity leave, so that they could stay at home with their children. Now, leave of absence requests are becoming increasingly common from both men and women of all ages, as employees seek not just challenging careers, but opportunities to take breaks and recharge their batteries. Our top executives are entitled to extended leave periods every 5 years. For both younger and older non-executives sabbaticals tend be the best-fit flexible work option. They very often choose to travel or do voluntary or project work. Others use a break for child or parental care, or even to pursue further education. Some organisations are also offering employees the opportunity to buy additional holidays, which effectively means that they take a salary cut in exchange for additional time off. In some functions this can be easily arranged. In other more operational areas it can be more difficult.”

As all Gen Y research has indicated, Millenials will demand greater flexibility from their organisations in the future. So flexi-time options and gap years previously associated with supporting women to take care of their children, will move further into mainstream cross gender HR policy. This will mean organisations will be pressed to consider the provision of a full menu of flexi-time options including parental leave, flexible hours or remote working as well as gap years and extended leave of absence.

I’m already looking at the map!

If you are thinking about a gap year make it part of a planned career strategy – contact me now.

So how about you? Would you like to take a mid career break?


12 thoughts on “Grown up gap years: avoiding burn out

  1. Sara Conrad

    I have been taking a break after (singlehandedly) raising two wonderful children to adulthood and working my butt off at the same time. I got laid off in September of 2009 and it’s been the best ever. I highly recommend taking a break. It gives you the opportunity to reassess and get to know yourself again. In a perfect world I envision job-sharing. I’ll work your job for 6 months, you work mine for 6 months. Remember, your inbox will be just as full when you die as it is now.. don’t wait, this is the only life you get.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Sara – thanks for your comment. We should organise a Tweet up on a Carribbean island sometime! If you are on LinkedIn – I invite you to join 3Plus International – a group set up to promote, and sponsor women in the workplace! Would love your fun and sage input!

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  3. geronimocoaching

    Very timely post, Dorothy!
    First because it’s the time in the year when we most yearn for sunny paradises, in the midst of snowy freezing January and your picture made me dream…
    Second because I just read today in Fast Company an article about Gen Y and Flexibility at work.
    “Why Millennials need to be unrealistic about Their work life fit” by @caliyost
    We need to let go of our Generation X or babyboomer’s or traditionalists representations of work versus life and so-called work:life balance and allow the younger Generation to set high expectations and re-invent their own life at work, while having realistic approach towards money…
    For those of us who are from other generations, it’s high time we also accept to learn from them.
    It’s not too late! Thanks for reminding us again Dorothy!
    …and see you on the beach! (with free WIFI access, of course!)

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Marion – thanks for your comments. Yes all my own research suggests that Gen Y will have different expectations about the demands organisations make on them and the sacrifices they are prepared to make for the trappings of so called success. Looking f orward to the day when sabbaticals are part of a generic HR policy.

      Would be delighted to see you on a wifi’d beach!

      1. Dorothy Dalton

        Hi This is a comment from Jacqui Barrett Poindexter who was unable to leave a comment vai the usual route:

        Your post touched on a topic that is particularly close to my husband and me right now as we journey to a new work/life destination. In particular, the 10 Steps to Burnout resonated in regard to Rob’s situation: “Physical presence at workplace at least 10 hours a day.”

        The idea of Voluntourism is intriguing – and a term I’d yet to discover (thank you)! Some folks have the means to travel and volunteer mid-career, and I think that’s great! For those who aren’t equipped for that, shedding stress-filled career cloaks for roles with flexi-time options should be the goal.

        The path to a more blended, flexible lifestyle may not be easy, but it is possible and do-able, with determination, research and a bit of patience.

        And it’s worth it! Sara Conrad summarized ‘why’ so well: “Remember, your inbox will be just as full when you die as it is now.. don’t wait, this is the only life you get.”

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  5. Michael Leiter (@workengagement)

    Thanks Dorothy for a great post that gives hope for a livelier worklife. Creativity is at the heart of true productivity. And
    Creativity thrives on variety. And
    Creativity thrives on connecting with ideas outside of one’s day-to-day circuit.

    This kind of flexibility in careers is so well suited to the aspirations of the top performing companies in the world.

    It’s so good you’re helping to get that point across to them.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Michael – thanks for your comment. My observation is that more and more people are being creative about their career management – which can never be bad. Organisations are also starting to respond ( always good) and even factoring in career breaks to their succession plans for their executives !


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