Taking a career sabbatical involves a significant leap from the relative comfort of structured, full-time work to a world without routine or security. That thought alone is enough to ensure many driven, career-minded people avoid ever taking time out.
For Sandy Hutchison, taking a sabbatical after being made redundant from her role as the Asia Pacific HR director for Marsh & McLennan Companies was an incredibly rewarding yet daunting experience after her 16 years with the same company.
In the wake of her redundancy, Hutchison initially decided to take just three months off to spend the summer with her two children – aged 10 and seven. However, after being approached by a headhunter to discuss a potential role, Hutchison realised she needed more time.
“I had a conversation with [the headhunter] and it was so enlightening and liberating because we both came to the conclusion that I wasn’t ready to go back. It was an opportunity to really take time off,” she says.
“I was fortunate because [talking with the headhunter] let me test the waters, to feel comfortable knowing that people will want me for jobs again. But I thought, I can take this time and it’s okay. I went from feelings of anxiety and guilt for not looking for work or not being at work to really relaxing and saying, ‘Okay, I’m taking a year off’.”
While Hutchison’s decision to take a sabbatical was propelled by her redundancy, deciding to take a whole year off challenged her notion of who she was, away from her career.
“Work had always been such a part of my identity. The thought of not being connected was, at the beginning, really quite scary. Who am I when I don’t have a business card who says who I am? At the school pick up I was always seen as the corporate mum. How do you identify your new self?” she says.
“I worked out that it’s just me, and people can accept me for who I am, or not. Instead of being something I was quite intimidated by or anxious about, I became quite liberated. I feel like I’ve got so much more energy. I was really amazed at just how unaware I was of the constant, low-grade stress I was under all the time.”
Transitioning back to work life
Having recently returned from a three-month stint in Europe with her two children and husband – an arrangement she managed thanks to her husband’s work travel plans in Europe and being able to take her children out of school for a term – Hutchison is ready to re-enter the working world.
“It was such a surreal feeling. I didn’t even read a newspaper… We were living in the moment, day-by-day. It was just so refreshing and invigorating. It was so different,” she says of her time with her family in the likes of Germany, Italy, France and Scotland.
Feeling rejuvenated, Hutchison isn’t so sure she wants to return to corporate life but has plans to set up her own business.
“I’m looking for something that matters, that’s meaningful for me, and money is not the driver, so it’s a different process of looking for a role,” she explains, adding that throughout her career she’s always built strong networks within and outside her organisation, leaving her with plenty of contacts to reach out to. “I’m looking at potentially setting up my own business, so I’m exploring ideas around that … Now I’m just at the point where I’m starting to say, ‘Okay, what comes next?”
For people like Hutchison who are facing the return to work after extended time off, Total Balance career coach Kate James says it’s important to have realistic expectations and to understand that there will probably be some sense of loss from having to let go of the sabbatical lifestyle.
“Know that potentially there will be some negative emotions that arise and that’s very normal and can pass. Also, it’s useful to think about ways you can hold on to your sabbatical feeling,” she says, suggesting painting classes as an example of how to maintain the creativity some people discover on their sabbatical.
“Also, practice self-care. That’s really underestimated. Make plans to get out of the office early to go to a yoga class, for example.”
This article first appeared in Women’s Agenda.