Career Breaks: An Employer’s Guide

Written by Nicola Wylie
Last updated November 21, 2022

Did you know that around 90,000 people in the UK start a career break each year? For many employers, career breaks, or sabbaticals, may seem like a concerning idea that could negatively impact the business. However, the opposite is true. Sabbaticals have proven to be beneficial for both employees and businesses alike.

This article covers everything UK employers need to know about career breaks, including the benefits, the law, and some best practices.

What Is A Career Break?

A career break, also known as a sabbatical, is a period of unpaid time off work. The employer and employee usually agree upon the details regarding the amount of time. Both parties also must agree on whether the employee’s work contract stays in place during their career break.

A career break is usually a more extended period of unpaid leave than a sabbatical. It has no legal meaning, making it purely an agreement between employers and employees. While it’s not always the case, employment contracts are typically discontinued during a career break. 

Career breaks can work in different ways, depending on the employer. For example, some require employees to resign to start their sabbatical, understanding that they will rehire them when they return to work. Others may continue to employ the worker during an agreed-upon fixed period of time off.

It’s important to note that in the UK career breaks generally don’t count towards years of service under pension schemes.

In the UK, workers have no statutory right to request a career break. However, many employers offer them at their own discretion. They are particularly common in the public sector, with many staff taking a civil service career break or a career break in NHS.

Benefits Of Offering Employees Career Breaks

It’s not necessarily a bad thing when a worker requests a career break. In fact, it can be advantageous for both the company and the employee. Here are some common examples of why employees take career breaks and why they can be beneficial.

1. Mental health break

Employee burnout is at an all-time high across the globe. As a result, employees are feeling stressed and exhausted. This, of course, all takes a huge toll on their mental health and can affect their performance, engagement, and attitude at work. 

In addition, burnout also leads to physical symptoms. When staff members are struggling mentally, they tend to have more sick days and health complaints. This can negatively impact the business. 

Taking a career break gives valuable employees the chance to look after their health and recover. As such, your business can retain great staff members and ensure they are in optimal health. Not only will this lead to a healthier work environment, but it will also spark employee loyalty and better retention rates.

The bottom line is that healthy workers are happier, more productive, and more likely to stay in your organisation. Therefore, supporting their health is good for business.

2. Career break due to family reasons

Many workers request a sabbatical to look after their families. Whether raising a family or caring for a loved one, family always comes first. As an employer, it’s important to respect this. Providing flexible work or remote work can help enormously. But, some workers need to take time away from work to fulfil their duties.

By offering career breaks, you can retain top talent. While you can never guarantee every employee will return, it certainly goes a long way to building trust and loyalty with your staff. Even if some employees decide not to return to the workforce, they are still likely to tell their network about their good treatment at your company. This is great for employer branding efforts.

3. A sabbatical to reward long service

If you have some veterans in your business who have worked hard for as long as you can remember, a career break is a great way to reward loyalty. Perhaps taking a few months off to travel, see family, or relax is just what that employee needs to recharge and reconnect. Plus, they are likely to return to work more motivated and energetic than before.

In short, offering long-standing employees career breaks shows that you trust them and recognise their hard work. Moreover, your staff will know that you care about their job satisfaction and want them to have fulfilling lives outside of work. This is an excellent way to foster an outstanding company culture.

4. Career breaks to upskill

As we know, professional development is a key motivator for employees of all ages and experience levels. Offering plenty of learning and development opportunities in your business will keep staff engaged and improve overall performance. That said, it can be tricky for workers to learn a new skill set while juggling their current workload.

As a result, many employees may consider taking a career break to learn new skills. Of course, there’s always a risk that they will find new career opportunities once they have developed their skill set. But, many employees will appreciate that their employer gave them this opportunity and return to the business. It’s also a great way to give career changers the chance to try a new path. At the end of the day, you may be able to retain top talent and welcome back a highly-skilled and engaged employee. 

5. A sabbatical to volunteer

Volunteering is a rewarding experience and one that many of us wish we could do more of. For many employees, taking a sabbatical to volunteer locally or overseas is a fantastic life experience. Not only do volunteers get to make a real difference, but they develop valuable new transferable skills in the process.

As an employer, offering career breaks to staff looking to volunteer can benefit your business. Employees will feel more fulfilled, leading to higher engagement and job satisfaction. What’s more, they will bring their newfound life experiences and skills back into the business. Of course, sabbatical initiatives will also allow your organisation to attract talent to your business. Workers, especially Gen Zers, are much more likely to consider company values when they apply for jobs. As such, a business that supports its workers in this way is a very attractive prospect.

6. Sabbaticals to avoid layoffs

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted businesses across the UK, many of which are still recovering. As a result of this, sabbaticals are also a beneficial way for employers as an alternative to redundancy. 

If your business has been badly affected by the pandemic, offering staff unpaid career breaks is one way of reducing salary overheads without losing valued staff members. 

What The UK Law Says About Career Breaks

While workers have the right to request flexible working, there currently aren’t any specific UK career break laws. As we mentioned earlier, it is an agreement between employer and employee. That said, some employees may use the right to request flexible working in a bid to request certain work arrangements, such as a sabbatical.

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to fairly consider all flexible working requests and comply with the Acas Code of Practice regarding flexible working

If you do decide to offer career breaks, a clear policy must be drawn out and made accessible to staff. The policy should address:

  • How to apply for career breaks in the organisation
  • The length of time permitted
  • The criteria for applying for a career break
  • What happens to the worker’s employment contract (including terms and conditions)
  • Processes and rules around staying in touch with HR during the career break
  • If they need to provide a career break letter to employer

Transparency is key, so the policy should outline in detail what employees can expect if they take a career break.

In most cases, the existing employment contract will terminate when the employee starts their career break. This means that while you can agree to re-hire that staff member after their break, this is not legally binding. 

In closing

When employees request career breaks, that doesn’t always mean they have one foot out the door. Just the opposite, actually. In many cases, a career break can hugely benefit the employer and employee. 

Employees have the opportunity to rest, recharge, fulfil family commitments, travel, or upskill. At the same time, employers can retain valued staff members and benefit from their newfound skills, energy, and enthusiasm. That’s not all. Employers who offer career breaks will also enjoy the added benefit of better employer branding. This is because it shows current and potential staff that you care about your workers. As a result, employees who take career breaks will have a greater sense of loyalty, and prospective job candidates will be more likely to be attracted to your business.

While there are undoubtedly advantages to offering career breaks, it’s important to have clear policies and procedures in place. We hope this guide has helped you to establish what the UK law says about career breaks and what you need to include in your policy.

At Refreshing a Career, we understand the challenges offering career breaks can pose for employers. That’s why we have created a wealth of resources for employers to guide you. From remote working advice to job advert inclusivity screening, our objective is to empower your business to foster better working conditions for everyone.

Be sure to check out our range of employer services, including advertising your roles on our dedicated career change jobs board.

Share This Story

Last Updated: Monday December 19 2022
Go to Top