Career breaks are increasingly common – and can take you to the strangest of places.

taking a career break is the sort of thing that crosses most people’s minds from time to time – sometimes when they are standing at the station in the middle of winter waiting for a train that never comes; sometimes when they are sitting in the office in the middle of spring realising that they’ve just used up their annual leave on two hedonistic weeks at Butlins. For most people, it is an impulse that they manage to resist – but, increasingly, employees who choose to pursue their dream are being met with positive responses from their employers.

Although paid sabbaticals are quite rare, and usually only offered as a reward for continuous service, career break schemes give employers the discretion to retain valued employees who want to take time away from work. Employees are not paid during this time, but have the right to return to work, or at least to reapply on favourable terms. And, in the meantime, they can do whatever they want. Take these two …

Six months in a van

As an Australian based in London, Anthony Courtman wanted to take the opportunity to tour Europe, but wanted to do something “a little bit different from the typical Antipodean jaunt”. So, in May last year, he took time out from his job at Turner & Townsend where he had spent seven years working first as a project manager then as a management consultant. He spent £3000 on a camper van, took a ferry to Bergen in Norway, and then drove up to the Arctic Circle. He and his girlfriend spent the next six months travelling back down through Europe.

Anthony recalls: “To come out of work, and London life, and to step into the pristine Scandinavian wilderness really did feel like getting back to nature. We could just pull up on the roadside and then go fishing to catch dinner.”

Broaching the subject with his employer was not as difficult as he might have expected.

“I approached the whole thing with the attitude that I was going on the trip come what may. However, the fact that T&T is an expanding organisation helped when it came to taking time off and coming back to the company at a later period. They were quite prepared to leave a position open for me – in fact, I’ve just been promoted to associate director.”

‘You know when something just grabs you?’

In September 1999, Catriona Gillies (above) left the relative warmth and comfort of engineer Arup’s Cardiff office and headed for Antarctica. For the next 18 months, she put her professional skills to use working for the British Antarctic Survey as technical services co-ordinator on the Halley 5 Research Station on Coates Land, which is only accessible for six months of the year. A typical day’s work included such treats as general building maintenance, manually jacking the research platform’s legs and surveying in pitch darkness while trying to ensure that her nose didn’t freeze to the metal casing of the level.

She explains: “I saw the job advertised in the ICE magazine. You know when something just grabs you and you say, ‘That’s me’?”

Having determined to head (a long way) south for the winter, Catriona then had to break the news to her employer. Again, this didn’t turn out to be too much of a problem. She says: “Arup is fairly flexible when it comes to education and travel – even though, in my case, I was being employed by someone else.”

Arup not only agreed to put her contract on hold, but arranged for her to return for the austral summers of 2002 and 2003 – “The wintering thing is slightly different,” she says – as an Arup employee. Catriona is now back in Cardiff full time but still recruits Arup staff to work for the BAS on Halley 5.

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