x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

How to fund a career break

While sabbatical taking is a rare occurrence in the UAE, some expats reveal how they funded their year out.

Kunal Bilakhia, an auditor in Dubai, took a year off work in 2010-2011 to return to India and study. Razan Alzayani / The National
Kunal Bilakhia, an auditor in Dubai, took a year off work in 2010-2011 to return to India and study. Razan Alzayani / The National

Ben Sargent was stressed, overworked and longing for adventure when he decided to plan a year out.

“As far back as I remember I wanted to travel the world,” says the 30-year-old British sales director, who has lived in Dubai for seven years. “I used to worry about how it would affect my finances, but once I’d worked a few years, I realised that saving wouldn’t be as big of an issue as I first thought. It was time for me bite the bullet and pursue my dream.”

Mr Sargent was able to enjoy his sabbatical from May 2011 to June 2012 because he took the time to carefully plan his finances and subsequent return to work. First, he convinced his boss to let him take a year off: “It wasn’t easy, but I explained how this was good for me and my career — I was under a lot of stress and needed that time to get back in touch with reality and live a low key life for a while. Luckily, he understood and I was given 12 months out with the promise of my job when I returned.”

There are many reasons why people take time away from work; whether to travel, return to university, volunteer or fulfil a lifelong dream. Some nations have seen the number of sabbatical takers surge, with the economic crisis of 2008-2009 driving a record number of employees to book career breaks. Nearly a quarter of US companies listed among Fortune Magazine’s 100 best companies to work for offered their employees fully paid sabbaticals in 2012. And research by the Spanish bank Santander revealed the number of sabbaticals taken by Britons has increased 14-fold since the 1970s.

However, here the trend is less popular.

“Sabbaticals are not commonplace in the UAE for two reasons unique to the marketplace and HR policies in the region,” says James Randall, sales manager for eFinancialcareers, a global career website for financial professionals.

“Firstly, sabbaticals are a form of reward for employees who are valued and have remained committed to their respective company for seven or so years – as a rough rule. Except the workforce is renowned for its transient nature so sabbaticals are not written into HR strategies and rarely do employees reach a point where a sabbatical can be taken as a reward for their dedication. Instead employees tend to take a leave of absence either between jobs or when moving to a new location with the same company.

“Secondly, labour law in the UAE adds another layer of complexity for employers and employees alike since no salary is paid out during a sabbatical. Therefore an NOC must be given and the residence visa rescinded.”

Some companies are willing to offer staff time out. Once permission is granted, the next consideration is how to survive with little or no income for 12 months.

Richard Taylor, chartered financial planner at PIC Middle East, emphasises that planning is crucial. “Someone with a positive relationship with money and a history of saving should be able to prepare and manage their spending while on the break easily. A lot depends on their ability to prepare and stick to a realistic budget,” he says.

But running out of money part way through the year could cause problems. “How dire depends on your personal circumstances,” adds Mr Taylor. “Having to return to work isn’t too bad — having your home repossessed because you couldn’t pay the mortgage is, so plan carefully.”

Mr Sargent, a sales executive, planned his finances a year ahead of his departure. He calculated his spending more carefully and shared his apartment to split the rent. He also opened a separate savings account, solely for year-out savings. “Every so often I’d drop in Dh100 — 500,” he says. “As I work in sales, I earn commission every month, so that would also go straight into the account. I had no mortgages or other financial obligations at the time, which meant my only outgoings for the year out would be my living expenses. I saved enough to buy a round the world ticket and live modestly for around six months. For the other six months I took on various low paid jobs, such as bartending, to sustain myself.”

The experience of travelling through 20 countries was life enriching, and he was able to come back to Dubai and his job feeling refreshed — so much so, that within six months he was promoted from sales manager to sales director.

For others, it is the lure of further education that leads them away from the office. Kunal Bilakhia, a 26-year-old Indian auditor living in Dubai for 15 years, took a year out from November 2010 until November 2011 to return to India and study. He made the decision just a month before leaving for college — a move he could make as he is a seasoned saver with enough in the bank to get up and go.

“I used up about 25 per cent of my savings during that year,” explains Mr Bilakhia. “I used to withdraw a set amount of money every month for my regular expenses, and if ever I fell short, I would withdraw more, which only happened four times. I was able to stay at my own home in Mumbai, which meant I did not have to spend on rent, electricity or other expenses. I did spend a huge amount on the course, which again came out from my savings of the previous four years.”

Mr Bilakhia also had a job waiting for him upon his return, as his father manages the company he works for. “The decision to take a year off came as a surprise but was well accepted at home, and there was no fear of re-entering the workplace. My year out benefited me a lot, and it was necessary for me to finish this course for my line of work. I know that had I stayed back I would have built a lot on my savings, but then when compared to the gain in terms of my degree and education it pales out,” he adds.

While Mr Bilakhia and Mr Sargent were fortunate to have jobs waiting, Malcolm Bell, managing partner at Acuma, warns other sabbatical takers, particularly those not taking time out to study, to beef up their CV with added qualifications. “Remember, you’ll be applying for jobs and competing against younger and possibly more highly qualified individuals. You need to make sure that your CV looks in great shape in advance of your return to work,” he says.

Swati Randev-Verma, a 30-year-old Indian corporate responsibility coordinator, always wanted to do an MBA, so in 2011 after five years of employment in the UAE she and her husband headed to the UK to study. “We started planning seven to eight months before leaving,” she explains. “We were primarily concerned with tuition fees, living costs and other generic cash flow aspects. We had savings that we dipped into during our year out. My husband has a house in the UK so our housing was taken care of and we didn’t encounter any money shortages as such.”

Mrs Randev-Verma says she had no fears about how the year out would affect her career. “If anything, I was optimistic,” she says. “Being from a life science background, I was confident that the business acumen I would gather would only help me further.”

If you’re considering taking the leap, Mr Taylor advises saving enough to cover your fixed costs, your variable costs, and a significant emergency fund — he suggests at least three months’ total costs. You should then prepare and stick to a budget for the year.

Spending less in the run up to the sabbatical is also advisable.

“If I knew I was going to be without income for a year, I would shop for my groceries at LuLu rather than Waitrose. I also wouldn’t bother buying luxuries except on very special occasions — and shop for bargains using services like Groupon. Also accept that you have to make sacrifices to take a career break. If your budget can’t cope with the cost of socialising in the UAE, either don’t do it or do it less,” Mr Taylor says.

While getting the money in place is important, the main issue is securing permission from your employer.

“Asking for a sabbatical that takes employees back to school or university is an easier ask since they return to work a more qualified member of the team and in some instances the company might even fund the course fees,” says eFinancialcareers’ Mr Randall.

“When employees need a break it is a harder argument. Firstly, employees need to approach management only when they are confident that they have consistently added value and are deserving of the ‘reward’. If an employer sees this too, then offering a sabbatical versus loosing the talent for good is a sensible decision.”