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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

UAE residents reveal how they financed their dream sabbaticals

Taking a year out should be part of a solid financial plan, experts advise, and make sure your CV explains the gap in your career

Stevo Dirnberger and Chanel Cartell launched the online course HFFH Travel Around The World to inspire others to follow their lead. Photo: Stevo Dirnberger and Chanel Cartell
Stevo Dirnberger and Chanel Cartell launched the online course HFFH Travel Around The World to inspire others to follow their lead. Photo: Stevo Dirnberger and Chanel Cartell

When the workload gets too much, it can be tempting to daydream about taking a few months off.

For some this means taking a once in a lifetime adventure, learning a new skill or simply recharging their batteries – a trend growing popular around the world. And a number of UAE employees are taking unpaid sabbaticals with their employer’s backing.

Last year, the Briton Lisa Welsh decided she wanted a break from her job at an international PR agency in Dubai. “When my husband and I separated, I decided it was a good time to turn it into a positive and leverage having limited responsibilities,” she explains. Her employer was open to a discussion about unpaid leave, but Ms Welsh decided to resign from her managerial role in January – “to allow myself to really disconnect from work, and to be flexible about the length of time I travelled for” she said. But she will return to her former employer towards the end of the year, “in a new and exciting role”.

Ms Welsh paid for her sabbatical using savings and gratuity pay, selling whatever she didn’t need, and letting her apartment go. She didn’t have much free time to plan her trip, so she posted a brief on upwork.com (a freelancer hiring site) for someone to plan a nine to 12-month sabbatical for her. “I had a three-month notice period during an extremely busy time of the year,” she explains. “Several people (from Upwork) applied and I selected the person that I felt most matched what I wanted the trip to include. She sent me a questionnaire, and two weeks later I had my schedule.”

Since leaving Dubai in January, Ms Welsh has visited New Zealand, Japan, China, Bali, Borneo, Australia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos. “I’m currently on my way to Europe and will visit Paris, Barcelona, Venice and Iceland, and finish my trip off with New York,” she says.

According to Dubai-based career coach Paul White, the director of coaching company Free2Grow International, taking a sabbatical should ideally be part of a 10-year financial plan, “so you have the chance to put money aside”.

“When people think about career they just think about work, but when I think about career I think about the whole of life,” he says. “For lifelong fulfillment people should consider taking time out, because otherwise they get to retirement age and think “what did I do? I just filled someone else’s pockets’. Initially, a sabbatical can be to rest and rejuvenate, but it also gives you the freedom to do something out of the ordinary. Perhaps it could even lead to a change of career.”

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To most people, a sabbatical is a period of unpaid leave of up to one year, and the employee returns to the same company. But in the UAE, many people end up taking sabbaticals due to redundancy, says Mr White. “They have money in their pocket from a pay-off, so they can take a sabbatical at short notice,” he says.

These days, South African Fathima Docrat is the head of international provider relations for an Abu Dhabi-based insurance provider. She had been working as medical director for a global company in 2016, when company downsizing spurred her to take a year-long break from her professional career. Ms Docrat lived on her redundancy payout during her sabbatical, which she supplemented by working 10 days a month as an emergency hospital doctor. “I only worked to pay the bills, and the rest of the time I travelled, read books, and spent time with my niece and nephew,” says Ms Docrat. “I actually enjoyed the work. I was nice to patients, because I wasn’t overworked and stressed.”

While companies in the UAE granting sabbaticals to their employees for travel is still unusual, all Muslim employees are entitled to time off to perform Haj – 30 days of unpaid leave in the private sector, and in the public sector, 15 days of paid leave, which can be granted twice. Government employees are also permitted time off for “educational leave”, and “exceptional leave”.

But when it comes to the end of service gratuity, employees should note that the tenure is calculated on the number of days worked and does not account for sabbaticals.

Mr White warns that UAE-based employers are “not very open-minded” when it comes to CV gaps. “If there’s a gap that doesn’t have an employer on it, I would advise them to try to explain around it. Employers are looking at the performance they are going to get, and the experience people have had. So even though recruiters may say that they would like to employ more rounded individuals [who have taken sabbaticals], I’m not sure that that’s really the case.”

Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, who runs the sabbatical-themed website www.thecareerbreaksite.com, says it’s crucial to employers that any career break is spent constructively. “That means volunteering, teaching, working abroad, taking a course, or it can even be adventurous travel. Most career breaks are a combination of these.”

Ms Morgan-Trimmer is based in the UK, where 90,000 people take a sabbatical every year, according to her site. She says companies are starting to see the benefits of allowing sabbaticals. “As well as saving on the cost of recruiting someone new for that role, it means a company gets a more skilled and experienced employee without any investment,” she says.

“A formal sabbatical policy is an excellent recruitment tool, and also results in more loyal employees. Anecdotal evidence suggests that employees who have taken a career break are promoted more quickly on their return.”

Globally, the number of companies offering sabbaticals to their long-term employees appears to be on the rise. Fortune’s 2017 list of the 100 best companies to work for in the US includes at least 15 that offer paid sabbaticals. One is The Cheesecake Factory, which offers as much as three weeks sabbatical after every five years of employment.

Another, Goldman Sachs, enables its vice presidents and managing directors to take paid leave to work with a charity or public service.

Jules Lewis, a motivational leader based in Abu Dhabi, takes UAE-based professionals on retreats, hikes and polar expeditions through her wellness company Mountain High.

She cites increasing work pressures for the growing popularity of sabbaticals.

“In a 24/7 work environment, more and more people are looking to unplug and disconnect for a while,” she says. “Silent retreats, wellness, and creative art therapy are all on the rise. It seems that people are finally waking up to the need to slow down and take breaks from living life at 100 miles an hour.”

Another reason why employers are allowing their staff to take career breaks is that it’s cheaper than hiring someone new, says Ms Morgan-Trimmer.

“It’s not solely that they don’t have to pay an employee while they’re off learning and travelling, nor that they have to pay for the skills they’re developing – it’s also that the employee has built up relationships with clients, colleagues and suppliers that are extremely valuable.”

Two and a half years ago, South African couple Chanel Cartell and Stevo Dirnberger left lucrative advertising jobs to travel the world, and are still on that journey.

They’ve just launched HFFH Travel Around The World, an online course to inspire others to do the same.

During the 12 months leading up to their departure date, the couple saved 20 to 25 per cent of their salaries each month in a separate account, “and started to learn to live with less,” says Mr Dirnberger. “We also had retirement annuities we delved into. A wise mentor told us if you’re going to invest in anything, invest in yourself, so we did.”

During their travels, the couple has stuck to a combined monthly budget using the budgeting app Trail Wallet, but admits some months have proven to be more expensive than they’d anticipated.

“We did a three-week road trip up the West coast of the US, but found that campsites cost the same as cheap motels – the trip was double what we’d planned for,” says Ms Cartell. “When we overspent, we’d eat less and cut back the following month, or try to find more housesitting or volunteer gigs.”

Ms Welsh decided not to set a daily budget, and so far, her trip has cost more than she’d anticipated. “I wanted a very active, non-stop trip, and activities such as climbing Kilimanjaro have proven to be expensive.”

Electrical engineer Sunita Dutta spent her six-month sabbatical focusing on relaxing pursuits such as holidays and writing. ( Satish Kumar / The National )
Electrical engineer Sunita Dutta spent her six-month sabbatical focusing on relaxing pursuits such as holidays and writing. Satish Kumar / The National

After working for many months without leave, Sunita Dutta, an Abu Dhabi-based electrical engineer from India, spent her recent six-month sabbatical focusing on more relaxing pursuits, “quality time visiting parents in Delhi, vacationing in Sri Lanka, and writing”.

“But then I started missing work, and having a forced routine which makes you more active,” she adds.

“Sabbaticals are good but if it’s a long duration, then it should be with a set of measurable goals in mind to keep you going – or else you run the risk of losing focus.”

Ms Dutta funded her sabbatical with money she got as a bonus and other related benefits, “which I marked as my monthly salary fund for the period”, she explains.

The sabbatical proved to be a worthwhile use of her time. “When I returned to work, this time in infrastructure rather than oil and gas, I felt a lot fresher, rejuvenated and less stressed.”