Mid career breaks. How to stay sane and avoid burn out
Just before Christmas I had an email from Thailand from an ex business associate. He was in between jobs and had negotiated a six month career gap. At 45 he had been working his socks and body parts off for over 20 years and needed a time-out to re-charge the flagging batteries. It was the best thing he’d ever done he claimed, wished he’d done it earlier and felt it should be mandatory for all executives. “You don’t know how tired and under performing you are until you actually stop. I also realised how worn out many of my team and peers were too, especially after the last 2 to 3 years fighting for survival during the recession. It’s not good for concentration, impacts the effectiveness of both the team and decision-making process and ultimately impacts the bottom line.”
Another colleague is about to take off on a gap period to do some “Voluntoursim” a relatively new concept where individuals combine voluntary work with travel. One site describes this experience as .. “The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination“
He had no specific job lined up for his return, but his employer had agreed to keep a position open for him “Yes “ he said ” there’s some risk, there are no guarantees that any openings will be in line with my expectations, but I wanted to do something different, give back and travel. This seems ideal. I’ll take my lap top and i-phone with me, keep in touch, but I just need to clear my head. I also want to do this while I’m physically fit and intend to come back refreshed and ready to go! Savvy organisations will realise that this can only help them be more profitable “
No longer retirees
When I looked on Google there are literally dozens of organisations, companies and blogs set up to cater for this new trend of older people taking career breaks and going to destinations as diverse as India, Ecuador and the Arctic Circle. These trips of a lifetime were frequently associated with post retirement plans ( or even post graduation), but as those days are being bumped further into the future by economic and social change and retirement may now not start until employees are in their late 60s, many want to take those trips while they can. My own father, sadly, was diagnosed with cancer the week before he retired and was never able to fulfill his dreams. Today, many are not prepared to wait and take a chance.
A new study (“Flexible Work Models: How to bring sustainability in a 24/7 world”) of 3,300 professional men and women published by Bain & Company on the adoption and effectiveness of flexible work models finds that a lack of availability of these programs, as well as their poor utilization, can dramatically increase the likelihood that employees stay with their current company and more effective implementation can improve retention of women by up to 40% and up to 25% for men.
“Despite the fact that flex models are one of the hottest recruiting and retention tools, they aren’t sufficiently used at many organizations,” said Julie Coffman, a Bain partner and study author. “Companies can no longer get away with just offering cookie cutter options; they must tailor them to their employees and also provide adequate levels of support and resources to ensure better cultural acceptance.”
10 Steps to burn out
So what would cause an executive or any other employee to start internet researching and reach for their credit card, when to the outside world they have great careers. According to the Bain report, a combination of 5 of any of the criteria mentioned below, identify the hallmarks of a challenging work situation, which could lead to a need for a break:
§ Unpredictable work flow;
§ Fast-paced work under tight deadlines;
§ Inordinate scope of responsibility that amounts to more than one job;
§ Work-related events outside regular work hours;
§ Expected to be available to clients or customers 24/7;
§ Responsibility for profit and loss;
§ Responsibility for mentoring and recruiting;
§ Large amount of travel;
§ Large number of direct reports;
§ Physical presence at workplace at least 10 hours a day
When employees work in excess of 50 hours per week, that can also contribute to a feeling of burnout. This is of course without factoring in any of the usual domestic pressures or any other specific difficulties, which routinely crop up in most people’s lives and contribute to overall life stress. Not surprisingly, by mid – career many wish they could take a break. Seemingly, those that can, are actively trying to make that happen in ever-increasing numbers.
One HR Director I spoke to said ” At one time it was mainly women who wanted flexi-time arrangements or sabbaticals to extend their maternity leave, so that they could stay at home with their children. Now, leave of absence requests are becoming increasingly common from both men and women of all ages, as employees seek not just challenging careers, but opportunities to take breaks and recharge their batteries. Our top executives are entitled to extended leave periods every 5 years. For both younger and older non-executives sabbaticals tend be the best-fit flexible work option. They very often choose to travel or do voluntary or project work. Others use a break for child or parental care, or even to pursue further education. Some organisations are also offering employees the opportunity to buy additional holidays, which effectively means that they take a salary cut in exchange for additional time off. In some functions this can be easily arranged. In other more operational areas it can be more difficult.”
As all Gen Y research has indicated, Millenials will demand greater flexibility from their organisations in the future. So flexi-time options previously associated with supporting women to take care of their children, will move further into mainstream cross gender HR policy. This will mean organisations will be pressed to consider the provision of a full menu of flexi-time options including parental leave, flexible hours or remote working as well as extended leave of absence.
I’m already looking at the map!
So how about you? Would you like to take a mid career break?