#ThePowerOfWords: Navigating your way in a changing world after being on a long sabbatical.

WeAce
6 min readSep 2, 2022

By Vivek Pathak, Client Delivery Center Leader India — Business Process Operations, IBM Consulting

This is a topic that connects with me personally and I am happy to share my experience and thoughts based on close brushes with sabbaticals within my own family and at workplaces I have been part of.

Taking a break from work, is difficult for anybody and it doesn’t matter which gender we refer to. I consider a sabbatical, an extended break from active work or a break to try a different line of work, or to study and so on, and each of these have their own implications once you are planning to return to work.

Personal experiences and experiences from the work front

Many years back, when I qualified as a Chartered Accountant (CA), I found a job with E&Y (part of Big 6) in Middle East. The Middle East follows International Accounting Standards (IAS) that are relatively simpler when compared to intense and complex accounting standards, tax regimes and stringent local statutory requirements in India. Once I was back in India, I needed a significant amount of re-learning and unlearning to do, and this felt like starting everything all over again. In such a situation, it is easy to find yourself on the backfoot in many respects when looking for an opportunity, as your most recent experience didn’t require application of local practices to get work done. And being able to prove that you are the right candidate becomes the most challenging task, while employers are looking to hire the one with the most relevant experience and qualifications in the subject matter.

Another personal experience with sabbaticals was when my wife, who is a gynaecologist decided to go on a break to be able to raise our kids during the initial years. She started afresh when she got back and started working for a government hospital. From the perspective of the role, remuneration and professional stimulation, it wasn’t necessarily the most rewarding and satisfying. She was however very confident of her skills and her abilities and did not lose heart and kept going. Fast forward that to few years later, she is doing extremely well, recognized and respected in her domain. To summarize, situations can be hard on you once you are back from a sabbatical, however with a strong resolute, you can work on it and bounce back.

Within your career span that may be anywhere between 20 and 35 years, unless you wish to retire sooner, you must explore and experiment with the challenging roles every few years and not stay in your comfort zone. I am reminded of the quote by Ginni Rometty, our Ex-CEO of IBM “Growth and comfort don’t co-exit”.

As you progress in your career, your role will get increasingly challenging and to stay competitive and relevant, you need to acquire new skills for continued self-development.

I encourage you to read the book called “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There” by “Marshall Goldsmith”. The book talks about acquiring skills and knowledge, that will help you with moving forward from your past glories and accolades to the next level in an organization.

Every year will also not be as rewarding as the previous one, and you need to take it in your stride and be willing to invest, not loose heart and there will always be people willing to help and support you to be successful as far as you are ready to give it a chance.

An organization’s role when offering sabbaticals

In terms of supporting employees going on sabbatical, organizations play a larger role. They need to be an ally through this journey in providing the opportunity for an extended break, be empathetic towards the situation and impart hope of full support to find a suitable role once they decide to be back. When there are more instances of sabbaticals in an organization, it also helps in creating increased humility in the team to accept and understand these situations. These are humbling experiences that we all, in my view, should experience to be a better human being, not just a corporate citizen.

In the span of my career so far, I have witnessed many successful come backs. One of which is a dear friend and an ex-colleague who took a break when she was at the peak of her career due to personal reasons and given her extraordinary work, she was also promoted while being on a sabbatical !!! Even in IBM, I have encountered many instances of successful comebacks by women who returned to work and have continued working with us for many years now.

Challenges of a changing world

Some common challenges that employees tend to face once they are back after a sabbatical include self-doubt and peer group pressure. It’s very important to always address such concerns. In case of self-doubt, it’s best to reach out to your manager and have an open dialogue of what you are feeling and seek help. In IBM, we have multiple support groups that can be approached as well. With regards to peer group, it’s always recommended to have a healthy relationship with them. You must connect with them rather than holding yourself back. The biggest damage, one does is holding on to your own imaginations and starting to live in your own doubts. Your peers will always open-up and help you if you make the effort to reach out. When you seek help, you will always find help and there will be people who will come forward to help you.

Upskilling and levelling up!

There’s no denial that if you keep yourself abreast with what’s happening, it’s going to be beneficial. However, against popular belief, focussing on your current line of work, and what you left behind to be relevant when you are back, comes in the way of the very reason you went on a sabbatical at the first place. If you decided to go on a sabbatical either to tend to family duties or to explore more about yourself, for creative thinking or anything else, it’s important for you to focus completely on that. In my view it is not necessary to be engaged in upskilling and carry that burden while you are away. There are ample work opportunities and bridge programs that support in brushing up your skills once you are back.

One must also go on a sabbatical with a free mind, not being fixated or worried about their role in the organization once they plan to come back. We are all thriving in a fast-changing world and to predict what role and position you will land up in can’t be possibly understood at the time of your sabbatical. If you’re a good performer, are a trusted employee and have the quest for learning, your organization will definitely look forward to welcoming you back!

About the Author:

Vivek leads a team of ten thousand talented colleagues who support hundred plus client engagements. He is a passionate leader with unrelenting focus in innovation, clients and talent growth. He is a big ally of diversity and strong supporter on inclusivity. He is a qualified Chartered Accountant and also a Cost and Works Accountant from India. He keeps himself fit by playing squash and badminton, practice yoga and run.

Stay tuned for more such enlightening ideas and views…

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