Thinking of taking a break from work after COVID? Here’s what to know
A post-COVID break from work can become a reality with some financial planning, soul searching and an open conversation with your manager.
A post-COVID break from work can become a reality with some financial planning, soul searching and an open conversation with your manager.
Taking a break from work after COVID was just what Cindy Maingot needed. After working in finance at Honeywell for 30 years, she was ready for new challenges. When the company was reducing its staff during the pandemic and the opportunity came up to volunteer to take a severance package, Maingot was the first to raise her hand. “I felt ready to move on and do something different,” she says. With 18 months of full pay and benefits, Maingot is spending this time volunteering and growing her skills while applying for jobs at not-for-profit organizations.
A break can mean taking a sabbatical from your current job or it can mean resigning, having time for yourself and then finding a new job. This space from regular employment can provide an opportunity for personal discovery, through travel or volunteer work, or it can be the answer to work burnout and pandemic fatigue. Either way, it’s on people’s minds: As employees are being called back to the office, many are rethinking their relationships with work, with more than 50% saying they’re willing to quit their jobs if they aren’t offered the flexibility they want, according to a recent survey by Ernst & Young.
It’s no surprise that the desire to take a break from work is often related to mental health. In September 2021, the LifeWorks Mental Health Index monthly survey found that a full 35% of Canadians are considering leaving their current job (or are unsure). Of that group, the mental health score was three times lower than those who were not considering leaving. Of the employees who did resign from their jobs during the pandemic, nearly 20% cited work stress as a reason why.
The survey also found that work flexibility and consideration of an employee’s working preferences also impact the wellbeing of staff. While 29% of Canadians reported that they want flexibility in choosing their work location in the post-pandemic world, nearly half of respondents were not asked about these preferences by their employer. This group was also found to have the lowest mental-health score. What’s clear is that the pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of Canadian workers, who are looking to their employers for solutions to that stress, whether its greater working flexibility or the opportunity to take a break from work.
Making an employment hiatus financially feasible is definitely within reach. It may take years of planning and saving, along with some honest conversations, but it is possible to make this dream a reality.
Watch: Ready to quit your job? Here's some advice to keep in mind
The answer to this will look different for everyone. Agnes Tseng, senior people and culture advisor at workplace design consultancy firm Bloom, says it’s important to start by identifying what type of break it is that you need. Determine whether you’re in need of a mental break, a new job in the same industry or a complete 180-degree career change. “Ask yourself, how do I want to be inspired? If I didn’t have a deadline tomorrow, what else would I be doing?”
If you’re aiming to take a break from your current position with the intention of returning, you can investigate the leave options you have access to. A sabbatical may be mandated by your collective agreement, it may be something that your manager is amenable to or it may be completely off the table. If you find yourself in the latter situation, Tseng says your best course of action may be to resign, knowing that some of your time off will be spent on a job hunt, to make your much-needed break happen. If you’re thinking of leaving your current job to forge an entirely new career path, do your research beforehand. Ask yourself questions like: Will this new role require further education? If so, what will that cost look like, both in terms of schooling fees and time away from work? If you’d rather not go back to school, explore career paths that don’t require a degree (read about 10 high-paying jobs that don’t require a degree).
Hailey Coleman and her husband were inspired by an article they’d read about someone whose dying regret was that he’d not travelled more. They decided to take a year off to travel the world in 2017 and spent two years saving up the $100,000 they needed to be able to afford to do so. Both had different experiences in telling their employers. While her husband was able to negotiate a yearlong’ leave from his role in the office of the CEO at Maple Leaf Foods, the timing for her sabbatical from marketing simply didn’t work at Shopify. After discussions with her managers about seven months before her trip, she ended up resigning. “I always knew we were doing the trip—no matter what. That’s when I decided to leave,” she says, adding that she left on very good terms.
It depends, as temporarily or permanently leaving your job is a personal decision that involves a lot of risk calculation. Maingot knew that she’d be financially secure thanks to her severance package and her husband’s income. For Coleman, the decision to prioritize world travel was a now-or-never situation, made easier because of her husband’s sabbatical and the safety net of being able to move in with family, if worse came to worse. However, not everyone has those privileges.
Shannon Lee Simmons, a certified financial planner, certified investment manager and the founder of The New School of Finance, says that one of the most important steps in taking a break from work is planning your sabbatical exit strategy, especially if you’re quitting your job to take time off. “How uncertain is the future cash flow?” is a central question to ask yourself.
Mapping out your return to regular employment will depend on the type of break you’ve elected to take. For example, with a sabbatical you’ll return to your job or, if you resigned, you’ll be looking for a new position. “It makes the stakes a lot lower if you know that your employer is OK with it or if you have a really employable skill that [will allow you to] just jump in at another job,” says Simmons. She cites her resignation at 25 to take a yearlong break from the corporate finance world as an example where she knew her skill set would land her a new job at the end of it. In either case, budgeting your fixed monthly expenses, determining whether your sabbatical is paid or unpaid or any other options from your employer will give you an idea of how long your break can last. If you’re planning on resigning, a budget will help you figure out your timing of when to leave and how long before you need to start working again.
To prepare for this conversation with your manager, Tseng’s biggest piece of advice is to plan on all fronts, adding that this may mean giving your employer upwards of a year’s notice. She also recommends that you start documenting your day-to-day tasks and responsibilities to effectively create a job manual. This will help your employer with the transition, and keep you in good standing in their eyes.
If you do decide to resign from your job with the intention of finding a new one, Tseng recommends that you start job search well in advance of when you think you need to. Update your resume and LinkedIn profile before you leave your current position and begin contacting your connections for any leads. “If you are already well within your career, you’ll know on average what the recruitment process might look like depending on your past roles and jobs.” If you’re relatively green in your career, you can do some research, asking around to your industry’s network to get a sense of the landscape.
In terms of the notion that it’s harder to find a job when you aren’t currently in one, Tseng says that it all depends on your profession, location and how popular and in-demand your role is. “At the end of the day, hiring managers need to focus on the pure alignment of skills and potential when it comes to making decisions on candidates.”
After discussions that took place over about two months towards the end of her time off, Coleman ended up returning to a new role at Shopify, her old company (it pays to leave on good terms). She says that she wishes she’d spent less time worrying about securing a new job and fully enjoying her travels, even though she was fully financially prepared for a year off and had a cushion of about $15,000 to return to.
When asked what advice she has for friends who have decided to take a break from work, she advises not to be shy about negotiating with your employer to agree on a sabbatical where you return to your current role at the end of it. You’re already prepared if they say no, but it’s good to ask for your job for when you come back (if you want it, of course). If that fails? Trust in your decision to leave. “Don’t worry about what you’re going to come back to, you will eventually find another job.”
For Maingot, her goal at the end of her 18 months off is to find employment at a not-for-profit where she can put her background in finance and recent volunteer experience to good use. “For me, the important thing is doing something I want to do, even if it’s at a lower rate or part-time.”
Knowing when and how your sabbatical will end will alleviate stress so you can make the most of this time for yourself without the looming question of how you’ll start making money again. “You can fully engage with whatever self-care or self-work that you’re doing because that question is answered,” says Simmons.
Determining if you are in a position to do so takes some financial planning, including budgeting the monthly expenses for your break, deciding how long your break will be and then putting together a savings plan. Simmons is quick to point out that the ability to take a break from work is a privilege that most cannot afford, and that it may take years to save up for.
Start by calculating your fixed monthly expenses (like your rent, mortgage payment, internet and phone bill) for your time off. For Coleman and her husband, saving while living in downtown Toronto took two years and a healthy dose of supportive teamwork. “Essentially every time we went out, it was, ‘Do we need that extra cocktail? Or could this be a day in Thailand?’” she says. Living within a budget while you save is important, but Simmons advises against putting a very strict spending plan in place. “They’re not sustainable and they set people up for failure.”
When saving up for your break, Simmons recommends keeping your money in a designated high-interest rate savings account, even though investing it may seem like an attractive option. “You’re in a position where a dollar less is detrimental. There is no risk tolerance,” she explains. She also advises against GICs because you’ll want to be able to access the funds at any time, as well as staying away from tax-free savings accounts. “You’re probably not earning enough interest on it to even worry about the tax and you don’t want to mess with your contribution room. It can be complicated if this is an account that you’re coming and going from frequently,” she says.
She also recommends exploring different avenues to increase your income while you’re on a break from work. Consider renting out your property while you travel, monetizing a side hustle, selling some belongings or even taking advantage of credit card welcome offers for bonus points, like Coleman did when preparing for her year of travel.
Determining affordability for a post-COVID break from work involves coming up with a budget, following a savings plan, looking for creative ways to increase your income and having a plan in place for returning to the workforce when your break is done.
Taking a break from work can give you the time you need to find greater alignment with your sense of purpose, once you’ve prepared financially. “Probably the biggest barrier for most people is being financially supported for this type of leave,” says Tseng.
There is still a stigma around taking unpaid leave from employment. Friends and family may view your decision to prioritize time off as irresponsible or reckless, while hiring managers may see a candidate on leave as somehow less desirable. Having a solid financial plan in place, an end-of-leave exit strategy and conviction in the purpose of your time off will help assuage fears. Plus, Tseng says that employees looking for increased flexibility, like the ability to take extended time off, will lead to a new style of recruitment, one that’s empathy lead. “People are going to want to work with others who understand that they’re human.”
For Simmons, taking a year off in her 20s resulted in her founding The New School of Finance, which she continues to run today. For Maingot, it’s been the opportunity to help others through volunteer work. “I haven’t been bored one minute,” she says. And for Coleman, that was the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit far-flung places like Rwanda, the Philippines and India, while strengthening the bond with her husband. “I definitely gained a larger perspective on life,” she says. Whatever your personal dreams are for taking a break from work, a little financial planning can make them a reality.
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In Spring 1972, I took approx 6 months off to see Europe on approx $10 / day and when I returned in September, I went to see my old boss about coming back and was offered a position but it wasn’t in Vancouver but in Calgary. OK. Why not? It probably was one of my best decisions. I then spent the next 40 years in Alberta on what I thought were interesting and financial rewarding jobs with 5 different employers. Luck played a small part but I believe that employers wanted someone who would take responsibility and get the job done. Continual education is vitally important.