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Though politicians rarely take a sabbatical, Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Congress party, recently took one. The media was told he had gone “abroad for introspection and soul-searching".

Once the prerogative of professors and researchers, sabbaticals are gaining popularity outside academic circles. “From what we have seen, up-skilling, adding a qualification and taking time off to re-energize and broaden one’s experiences are some of the main reasons why employees opt for sabbaticals," says Intikhab Wani, vice-president and head of human resources (HR) for India and Sri Lanka at Quintiles, a biopharmaceutical development and commercial outsourcing services company.

The perception around sabbaticals is changing in India, albeit slowly. They are still rare in political circles, but less so in the corporate world.

“Most companies don’t have a formal sabbatical policy apart from maternity leave policy," says Kunal Sen, senior vice-president at recruitment and staffing company TeamLease Services. He says most employers approve sabbaticals on a case-to-case basis. But it’s not unusual for people to go away for prolonged periods for reasons ranging from maternity/paternity leave to a study break, or just to travel, Sen adds.

Whether the break is to rediscover the self, make a new start or update skills, HR managers and employees tell us how to make the best of it and then ease back into work.

An alternative interest

In 2010, there was a surge in the number of executives who took sabbaticals to volunteer with the Unique Identification Authority of India, or Uidai. Forbes India magazine wrote about D. Subhalakshmi (Genpact) and Sahil Kini (McKinsey & Co.), among others, who had taken anywhere from six months to two years off from work to volunteer for the nationwide biometric identification project.

More employees are now taking such career breaks.

Aarti Madhusudan, founder of non-profit initiatives like Governance Counts and Whiteboard, started a LinkedIn group titled On Sabbatical In India three years ago. The idea was to connect senior professionals who wanted to contribute to the non-profit space with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that could use their expertise. Madhusudan says she started the LinkedIn group in response to requests from executives.

The LinkedIn group is small, but Madhusudan says she plans to pump in more time and resources now—she had to put it on the backburner when Whiteboard, an initiative where executives can volunteer with NGOs without going on leave, became popular. Whiteboard is now part of the iVolunteer social enterprise.

Pune-based Kaushik Ghosh, people head, ThoughtWorks, a software product firm, says his company partially “sponsors" employees who go on sabbaticals to work with NGOs by giving them “50% paid leave". ThoughtWorks has a global sabbatical policy—employees are entitled to 12 weeks’ paid leave when they complete 10 years with the organization and six weeks every five years after that. Employees can apply for sabbaticals otherwise too, but that is without pay.

Ghosh says one of the top reasons why employees at ThoughtWorks apply for long leave is to work on a pet project—these could be start-up ideas in the very early stages that employees want to explore without quitting their day jobs. “People go on sabbatical only when the project reaches a certain stage where it needs their focused attention, like when they are trying to get validation for a project idea," he explains.

The company is aware that such an employee may not return if the product is successful, Ghosh says. But that’s not a deterrent as long as the employee is transparent about what s/he’s planning to do and there is no conflict of interest between the project and the company’s work. “If they want to do something, it doesn’t make sense for us to stop them. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, they’ll come back to us," he adds.

In fact, Ghosh says, ThoughtWorks has in the past hired people who’ve tried working on their pet projects for a while and then decided to return to a corporate job—this usually means they have a career break in the traditional sense. “We like these sort of people immensely. They contribute well while they are here," he says.

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Anita Limaye

Director, clinical department, Quintiles, Mumbai

On sabbatical: Since December.

Purpose: “I have managed a seven-week road trip across north and North-East India.... About 60% of this travel has been solo, giving me some interesting experiences as a single woman traveller in India, like staying in home stays, hostels, travelling by bus/train/local shared taxis, visiting wildlife sanctuaries like the Sunderbans and Kaziranga, trekking and paragliding."

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Etienne Do

Business manager, VML, Singapore/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

On sabbatical: Since 2012

Purpose: Etienne wanted to experience the start-up culture of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. On sabbatical, he is working on select projects with VML, a digital marketing agency.

Etienne is using the connections he’s made in Vietnam to push the envelope on the technology end of his campaigns—for a recent project, he made LED targets which would light up when fired at with Mattel’s Boom.co toy gun.

Company’s gain

Employees are expected to gain skills, follow a passion, test a new field or idea, be able to manage a key life stage like early parenthood or looking after a sick relative, or just enjoy the experiences they have on sabbatical.

Anita Limaye, the Mumbai-based director of the clinical department at Quintiles, has been on sabbatical since December. She says on email that she has managed a seven-week road trip across north and North-East India, starting from Dharamsala, going through Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, Kolkata, including the Sunderbans, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya; she’s done some trekking and paragliding; met some great people; completed a 55km walk in 13 hours to help raise funds for children with disabilities; and spent quality time with her parents—something she says she hadn’t been able to do for some time.

What’s less obvious is that companies too can benefit when star performers step away for a while to chase their dreams.

Tripti Lochan, chief executive officer of digital marketing agency VML in Asia, a unit of the multinational firm WPP, says a seven-member core committee (including her) at the company has accepted sabbatical requests from two Singapore-based “star" performers in the last three years—Justin Chai and Etienne Do. Justin, a project manager, wanted to try out a role on the creative side within the organization. To prepare for it, he wanted to spend three months in Europe, visiting museums, seeing art. VML approved the leave.

“We didn’t fund his sabbatical (travel, stay, etc.), but half of it was paid leave," says Lochan. “When Justin came back, he said he had loved looking at museums and being submerged in the art scene. But he also came back with the conviction that it was the right thing for him to stick to his (project management) role," she says.

While Justin gained clarity and renewed interest in his job from this exercise, Lochan says the company gained too. “Can you imagine the loyalty you get from someone like them?" she asks.

Justin rejoined work as a project manager and was recently promoted to senior project manager.

In his 2009 TED Talk, New York, US, based graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister talked about “The Power Of Time Off". Sagmeister takes a year off every seven years. During this break, he travels, whiles away time in a foreign country, and can be inspired by almost anything, including street dogs—the only rule is, he avoids taking office assignments. For him, it’s like resetting his creative vision every seven years—he comes back with fresh images and perspectives that fuel his design work. His simple, but powerful, idea is to shave off years from his retirement—and taking sabbaticals while he is working.

Planning is everything, plans are nothing

Besides being a star business manager, Etienne checked the box on two important criteria for VML’s Lochan. First, he had a clear idea of why he wanted to take the break—he wanted to move from Singapore to Vietnam to immerse himself in the start-up culture of Ho Chi Minh City. And second, he gave the company ample notice—eight months to find a suitable replacement.

“Had he said, ‘This is what I want to do, and I need to leave in two months,’ I would have taken it in a different way," says Lochan. On sabbatical, Etienne is working on some projects with VML, though he doesn’t come to office. And he’s drawing 50% of his pay.

Planning allows employees considering a sabbatical to give enough notice to the company—this can vary with the company and specific role of the employee—and set things in order for themselves. After all, they need to figure out things like how they will support themselves during the break, what they want to achieve, and understand how a sabbatical might help them later on.

Sunil Nandraj, a former cluster head of health systems development at the World Health Organization (WHO), says he prepared himself mentally and financially for a whole year before going on a 15-month sabbatical in April 2012. He declined to say how much money he had put aside, but said he had saved enough to ensure he didn’t have to go back to work in a hurry for financial reasons.

If Rahul Gandhi went away on break to introspect, as is claimed, it seems there are any number of corporate executives who take a sabbatical for the same reason.

Nandraj’s reason for seeking a break: “I was reaching burnout stage. I had been working with WHO for 11 years."

On break, Nandraj tried getting support for an idea on health insurance for street children. He now freelances with organizations like the Public Health Foundation of India.

Like most things in life, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for planning a sabbatical. Debabrat Mishra, director, HayGroup India, who took an year-long sabbatical in 2010, says his experience is that if you are broadly clear on three things—why you want to take a sabbatical, when it is it likely to end, and what you want at the end of the break—the rest can be somewhat unstructured.

Getting back

It’s usually easier when you come back to your old organization after a sabbatical, says Puneet Rathi of the Society for Human Resource Management, an international association. This is because when you join a new company, the onus is on you to showcase your capabilities—something you’re likely to have done already at the old company before going on break.

Still, there is a twofold challenge, even when you’re rejoining your old firm: overcoming your own inertia, and disproving any doubts that you’re any less committed than before.

Rathi’s top tips to rejoin smoothly include staying in touch with work on your break. This means staying updated on what’s happening in the field, especially if it’s a dynamic space like e-retail where changes take place every day; and keeping up a dialogue with the company. Talk to a friend at the office about what’s going on, drop by to say “Hi", ask if you can continue to receive the company newsletter or group emailers.

On the personal front, Rathi says, try keeping a 9-5 schedule at least a week before rejoining. In effect, do dry runs to ensure you can get ready on time.

TeamLease Services’ Sen takes this a step further: Go to your company offsite if it happens to fall during your break. Not only is the company likely to allow it, most would see it as a sign of your commitment to return and be a part of the organization again.

Mohit Gundecha, co-founder and CEO of talent analytics firm Jombay, says employees can face “post sabbatical stress", or a sense of insecurity, on rejoining. The insecurity could arise from self-doubts: Has the workplace gotten used to functioning without me? Am I being able to deliver like before? Is my professional friend circle still fond of me or do I need to rebuild those ties?

Sen has this bit of advice for employees returning from a sabbatical: For the company, the cost of hiring and initiating someone else into the company culture is high. If you want to make it work, they want to make it work too.

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