Never too old for a gap year: five reasons why taking time out to travel will enhance your life

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Amy Lewis
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If you left school, went straight to university, then did the ‘sensible thing’ and got a job right after graduating, chances are you could soon join the many women in their thirties considering an adult gap year.

‘But what about my job?’ you ask. ‘Can I really just drop everything and go backpacking, now?’ you wonder. The short answer is YES - and there are many, many reasons why you should.

Taking a career break to travel, volunteer and see more of the world won’t just benefit you and your collection of passport stamps, either. The experience will likely see you return home a more valuable asset to any company or leadership role, and with a clearer idea of what you want.

From the CEOs who are backing the rising phenomenon, to the women who have actually done it, here’s why booking that ticket may be the best thing you ever do.

Recharge your batteries

If you’ve been operating close to burnout for some time, taking a break or sabbatical is the best way to properly recharge your batteries. Repeating the same routines and stress patterns week in, week out, for months or years on end, can leave a mental fatigue that ‘a few early nights’ will never tackle.

“We often find that those who take career breaks and experience life-changing events, return refreshed, reinvigorated and ready to make a more valuable contribution to their work,” says Sarah Hernon, principal consultant at global career expert network Right Management.

“When returning to work, these people also tend to be more open minded and have a different perspective on things, which can be extremely beneficial to their careers going forward.”

Debra Charles, founder and CEO of Novacroft (the smart card technology company which powers TFL’s Oyster scheme), agrees, urging that anything which boosts your physical and mental wellbeing, should also be a top priority for your boss.

“Nurturing wellbeing is good for an organisation’s long-term value,” she explains. “It can be realised in a measurable way too, whether it’s a reduction in absenteeism and attrition, attracting new recruits, or impacting overall company growth goals. Adult gap years are a great idea in that respect, and so I wholeheartedly support them.”

Reassess ‘the plan’

Stuck in a career rut? Pressing the pause button and taking time away to reassess both your personal ambitions and career goals, can be invaluable.

“Adults can find themselves in the wrong career all too easily, and so an adult gap year offers the perfect opportunity to review and think very carefully about what works for you, and what doesn’t,” notes career mentor Penny Davenport.

“It’s easier to consider what you are good at and more importantly, what you enjoy, when you have some distance from the day job. A gap year, sabbatical or career break affords you the time to recharge, take stock of life to date, and then make plans for the future.”

Expand your skills and knowledge

If you’re feeling pigeon-holed at work, or wish you had a more diverse skillset to offer, taking time out to volunteer abroad could be the answer.

“If you are in a position financially to take a gap year, then volunteering is a great way to broaden your skills,” says Lisa Rinaldi, regional director of recruitment giant Cordant People.

“Use it as an opportunity to volunteer in a field you are passionate about and want to work in later, so that when you re-enter the job market, you’re equipped with relevant industry knowledge and experience to go for a job in that area.”

“The beauty of a gap year is to discover,” adds Debra Charles, whose own three-month break saw her explore Australia, India and America, returning with a new desire to make a difference in society.

“It’s an adventure that stretches you beyond your everyday comfort zone, and so anyone having taken a break like that, is likely to have grown in confidence,” she explains.

“They’ll also have experienced other cultures and communities, seen other ways of doing things and practical differences that, once home, they can use to add value to a potential employers’ organisation.”

Bring a new perspective

Along with the skills and life experience you'll no doubt pick up while travelling, when returning to work it’s likely you’ll bring a wiser, fresher perspective to the issues which affect companies. That's something employers will be keen to utilise.

“After taking a gap year or career break, people are likely to have developed a more balanced view of both themselves and the workplace,” says Penny Davenport.

“An employer's hope might be, that this would bring more perspective and creativity to the way in which they do things.

“One of our best assets in the workplace is self-awareness - of our strengths, weaknesses and emotions, and this develops with greater life experience.”

Do it while you can

Still not convinced about the reasons to take a gap year? Davenport also makes the case for doing it now, while you still can.

“We shouldn’t save up our all gap year and travel ideas for later in life,” she argues.

“Fulfill your dreams now while you’re still fit and healthy. Go kayaking in America, trekking in the Amazon and skiing in the Alps now - not when you’re 65.”

Meet the woman who did it...

Abby Barton, Head of Business Development at Wayra, took six months out to travel South America - and hasn't regretted a single moment...

“I had spent my entire career in commercial finance, having trained as a chartered accountant nearly 15 years ago. After two years as Head of Retail Finance at O2, a difficult internal interview for a promotion prompted me to start thinking about what else I might want to do.

When I struggled to decide, I realised I hadn’t been asking myself the much bigger question: ‘what do I want my career to be?’ In 15 years, amazingly I’d never stopped to ask myself that question. I decided it was time I gave it the thought it deserved and requested a six month sabbatical.

Luckily, the response I got from my company was fantastic. They were happy to give me the time I needed to re-focus and re-energise. I spent an incredible six months travelling around South America, with plenty of 10-hour bus journeys where I had nothing to do but think about what was important to me.

When I got back, I knew I didn’t see myself in finance any more. I had realised that I wanted to work with people more directly, and to find more purpose in my work. Soon after I had the opportunity to move into the Retail Leadership Team, which then led me to my current role as Head of Business Development at Wayra, O2’s start-up accelerator.

My day is now totally different to anything I’ve experienced; the energy, pace and excitement is completely infectious, and it’s given me the opportunity to work alongside some seriously impressive entrepreneurs.

Taking a career break can seem like a daunting prospect both in terms of taking time out of work and actually asking for it in the first place, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

Taking a break gave me a lot of time for introspection and I found that I came back with the confidence to ask for what I needed from both the business and my career, to help me achieve my personal goals.”

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Amy Lewis

Amy Lewis is a freelance writer and editor, a lover of strong tea, equally strong eyebrows, a collector of facial oils and a cat meme enthusiast. She covers everything from beauty and fashion to feminism and travel.