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Finding the best time to take a travel break in your career

In this June 25, 2014, photo, a backpacker gets an overview of the town of Ouro Preto, Brazil. (AP Photo/Frank Griffiths)

In the summer of 2011, just before I turned 21, I left home to go on a trip to Israel. Over the course of three-plus months, I worked and lived on a kibbutz (socialist commune), in the Negev desert. Using the kibbutz as a home base, I was able to immerse myself in the culture and history of the storied region.

I made trips to Jerusalem to see all its holy sites, indulged in the nightlife of Tel Aviv, witnessed one of the wonders of the world in Petra and walked along the region’s fault lines in the West Bank.

While I made this trip between semesters during my undergraduate degree, many people don’t get this opportunity, and once you’ve started your career it can be difficult to find the right time to take this kind of lengthy trip.

So how do you know when’s the best time to unleash your wanderlust and make that trip around the world that you’ve always dreamed about, without sacrificing your career goals or worrying about employment upon your return?

According to Meghan Reid, a psychologist and Toronto lead of Canada Career Counselling, there isn’t an ideal point to take off for extended travel, but if you need to quit to make it happen you need to figure out a way to explain the gap in your resume when you get back.

Spinning your story

“(It’s all about) how do you tell that story or spin that reasoning behind why you took that trip: what you maybe gained out of it that could be useful and beneficial for employment,” she told Yahoo Finance Canada.

“So depending on where you’re travelling, you could potentially speak to enhanced cultural understanding … Even if it is completely for pleasure, what do you get out of it? There’s organization, time management, planning, navigation, you know, being creative about those skills and strengths that you might build.”

Reid said some workplaces might be impressed by someone who was able to raise the necessary funds, execute it by themselves and return with great experiences.

“As an employer, I’m like, ‘Well, great you’ve already taken a big trip, so maybe that’s out of your system and it takes some skills to do that, there aren’t a ton of people out who have the ability to actually save and plan for an extensive trip,’” she said.

In my case, I’ve used my trip to Israel to say it taught me the value of hard work. Kibbutz Lahav was an oasis – albeit an ageing one – literally in the middle of the scorching desert that wouldn’t exist without great effort by its people. And as a volunteer, I got a taste of that. I worked long hours, often starting before sunrise to avoid the peak heat, in a variety of positions, from gardening out in those scorching temperatures, dishwashing in the always humid kitchen cafeteria and sporting rubber gloves and boots to hose down and clean meat racks with acid in the processing plant.

What employers think

Reid stressed that employers might have different preconceived notions about travel, which is why explaining your reasoning — why you went where you did and what it says about you — in a positive light is so important.

“There might be some people out there who might be super jealous and are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I had done that early in my career. I regret the fact that I didn’t take a chance like that and see it as really brave, bold and they went after what they really wanted to do,’” she said.

“But you can have some people … who look at it like ‘That’s lazy. They could’ve been working and saving all this money, instead, they went and gallivanted around Europe for a year..”

There is one situation where travel might be easier to explain to employers.

Reid said workers who are looking to switch to a different career, might be able to more smoothly spin a travel gap in their resume.

“If they’re going to make a transition it’s easier because  … they can use that travel experience to tell the story … of how it supports the transition,” she said.

But if you’re going back to the same industry, it’s a bit trickier.

“Maybe it just solidified it — having this year abroad — and really experiencing new things just really made you realize how much you value this industry or this type of work environment,” said Reid.

Reid also emphasized the importance of reaching out to people who are familiar with your work and not getting bogged with online applications upon your return from a trip. She pointed to statistics showing that 75 per cent of jobs are never even posted online.

She added that gaps in employment are easier to explain during a conversation.

“It’s all about who you know. Because, again, if you know somebody and they can speak to your previous experience and work ethic, then that travel doesn’t seem like such a detriment,” she said, adding that at the very least you can add a few lines to explain in your resume or cover letter.

When to wait

For workers who are early on in their careers, however, Reid said they should wait to get at least three to five years experience under their belt.

“So when you’re returning from that trip, if you’re going to look at a new workplace, you have something to back up that skill set that you had prior to that vacation,” she said.

“Say you get out of school then you work for a year and then you go on a trip, l think that’s not going to look as great as (someone with) four or five years of solid experience … An employer would look at that and be like (they’re) loyal, solid, puts in the time, as opposed to flighty and you just took off,” she added, noting that this could put recent grads back at square one.

Reid also advised workers to see what options they may have with their employer. She said workplaces can offer the opportunity to take a leave and some large companies even allow employees to take 80 per cent of their salary over four years and then not work during a fifth when they earn the remaining 20 per cent.

“Don’t rush into it. Don’t wake up one day and decide, ‘I’m going to leave next month. I’m tired of this,” she cautioned, advising workers to consider the financial and career implications.

“I would put some thought and effort into it. “

But overwhelmingly – despite the nightmare scenarios you may have imagined — it appears as though people who do take travel breaks from their career are doing just fine.

A 2011 book called Reboot Your Life interviewed 500 people on the subject, and not a single participant regretted taking a break, which lasted anywhere from a month to two years.

In fact, Reid said, these trips can even be an advantage in an increasingly more connected society.

“People have offices everywhere, they’re corresponding in different places, even within your city there are people from all different backgrounds, so if you can have some of that cultural understanding it’s an asset the same way knowing different languages is,” she said.