Bosses face £7.9 billion bill as soul-searching workers take 'conscience career breaks'

Article date: 3 July 2007

  • One in four UK workers opt for time out in a bid to find fulfilment

Britain's bosses are bracing themselves for a surge in workplace absence over the next 12 months as unprecedented numbers of soul-searching employees take "conscience career breaks".

A quarter (25%) of the country's workforce told researchers for Norwich Union that they are planning an employment break in the next year - almost a third of those (29%) will use the time to find fulfilment in charity work, or chase a lifetime goal like climbing in the Himalayas.

But, while the vast majority of career breakers will go back to the daily grind, almost one in five (18%) will not return to their workplaces - creating a potential £7.9 billion* employee replacement bill for UK businesses.

And the burgeoning trend looks set to send stress levels soaring in the country's workplaces - seven in 10 (73%) say simply covering colleagues' two-week holidays will leave them struggling to cope this summer.

Now, employees fear the rush for career breaks could push workplaces to breaking point. Six in 10 (63%) say carrying the career break burden leaves others over-worked and under pressure, and the same number (63%) believe it costs businesses dearly and prevents others from getting pay rises.

Travel (42%), or spending more time with family (21%)  remain popular reasons for career breaks, but over three quarters (76%) say more and more colleagues are now taking time out to do charity or volunteer work both here and abroad. Just one in 10 (11%) plan to put their feet up and relax.

Over half (54%) told Norwich Union researchers that six months, on average, should be the standard period given for a career break, but less than one in four (23%) believe that employees on sabbatical should receive half their salary while they are away.

Simon Quick, director of marketing for Norwich Union, said: "People today are thinking beyond the standard two-week beach holiday, and instead demanding the time and opportunity to learn new skills, chase adventure or give something back with volunteer work. In fact, three in four believe employers should now offer career breaks as standard.

"But it's important to recognise that a sabbatical is not just a long holiday - it's crucial that career breakers plan carefully for how they will support themselves financially in what is likely to be the first time in their working lives without a salary coming in."

Judith Brodie, Director of VSO UK, the international development charity that works through professional volunteers, adds: "At VSO we've seen a real change in attitude to sabbaticals over the years, and this is not something that's going to go away.

"As we move further away from the traditional idea of the linear career path there seems to be a growing acceptance that allowing your staff time to develop their skills and widen their experiences outside of the work place is good for business. This increasing flexibility in the workplace has had a direct impact on the numbers of professionals taking up the opportunity to volunteer with VSO in the developing world.

"For employers, releasing a member of staff to take up a VSO placement, whether for two weeks or two years will not only allow them to use their skills to bring about lasting change in some of the world's poorest countries but it will also give them the opportunity to gain new skills and experiences that will continue to benefit them and their organisation after their sabbatical is over."

The Norwich Union "conscience career breaks" study also reveals that:

  • Seven in 10 (72%) believe employers will not be able to attract and retain good workers in the future without the offer of sabbaticals
  • More women than men are currently planning sabbaticals (68% vs 45%)
  • Londoners most want to take a sabbatical (79% vs national average of 63%). Workers in the North West and the North East are the least likely to want a sabbatical (57%).

Richard Harvey, CEO of Aviva, parent company of Norwich Union, announced earlier this year that he will step down from his role as chief executive from July 2007 and will volunteer for a charity in Africa. 


For further information:
Leila Bateman
Telephone: 0207 908 6550

Notes to editors:
Norwich Union commissioned to interview 1,281 full-time workers in June 2007. Regional statistics are available on request.

* Exact figure is £7,948,260,000

Calculations were based on the 25% of respondents who claimed they plan to take a sabbatical in the next 12 months and the 18% of respondents who are not expected to fully return to work afterwards.

25% of the UK's full time working population is 5,385,000 (full time working population = 21,540,000. Source: ONS), and 18% of this figure is 969,300.

With CIPD saying that it costs £8,200 to replace an employee, the potential bill to UK plc of non-returning sabbatical takers is £7,948,260,000 over the next 12 months.  

About Norwich Union
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