I’m burnt out! Will a two-year travel break derail my career? Elaine Varelas provides guidance on rejoining the workforce after an extended leave

A year or two spent traveling the world would cure anyone's workplace burnout—but how challenging will reentry be and what's the impact on overall career growth? Elaine Varelas advises how best to use a voluntary extended leave and how to plan for reentry, all while avoiding more burnout.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I’ve worked in corporate HR for a large global company for about 10 years. I’m in my mid-30s, but I’m burnt out and have enough money saved that I can comfortably sell my condo and travel for two years—which is my current plan. Will I be able to get a job when I come back?

A: Congratulations, this sounds like a great plan, and it’s terrific that you have this option. This is a fairly significant life decision, so it would be wise to take some precautions and test your plan, particularly the extremes. First, explore if you truly need two years off or if one year or even 18 months could achieve the curative benefits while easing your return to the workforce. Can you rent your condo instead of selling it so you have somewhere to come back to as needed? Is health care provided in some way other than through your job? Will someone always know were you are? Have you traveled solo before? Some people may feel that your decision is too risky, but you know yourself best—just make sure you test your overall plan for reentry and for any unexpected changes.

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You will be able to get a job when you come back, but there will be issues. You’re in HR, so you’re likely familiar with these challenges. What will a two-year resume gap convey to future employers? It may not portray you as a traditional “job hopper,” but it does portray you as someone who has the means and mindset to make significant life and job changes that may not work in the company’s favor. If you’re currently on a career path in terms of increased responsibilities and compensation, this move might derail the level you can come back at upon reentry. In terms of timing, you’re in as good a position as any to take this “sabbatical”. Any earlier in your career, you likely would not have the professional credibility or network that could support such a move. Any later, and you’d risk missing out on the peak earning years that typically occur in people’s 40s and 50s. Will your two years away eliminate a currently strong network or reputation that will need to be rebuilt when you come back? Many people take extended time off from work for a variety of reasons, from parental leave to dealing with personal illness, and there are different degrees of challenges for reentry for each situation. Be prepared to encounter such a demanding situation on your return, knowing what you will face. A renewed sense of burnout on a job search is not the welcome back you want.

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A big part of your situation should involve identifying what’s causing your burnout. Is it your organization or a particularly difficult colleague? Or is it the nature of your function’s work in general? Ask yourself if, in ten years’ time, you’re going to be in the exact same position, planning another great escape because you’re burnt out again. Identify the source and explore ways to manage or mitigate it going forward. It’s important not to identify burnout as the reason you’re leaving on your two-year trip, or else you may be branded with a negative reputation—focus on the personal growth and learning opportunities that your travels will bring and avoid any disparaging comments about your role or the organization.

Another crucial component is actively planning for reentry. For your first month away, do you need to keep attending HR events or participating in other work-related activities? No. But between one and six months prior to reentry, you may want to repost your resume to LinkedIn, contact former employers or colleagues, and let headhunters know you’re back in the market. Consider where, geographically, you want to focus your search. If you sell your condo, is this now a nationwide search? Returning to your former location can have its pros and cons—you may be well known in your city and have a great network, which is helpful, but not being limited by location will broaden your options. If you’ve decided to change industries in order to avoid future burnout, recognize that it will likely be a more difficult transition. If you go back to something that you have a strong reputation in, then you can build off that in a number of ways. Making a career change after a two-year break will be more challenging—you will be new to industry contacts, potentially new to a city, or new to the function. Consider all of these aspects carefully before heading off.

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When you return, frame your time off in terms of how what you’ve learned will support your professional success. Traveling extensively provides a global perspective (and maybe fluency in a new language) that can be a huge benefit as a candidate. Maybe start a blog or some other record of your travels to highlight what you’re learning from different countries and cultures. As you recover from burnout, remember to stay visible and keep learning—your reentry will be much smoother.