When Ms Lee Wan Ming, 29, wanted to take her master’s in business administration, she was prepared to resign from her marketing and communications job at accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers Singapore (PWC). But her supportive manager suggested a sabbatical instead.

Ms Lee says: “I was heartened that they were willing to keep the option of coming back open.”

After 11/2 years – in which she finished her studies, travelled and helped a friend set up an online business – she is now back at PWC but working with a different team offering financial services.

Taking a large chunk of what often ends up being no-pay leave to pursue your dreams was once frowned upon in corporate Singapore. Bosses back then thought staff should quit to do so.

But now, it seems more people are able to take mid-career sabbaticals after a number of years in the workforce.

Checks with 20 organisations here showed that multinational companies and government organisations were most likely to grant such leave. On the other hand, small- and medium-sized enterprises had few or no staff who had been on sabbatical.

Some companies such as banking giant HSBC and local law firm Drew & Napier tell LifeStyle that they have received more such requests over the last few years.

Mr Kelvin Tan, a director at Drew & Napier, says there are now one to three requests a year, from the 250 lawyers in the firm. He adds: “Ten years ago, I’m not sure if anyone even thought about sabbaticals.”

Mr David Ang, executive director of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, agrees that taking a sabbatical was uncommon 10 to 15 years ago as employers would have told staff to either stay or quit. But times have changed.

He says: “Today, you say no to someone, the person will say, ‘I’m not afraid to quit because there will be other jobs waiting for me’. So in order to retain talent, employers are open to the idea of employees taking some time off work.”

Bosses are also more attuned to the needs of their staff.

Ms Teo Lay Sie, chief operating officer of financial firm UBS Singapore, says human resource policies at the firm have evolved because the company treats its staff “not just as ‘employees’ but as individuals within a family and social context, with personal needs and aspirations”.

Traditionally, sabbaticals referred to leave granted to university professors for study or travel, but the term now applies to all sectors, can take the form of paid or unpaid leave, and can range from a few months to a year or two.

There are many advantages for employers who grant sabbaticals.

Mr Mark Sparrow, managing director of human resource company Kelly Services Singapore, says the employee would return well-rested, more knowledgeable, with more life experiences or with a clearer mind after sorting out personal issues.

Indeed, Drew & Napier’s Mr Tan says: “We want lawyers to be fulfilled and happy and do what they need to do. There is no point holding them back.”

The firm allowed Ms Tay Eu-Yen, 31, now a senior associate at Drew & Napier, to pursue her dream of becoming a ski instructor in 2008, after working for three years.

On why she left for the ski slopes of Whistler, Canada, she says: “I wanted a break, and I had been skiing since I was seven and always wanted to get a qualification.”

She spent 11/2 months training for her instructor’s examination, and then the same period again skiing in the day and working at a Japanese restaurant at night.

The downside for bosses who grant sabbaticals, says Mr Sparrow, is that employees may use the time to explore job opportunities in other cities and may not return. But this is not necessarily a problem.

Ms Stella Wong, head of human resources at HSBC Singapore, says there have been examples of colleagues who found a foreign city suitable for settling down during their sabbatical, and were later relocated to one of the bank’s foreign offices there.

Some organisations offer yearly sabbatical opportunities to retain talent and give staff a chance to recharge their batteries.

The National Council of Social Service encourages social workers to do so, while the Ministry of Education lets teachers apply for sabbaticals via structured schemes.

Those who have gone on sabbaticals say they did so for self-improvement, to complete a personal project, spend time with family or to recharge and live a dream.

Teacher Neu Wee Teck, 33, took time off work as he had been teaching for six years and was “feeling a little burnt out”. At the time, there also happened to be a volunteer opportunity to teach English in Laos which interested him. He spent 11/2 years there.

For six months, the ministry paid him his full salary, under the MOE Outreach Scheme, and for the rest of his stay, the Singapore International Foundation gave him a monthly stipend and paid for his accommodation and flights back to Singapore.

Mr Neu, who is still teaching at East Spring Secondary School, says the stint gave him “renewed confidence that education is indeed one of the best ways to eradicate poverty, if not the only way”.

And taking time off work may not affect career progression.

Senior social worker Amran Jamil, 35, took a 10-week sabbatical and returned as centre manager. A few months later, he was asked to start and manage the new Young Muslim Women Association (PPIS) Family Service Centre (East).

He packed his stint with courses and overseas experiences, including a conference in Orlando on marriage and lessons at a counselling centre in Canada.

He says: “I have very supportive supervisors who were looking after my professional growth and they saw the value in what I wanted to do.”

And would those who have taken a sabbatical encourage others to do so too?

HSBC Singapore banking executive Jane Grant, 32, who took four months off work to trek in Peru, volunteer in Congo and learn Spanish in Buenos Aires, says she would. “It’s great to open your eyes to what is outside your day-to-day existence. It gives you a broader perspective on the possibilities in life.”

Adds Drew & Napier’s Ms Tay: “If there is a point in your life when you’re financially independent, and you get the chance to do what you always wanted to do, then just take a risk and do it.”

How to ask for a sabbatical

Mr David Ang from the SHRI gives tips on how to ask for a sabbatical and re-enter the workplace after going on one.

Sabbatical 101
- Do your research: Understand the type of company you work for and the opportunities that may be available for sabbaticals. The human resource department or the internal vacancies section on the company intranet are good places to start.

- Know yourself: Be objective about how good you are at your job before asking for a sabbatical. Only employees who perform well can ask for something like this. They either get it or at least not have the request seen as a black mark on their records.

- Prepare your case: There are two areas that need preparation – how you will benefit the company after or during the sabbatical and how your current role will be covered. Do not just think about what you will benefit from the opportunity.

- Approach your boss: You can say how the sabbatical will help you but even this must always have a benefit to the company.
Request a meeting with your boss via e-mail and say why you want it, so that he can prepare. Be flexible on the length of time or location and it is more likely that the company will be keen to accept your request.

Re-enter the workplace after a sabbatical
Plan for the first three days of your return: During your first three days back, schedule 70 per cent of your time for meetings with key people who covered aspects of the job or client work while you were away. Spend the rest of the time reviewing material to get back up to speed.

Have re-entry questions: Develop three key questions to ask each person who has covered your work. All parties should agree on those questions before the sabbatical. The questions, which should focus on priority issues, will protect you from getting mired in the details of what happened in your absence. Eventually those details will come out, but not in the first days back.

Arrange for an e-mail reminder of your return: It should be sent to the work-coverage team within four days of your return to remind it of the return date, the scheduled meeting time and the questions you will ask.

Prepare a meaningful answer to describe your sabbatical: You may want to focus on catching up with work but people will be curious about what you did. The best way to balance both is to paint the experience with broad strokes and assure everyone details will come later. A good way to do this is by hosting an informal lunch or writing an article for the firm’s newsletter.