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Career breaks: Bad for business?

David Cameron's director of strategy has recently announced that he will be taking a sabbatical from his duties at Downing Street. Are career breaks bad news for business, or can employers and employees both enjoy the benefits?

Employees don't have a legal right to take a career break or sabbatical at a certain point in their career. Nevertheless, many employers do choose to operate career break schemes for staff. Employees can choose to take a sabbatical for any one of a number of reasons: for example, they may want to learn new skills, balance work with family commitments, travel or develop personal interests or projects.

Sabbaticals can play an important role in supporting continuing professional development - both for the member of staff taking the sabbatical and for the person or people who fulfil their role while they are away. They can also be a crucial tool in fostering better employee engagement and improving staff retention - for example, for parents or carers. Allowing employees to take extended unpaid career breaks can also help employers address issues of over-staffing during times of economic uncertainty and avoid making staff redundant.

However, there are certain things which an employer should consider when drawing up a policy on career breaks or sabbaticals. In order to avoid possible discrimination claims, it's advisable to set out the criteria under which staff can apply for career breaks, and the basis on which these will be approved or refused. Employers should also think carefully about what happens at the end of the employee's career break - should they be able to return to their old job? How will their career break affect their entitlement to benefits? Will it count as continuous employment? What happens if they fail to return as agreed?

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