October 9, 2023
SINGAPORE – Overwhelmed with stress, a 35-year-old media professional struggled to sleep, lost his appetite and frequently had nightmares about work.
He was sometimes so overcome with anxiety that he was unable to even enjoy the company of family and friends.
The cause was clear: His work environment was becoming increasingly hostile, and he was having a hard time getting along with his employers.
Afraid of the consequences staying put could have on his physical and mental health, he decided in August to leave the firm without a new job in hand, looking to take a break for a few months and take the chance to explore other career options.
“Just a month before I tendered my resignation, quitting without a new job was never an option. It was just too risky and not the kind of work ethic I was raised to have,” said the man, who had worked at the firm for more than two years, and asked not to be named as he has yet to find a new job.
He said: “Of course, I’m worried about how the future will look, but I know I am very privileged to be able to take this option, and right now, I’m feeling optimistic.”
Several experts told The Straits Times that more young people are taking extended breaks from work, though the trend does not appear to be showing up in official figures yet. These breaks can last months, or even a year, and are often to combat burnout or seek a career change, among other reasons.
Mr John Shepherd Lim, chief well-being officer of the Singapore Counselling Centre (SCC), said the organisation has noticed a rising trend in recent years among people aged 20 to 30 who are contemplating leaving, or have left, their jobs to take an extended break. He was unable to disclose specific data.
Dr Xu Le, a lecturer in the department of strategy and policy at the National University of Singapore Business School, added that this trend is present not just in Singapore, but also in other countries such as the United States as young people seek better work-life balance and other career growth opportunities.
“Young people see the advantages of achieving a more balanced life as including a healthier body, a happier life and a certain level of freedom,” she said.
She cited the wider variety of career options available as another possible reason that people are more willing to take a break from their jobs.
“Young professionals have more options now as new industries or new business opportunities emerge fast with the fast development of technology. For example, the platform economy and streaming broadcasting have developed very fast in the past several years,” she said.
Mr Danny Tan, consultant for commerce contract at recruitment firm Robert Walters Singapore, agreed that there is a growing number of young professionals here taking sabbaticals, though the size of the group might not be significant enough to make an impact on the labour market yet.
A Ministry of Manpower spokesperson said that the share of younger professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) who are taking breaks between jobs has been stable at about 20 per cent each year between 2018 and 2022.
This group of Singapore residents in their early 30s were outside the labour force, had held PMET jobs previously and indicated in the ministry’s national survey that they were taking breaks, such as not seeking work for a short period of time to pursue personal interests and hobbies.
While there could be several different factors at play, burnout or the desire to avoid it seems to be a driving factor for many who take career breaks.
Mr Lim said: “With the increased awareness about mental health and burnout, young people today are more attuned to the signs of burnout and take proactive steps to address it.”
He added that people are more accepting and understanding of career breaks due to reduced stigma around mental health issues.
Mr Jamie MacLennan, senior vice-president and managing director for Asia-Pacific at health technology provider Telus Health, said that more workers are feeling stressed from work now than during the years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Also, more than half (52 per cent) of about 1,000 Singapore workers the company polled earlier in 2023 reported feeling more sensitive to stress compared with 2022.
“Younger workers have higher levels of anxiety (compared with older workers), and feel more isolated due to a lack of connection and acceptance at work,” said Mr MacLennan.
Younger people may have less savings than older colleagues and may feel financial pressures more acutely, he added.
Experts including Mr MacLennan stressed that in order to support and retain younger workers, employers must implement structures and policies to care for their workers’ mental health and well-being.
Mr Lim said that besides tackling burnout, some of the professionals SCC sees who are taking breaks use the time to re-evaluate their priorities and determine how and where they wish to pour their efforts into for the next stage of their career, which aligns more with their passion and values.
He added that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected how young professionals today perceive job stability in their workplace, so they are more open to taking long breaks.
“With many retrenchments during the pandemic, it has shifted the way young professionals view their relationships with their employers – where the traditional notion of loyalty to a workplace has been eroded, and replaced with one where employees prioritise flexibility, autonomy and career alignment, over long-term commitment to their employers,” he said.
While experts agree that there are clear benefits to taking a break in between jobs, there are also possible downsides.
Mr Tan from Robert Walters said a significant gap in one’s work history can raise questions for potential employers. Depending on the length of the hiatus and the nature of the industry, candidates’ skills may decline or their knowledge may be outdated, and they could face difficulties in negotiating salary and benefits if their previous earning potential does not align with their current market value.
Some recruiters and employers may see an extended break as a positive sign of self-awareness and commitment to well-being, while others may have concerns about a candidate’s dedication and skill relevancy, said Mr Tan.
Candidates can try to mitigate possible negative perceptions by keeping up with industry trends during their break, he said.
In interviewing for new jobs, they should address the employment gap honestly, and can also emphasise skills and experiences gained during the break that are transferable to the desired role.
One way to make the transition back to the workforce easier is to take up a contract role after a sabbatical, added Mr Tan.
Going on a long break might also weigh on a young person’s finances.
SCC’s Mr Lim said that while some young professionals may be financially comfortable and able to take a break, that is not necessarily the case for all.
Still, he said that in the face of the rising cost of living, those who decide to take career breaks either have ascertained that the benefits of taking a break far outweigh the forgone salary, or have the option of exploring other sources of income.
This was the case for a 29-year-old worker in the tech industry who wanted to be known only as Min, who travelled solo for six months. She left her job earlier in 2023.
She has since found a new role, but admitted that there were times she worried about whether she would land one.
“I made sure that I planned beforehand what my cut-off date for travelling was based on how much savings I had. I also made sure that the activities I did during my travels were not too expensive,” she said.
She added: “Taking the break allowed me to experience many new things and meet many interesting people. It has also helped me to gain confidence, especially in taking leaps of faith, which was what I did when I quit my job to travel.”