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What Katie Did Next: In which I step off the career hamster wheel


Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I went to see The Book of Mormon at a theatre in London a few months ago. As we joined the queue, I noticed there was another long line of perhaps a dozen 20 and 30-somethings hurriedly stuffing Pret a Manger wraps into their mouths.

One by one, they finished their food, deposited the wrapping in the bin and joined the rest of the ticket-holders.

I was a little confused until I heard a conversation between two young women in front of me. "Nobody leaves work before 7pm these days."

The other line, it transpired, was for harried office workers who didn't have the time to go home and freshen up after work, let alone visit a restaurant for the pre-theatre menu.

We all know work hours are increasing, just as the lunch hour is diminishing. However, the live-to-work culture in Dublin is Utopian when compared to capital cities like London, New York and Tokyo, where 12 to 14-hour days are the norm.

Friends working in London city tell me that there is an encroaching culture of conspicuous presenteeism. They are competing with workers who are eating their Bran Flakes in the office kitchen at 7.30am (and, no doubt, praying that their boss walks by).

The good news is that we seem to have reached the tipping point (or perhaps the breaking point). People simply cannot work any harder, faster or longer and, as such, another culture is slowly emerging.

The government in Japan, where karoshi (death by overwork) is an epidemic, will soon be introducing a law that requires workers to take their full holiday entitlement.

The average worker currently takes only half of it. In the UK, an employee with 26 weeks continuous employment can now apply for flexi-work and, closer to home, the four-day week is gaining ground.

Something else is happening. In the UK and Ireland, record numbers of us are taking career breaks and sabbaticals. In some cases, the employee throws caution to the wind; in some cases it's incentivised by the company and, in other cases, it's involuntary (otherwise known as a stress-related nervous breakdown).

Typically a career break is for "personal and professional development", which can be anything from a masters in digital marketing to an environmental project in Costa Rica.

These options certainly occurred to me when I took a career break of sorts late last year, but the truth is that I just wanted to kick back with the family, read a few books (In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell was top of the list) and maybe take up gardening. Isn't it curious that we feel compelled to achieve something even when we've decided to take a break?

In the early days of my 'sabbatical', I felt obligated to dazzle people with complex-sounding university courses and far-fetched travel plans. Perish the thought that I'd seem lazy or burnt out.

Thankfully, after a few weeks, I began to feel less like I had dropped out of the race and more like I was preparing for a marathon. I was recharging, reorganising and realigning, and I soon decided that this is something I'd like to do at various points during my career. Maybe every 10 years, maybe even every five.

I'm not alone. This is one of the ideas advocated by Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek.

I've previously avoided reading books by 'lifestyle design' evangelists because, while they talk a big game, closer investigation tends to reveal that they are already in a sweet spot: single, childless and earning significant money from writing about the very lifestyle that they are promoting.

However, his concept made me sit up and pay more attention to his ideas, one of which is interspersing our careers with a number of mini-retirements instead of taking a grand culminating one at the age of 65 (which, he reminds, we may not even live long enough to see).

His points are echoed by Stefan Sagmeister, who puts forward a very good case for the mini-retirement in his TED talk 'The Power of Time Off'. Every seven years, he closes his design studio in New York for one year to "pursue some little experiments".

I have a friend who takes a career break once a year.

She works for nine months - generally covering maternity leave - and she spends the next three months travelling in Thailand or working on an organic farm in France. It should be noted that she is also in one of life's sweet spots - no children, no mortgage. The difference is that she's smart enough to capitalise on it.


We should all exploit these years of relative freedom, men in particular. I don't think they are ever prepared for the enormous sense of financial responsibility they feel when they have their first child.

More to the point, I can't imagine how suffocating it must feel to know you're on the hamster wheel until your joints get creaky.

It's different for women. Maternity leave, of course, presents its own challenges, but it also gives us an opportunity to step away from the relentless grind and institutionalisation of the workplace.

We get to see the wood from the trees, even if it means wiping baby sick off our shoulders every few hours.

The comedian Doug Stanhope once suggested that women should sacrifice the diamond ring and instead use the money to fund a six-month mini-retirement for their fiancé. I love diamonds as much as the next woman, but I have to concur.

We've all heard of employees who put in 40-odd years service only to die a few months after retiring. I can't help but notice that this is more likely to happen to men than it is to women. Would it have been different if they had taken a mini-retirement?

Surely most men would benefit more from a three-month motorcycle tour of Peru at 35 than a visit to yet another Irish golf course at 65.

Perhaps the crucial question is this: why settle on playing bridge when you could be playing poker?

It's the risk, I know, but ask around and you'll discover that those who have taken a career break have no regrets whatsoever.

'They are competing with workers who are eting their Bran Flakes in the office kitchen at 7.30am'