'I'd always wanted to travel but somehow missed the boat. In the end, it was all too much and I left to spend a year trekking across Africa and South East Asia.' When accountant Mike Nelson-Jones finally took the plunge and followed his instincts, he had no option but to resign his job at KPMG. There was no way it would be kept open for him until he decided to return.
That was five years ago. Today employers would be more likely to lend a sympathetic ear to an employee's wanderlust. Angela Baron, policy adviser for the Institute for Personnel and Development, says the idea of sabbaticals, which originated in academia, has become more widespread. Organisations as diverse as retailers John Lewis, management consultants Bain & Co and City lawyers Linklaters & Paines are all advocates - although not all schemes are available to all employees.
Yet why on earth would an employer be prepared to lose a valued member of staff for months or even years? Why, on the other hand, are some firms not only happy to do this but even pay staff to take a prolonged break.
'For the employer, the justification is simple. After training someone up at great time and expense, rather than lose them completely, you eventually get back them back, hopefully happier and more skilled,' says Baron.
This is the rationale behind the breaks frequently taken by Bain & Co staff. Extended leave is given to high-flyers for up to several years.
This is usually unpaid but occasionally the firm will fund a degree course.
It is also paying one former employee to work full-time for a homeless charity. 'We do it because staff use the time to learn and to develop their potential,' says Nick Jackson, a Bain manager. 'When they eventually return, we gain from this. Besides, they are usually high-flyers. Refusing to let them go wouldn't stop them, it would just mean we'd lost them for good.'
At Linklaters, the extended leave scheme only applies to partners who have been with the law firm for 10 years. They can either take one sabbatical of 12 weeks or two periods of eight weeks each, separated by five years.
Both options use the employee's four-week entitlement to annual holiday but the firm funds the remainder of the break. Most partners use the time to rest rather than study. 'The benefit to the firm is that it gives partners who have had to work extremely hard over many years a chance to recharge their batteries completely,' says Brinsley Nicholson, acting managing partner.
The John Lewis Partnership has perhaps the most democratic package. It is unusual in that it applies to all staff, regardless of rank. Anyone aged 45 or over, who has worked for the Partnership for 25 years, can take up to six months' leave - on full pay. Not surprisingly, this goes down well with the 200-odd people who qualify each year. Travel is the most popular option but one snake-enthusiast used his break to work as a volunteer at London Zoo. In keeping with its benevolent corporate structure, chairman Stuart Hampson justifies the scheme not in terms of value to the company but rather to the employee. As he says, the package gives 'a fuller life for those entitled to the benefit ... (it) is something which only the employer can give'. In this way, an enlightened firm can help staff to realise the experience of a working lifetime.