Firing Line: Jo Cowling

Once considered the domain of academics, over the years sabbaticals have grown in popularity as a commercial employee benefit. Though still relatively rare, larger companies in particular have begun to recognise the benefits of giving employees extended leave to pursue other activities, and smaller employers, it would seem, have also followed suit.

Jo Cowling, a mortgage broker for International Private Finance, a London-based firm specialising in mortgages for international properties, recently took a three-month sabbatical to help build schools and protect wildlife in Madagascar, a sizeable island off the southeast coast of Africa.

Ms Cowling, who said her employer was fully supportive of her plans to take three months of unpaid leave, said she was keen to go somewhere different with the aim of helping people. “To be honest, before leaving for my three-month sabbatical I was in a bit of a rut. I enjoyed my job, but it was starting to get repetitive and I felt I needed something.

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“I just felt I needed a change. I wanted to do something different and give something back and thankfully the company I work for, despite being small, was keen to encourage it and see people return fresh and motivated.”

While living simply and doing manual labour in the blazing sun may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, Ms Cowling said it was a fantastic experience that enhanced her outlook. Aside from making her more appreciative of what she had at home, she said the experience was also beneficial from a work perspective as it transformed her into a less judgemental person and a better team player.

She said: “Out there the general culture sees more people helping each other. There is much more of a community spirit – kind of like how it was here in the UK 100 years ago – and that definitely helped me in dealing with people. Now I am less judgemental, more relaxed, more extrovert and definitely better at working in a team and getting on with people.”

During her stay, Ms Cowling worked on a number of different projects for a UK-based charity, Azafady, which is dedicated to alleviating poverty in Madagascar by empowering the poor to establish sustainable lifestyles. As a Francophile, Ms Cowling said the appeal of going to a small French-speaking island in need of help appealed and that she was determined to work with a small charity to feel more involved.

During her three months there, she and a group of likeminded volunteers from diverse backgrounds worked on repairing schools and providing education on hygiene. Because the Malagasy people seldom have toilets, and especially not in their homes, the group also helped to build some “Turkish-style drop facilities” to be shared among community members.

Other tasks included environmental work, such as planting trees and clearing woodlands, and conducting surveys to better gauge the priorities of the local people.

One thing that surprised Ms Cowling was how most of the Malagasy population was on the property ladder, even if most survived without electricity and water. This was in stark contrast to the UK, where many young people rent because they do not have the funds to buy a house in an inflated market.