Sabbaticals have been an option in universities for a long time, but they have started gaining traction among private employers as a valuable employee benefit. Companies such as Charles Schwab, Intel, McDonald’s, PwC, VistaPrint and The Container Store offer this benefit to their employees. With a sabbatical, an employee has a significant amount of time off from work to study, relax, travel or volunteer, after which they return to their job.
In the United States, more than 80 percent of workers suffer from stress, according to Zippia. This causes a host of negative physical and mental health outcomes. Sabbaticals are an effective way to help employees reduce stress, reward their loyalty to the company and recruit new employees. Find out how sabbaticals work and if your company should provide them as an employee benefit.
There is no single sabbatical formula that every company uses. Rather, each company comes up with a sabbatical policy that serves the needs of both the organization and its employees. For example, Adobe offers six weeks of sabbatical leave for every five years with the company, while Deloitte offers three to six months’ leave with reduced pay to pursue career development and volunteer or four weeks unpaid with no restrictions. Here are some elements of sabbatical programs to consider.
Sabbaticals are a large chunk of time in which the employee can accomplish something, such as learning a new skill, volunteering or exploring new interests. Sabbaticals typically last anywhere from four weeks to six months. To decide how much time off you can give employees, think about how long you can spare them, as well as the weekly costs for someone to fill in.
If you decide to have a sabbatical program, you will need to have either a current employee or a temp employee cover the absent person’s responsibilities while they are on leave. If you hire a temp employee, you will have the costs of that person’s salary. With a current employee, you might have overtime or bonuses that you give them for taking on the extra workload. The person filling in will need to have the skills needed to do the absent person’s job, so it should be someone at a similar level of career development. [Read related article: How to Calculate Blended Overtime Pay]
Many employers with sabbatical programs do not pay employees while they are on sabbatical. Your company, after all, will have to pay someone to fill in. However, you also have the option to pay employees a partial salary. Benefits are usually maintained while employees are on sabbatical.
You will need to decide which employees will be offered this benefit. Considering sabbaticals are an effective way to prevent employee burnout, you may want to offer this option to employees who have high stress levels and roles with great responsibility, such as upper management and executives. Alternatively, companies with broader corporate structures may decide to offer sabbaticals to all levels of employees.
Another criterion to consider is length of service. Sabbaticals are typically offered to employees who have been with the company for a while, since they incentivize employee tenure and retention. The ability to go on sabbatical may kick in once an employee has been with the company for three years, five years or more, for example.
How often will you allow employees to take a sabbatical? Because sabbaticals require alternative coverage of job responsibilities, you won’t want it to be too frequently, but it should be often enough that it remains a powerful incentive to stay with the company. Typical sabbatical frequency ranges from five to seven years. Some companies tie the ability to take a sabbatical to performance goals, such as successfully completing a demanding project.
If you are providing sabbaticals as a benefit to senior management, finding a temporary replacement may take some time. That is why it’s important to require employees to give advance notice of when they want to take their sabbatical. Notice ranges from three weeks to three months.
In the academic world, professors use their sabbaticals for research and writing. However, private employers may want to restrict the permitted reasons for employee sabbaticals — for example, professional development activities such as certification, training and volunteering, all of which can benefit the company. Others may decide against requirements, to give employees the freedom to relax and recharge as they choose.
Sabbaticals provide many benefits to employers and employees.
Employee burnout is a serious condition that causes physical and mental exhaustion, negative feelings toward one’s job and reduced professional efficacy. High-pressure workplaces contribute to employee burnout, resulting in health problems, high turnover and absenteeism.
However, just having the option of taking a sabbatical can reduce feelings of burnout, because it demonstrates that the employer cares about the employee’s well-being. Actually taking a sabbatical goes even further to banish the effects of burnout so that the employee can return to work refreshed and reinvigorated.
Many people have the desire to enrich themselves with learning, volunteering or other experiences but do not have the time. A sabbatical gives employees both the time and the permission to gain skills and have deeply fulfilling experiences that make them happier, more well-rounded and productive.
With 60 percent of workers feeling “emotionally detached at work” and 19 percent saying they are “miserable,” according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 report, it might be time to introduce a sabbatical as a benefit.
Sabbaticals are competitive benefits that are highly sought after by employees. Because sabbaticals are rare, offering them as a benefit can make a huge difference when you’re recruiting for a top position. Plus, current employees will stay with your company longer because they want to earn their sabbatical.
Giving employees the option of taking a sabbatical shows that you care about them — not just as employees and what they can do for you but also about them as individuals. It is part of an overall company culture of valuing and supporting employees, loyalty and recognition.
It can also be an expression of other parts of company culture. For example, the outdoor-clothing retailer Patagonia has a sabbatical program in which employees can work for the environmental group of their choice for up to two months, strengthening the company’s commitment to safeguarding the environment.
Sabbaticals benefit both the employees taking them and the people filling in for them. A study of sabbaticals by TSNE found that executives who went on sabbatical returned rejuvenated, with new and creative ideas for the organization. They also became more confident in themselves as leaders and stayed with the organization longer than those who did not go on sabbatical.
In addition, the organization benefited from increased organizational capacity as second-tier leaders filled in for their absent colleagues. When the employees returned and saw that the organization had not ground to a halt in their absence, it led 84 percent of them to feel more comfortable delegating major responsibilities. In fact, just by handling the logistical issues of implementing a sabbatical, the organization’s governance was strengthened. All of these benefits persisted long after the employee returned from sabbatical.
Sabbaticals can be helpful for succession planning, since you can “try out” a less-senior manager in a higher role while the person is absent.
On the other hand, there are downsides and challenges associated with sabbaticals.
If you are offering paid sabbatical at full salary, the costs of offering this benefit can be high, since you also have to pay to fill in the gaps. The longer the sabbatical, the more expensive it is for the company. However, you can mitigate this cost by offering only unpaid sabbatical or partial salary for those on sabbatical.
After an extended absence from the office, returning employees might feel disconnected from their co-workers and the company as a whole. They might have missed key events, promotion opportunities or employee turnover, or they may feel like their daily life isn’t quite as exciting as their sabbatical day-to-day activities. There may be a period of readjustment to the work routine.
If you are asking existing employees to fill in for someone on sabbatical (especially without offering them additional pay), they may become overworked, overwhelmed and resentful. They may require some additional training to perform the new temporary role, and some of their tasks might need to be distributed to others during this period. If you are hiring an outside temp worker or contractor, you will need to ensure that the new person has the required skills and experience and provide training to get the temp up to speed relatively quickly.
To have a successful sabbatical program, you will need to coordinate a variety of areas. For example, you must decide how the person’s job will be done during the sabbatical, adjust payroll for the employee and possibly add some pay for the employee who’s standing in for them, and ensure that benefits continue. Management also will have to make decisions about how certain key projects, customers or vendors will be handled, without bothering the person on sabbatical.
Although most people who take a sabbatical end up staying with the organization longer, others may reevaluate whether they want to stay with your company. If an employee is already burnt out or otherwise unhappy with the job, the sabbatical may help clarify that they need to make a change and give them the opportunity to job search. In the TSNE study, 13 percent of those who took a sabbatical said they planned to leave their job in the next one to three years.
Offering sabbaticals can provide many benefits for both the company and its employees. However, your organization will need to be organized, well staffed and flexible for sabbaticals to work.