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Should You Offer a Sabbatical Program?

Max Freedman
Max Freedman

Offering employees a sabbatical could improve their performance. Here's what you need to know about sabbatical programs.

It's one thing for an employee to take a week off for some quick vacation time. It's another thing entirely when an employee expresses a desire to take an extended break from work. While you at first might worry that your company will struggle with this employee gone for longer than just a week or two, extended breaks – often known as sabbaticals – have been shown to benefit employers as much as employees. Below, learn all about sabbatical programs and why your company might do well to implement them.

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an employer-approved extended leave from work. Sabbaticals typically last weeks or even months and include a guarantee of reemployment upon their ending. Employees and employers agree upon sabbatical leave if both parties decide that a sabbatical is necessary for the employee’s personal or professional growth. They may also agree to a sabbatical if the employee needs to take a break after an especially stressful work period.

Sabbatical programs have grown in recent years. In 2017, roughly 17% of employers implemented them as a perk for employees. And since growth and post-stress breaks are inherent to sabbaticals, these extended periods off can actually lead to better employee retention in the long run.

How do sabbatical programs work?

No two sabbatical programs are exactly alike, but certain provisions are common. For example, while unpaid sabbatical leave rarely requires that an employee undertake certain pursuits, some employers might grant paid sabbatical leave only if the employee plans to use their time off for professional development. Additionally, some employers will pay employees a percentage of their salary, not their full salary, during sabbaticals.

In addition to purpose and pay provisions, sabbatical programs also differ based on who qualifies for them. Some companies offer sabbatical leave only to employees who have worked at the company for a predetermined number of years. Other companies offer tiered sabbatical leave in which, for example, a three-year employee can take a month-long sabbatical and a 10-year employee can take a three-month sabbatical. You should craft sabbatical leave policies to establish your program's conditions – later, we'll describe how to do so.

Benefits of offering sabbaticals

At first glance, sabbaticals may seem far more beneficial for your employees than for your company. In reality, both you and your employees benefit substantially from sabbatical leave programs. The benefits that employees get from sabbaticals include: 

  • Decreased stress. A 2016 academic study found that among 129 university professors on sabbatical and another 129 not on sabbatical, the sabbatical group was less stressed than the other group after their sabbaticals. In the context of your workforce, this finding can translate to employees returning from sabbaticals with far less of the workplace stress that can rub off on other employees.

  • Increased psychological resources. Similarly, the above 2016 study also correlated sabbaticals with an increase in psychological resources. An employee with more psychological resources can more effectively handle the anxieties and challenges of your company's day-to-day work.

  • Better overall well-being. The 2016 study also found that sabbaticals lead to better overall well-being in the long run, and employees who return to your company after sabbaticals may be less likely to take unexpected absences from work.

Among the benefits that employers get from sabbatical programs are:

  • A better workforce. Even if you pride yourself on the work-life balance that your company affords its employees, your team will inevitably face stressful periods. And when things get busy, your employees may struggle to find the time to invest in professional growth. By offering sabbaticals, you provide your employees with paths for both stress relief and professional growth, and employees who return from sabbatical with less stress and stronger skills improve your workforce.

  • Improvements among non-sabbatical employees. One study involving 61 leaders from five companies found that employees who took over the duties of an employee on sabbatical became more effective and responsible. This means that when an employee returns from a sabbatical, it's not just this employee who has improved but the employee’s interim replacement too.

  • Less employee turnover. When you give your employees the chance to take ample breaks and independently grow, they will be happier and thus less interested in changing their job circumstances. With more employees staying at your company, your business will have less employee turnover and thus fewer of the negative bottom-line impacts that can accompany team members coming and going.

Which companies offer sabbatical leave?

Sabbaticals originated in academia but have since spread to all kinds of industries. Tech companies now frequently offer sabbatical programs as well. For example, five-year employees at Adobe can take four-week sabbaticals and 15-year employees can take six-week sabbaticals.

Companies in other industries ranging from food to outdoor recreation and real estate also offer sabbatical programs. Corporate employees at The Cheesecake Factory can take three-week sabbaticals after five years of employment. REI offers 15-year employees four-week sabbaticals, and Zillow offers six-year employees six-week sabbaticals.

How to develop a sabbatical program

If you decide to create a sabbatical program, you'll need to actually establish the intricacies of your policy. To do so, take the following steps:

1. Set your minimum employment threshold.

You'll notice in the above sabbatical program examples that companies usually require employees to have worked at the company for a minimum number of years before qualifying for sabbaticals. You'll also notice that no company’s sabbatical employment threshold is quite the same as another's. Put another way, you have full flexibility to set the thresholds that work for you.

You'll also notice that Adobe has two employment thresholds for two different lengths of sabbaticals. You too can increase your company's sabbatical allowances as your employees' length of employment increases. No matter the thresholds you set, consider how long you think employees should work before qualifying for sabbaticals.

2. Set your minimum responsibility threshold.

Your sabbatical program qualifications don't have to pertain solely to employment duration. You can also offer your program to solely employees of a certain seniority, such as executives and team leaders instead of administrative team members. In this setup, even some decades-long employees wouldn't qualify for sabbatical leave – but maybe you'll have promoted these employees into sabbatical-eligible roles after this long of a period.

3. Decide how long your sabbatical offerings will last.

Another obvious variation among sabbatical programs: how long the sabbatical offerings will last. Keep in mind that sabbaticals are typically extended periods of leave, so you may want to offer programs longer than two to three weeks, which is a typical length for employee vacations.

4. Determine your sabbatical leave pay structure.

Although paid time off policies are becoming more common, you don't necessarily have to pay employees while they take sabbatical leave. In fact, as mentioned earlier, some employers only grant paid sabbatical leave to employees who will use their extended time off for professional development. That said, you can offer fully paid sabbatical leave; employees who can take a break or focus on growth without financial consequences might return to your company even more prepared to contribute positively to your workforce. Of course, this is an expense that generates no immediate return for the duration of the employee's sabbatical.

5. Plan for when employees choose not to return from sabbatical.

Although you can usually assume that your employees will return after their sabbaticals, occasionally, employees discover during their extended breaks that they may want to move in a different direction. If you pay employees during sabbaticals and they don't return, you can demand they repay you for their time off, but only if you explicitly state this requirement in your sabbatical policies.

6. Choose how to record your employees' sabbatical time.

Let's say that you structure your sabbatical program like Adobe's and have two thresholds for sabbatical length. In this case, you'll need to decide whether the time the employee spent on their first sabbatical (if they took one) counts toward their time employed and thus toward their second, longer sabbatical.

To use Adobe's structure as an example, let's say an employee takes a four-week sabbatical after their first five years of employment. In this case, you'll need to decide whether the employee becomes eligible for a longer six-week sabbatical upon their 15th anniversary of employment or once they hit 15 years and four weeks of employment.

Keep in mind that a key objective of offering sabbatical leave is to help employees feel less stressed and thus happier. Quibbling over small details, such as this four-week difference, can come off pedantic to employees, thus potentially annoying them and achieving exactly the opposite of the engaged, happy workers you desire. Put another way, tact is as important in sabbatical policies as business concerns – after all, the improvements that employees bring back with them from sabbaticals can increase your bottom line.

7. Consult with an attorney.

When crafting a sabbatical policy, consult with an attorney to ensure all provisions are legal and in compliance with any local, state or federal regulations. You should also guarantee that provisions are legally binding, such as requiring an employee to repay any paid time off if they choose not to return after a sabbatical.

Image Credit: frantic00 / Getty Images
Max Freedman
Max Freedman Contributing Writer
Max Freedman is a content writer who has written hundreds of articles about small business strategy and operations, with a focus on finance and HR topics. He's also published articles on payroll, small business funding, and content marketing. In addition to covering these business fundamentals, Max also writes about improving company culture, optimizing business social media pages, and choosing appropriate organizational structures for small businesses.