Is there value in a Sabbatical?

July 23, 2015

For many people when they hear “12 weeks paid leave” they have only one question; how do I get a job like that?  The power of a sabbatical is such that people want to know who offers them and what you need to do to qualify for one.

Sabbaticals are rooted in the world of academia.   Professors typically get several months off as a paid sabbatical to focus on their own personal and professional development. However in the corporate world, sabbaticals have been relatively rare.  Only 5% percent of U.S. companies offer paid sabbaticals, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey. Another 18% offer unpaid sabbaticals.

They tend to be offered by larger companies.  Intel has offered eight-week paid sabbaticals after each seven years of full-time employment since 1981.  They go back 40 years at McDonalds.   Some smaller companies also offer sabbaticals.  Take MeetUp for instance.  They are a Silicon Alley-based company that helps people plan meetings and have just 75 employees. MeetUP offers a three month sabbatical every five years.  According to the Society of Human Resource Management, paid sabbatical programs are offered only at 5% of U.S. companies but nearly 25% of the employers on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2012 offer paid sabbaticals.  (Partial list of companies offering sabbaticals)

A primary reason for offering sabbaticals is employee retention.   Sabbaticals are typically offered to long term employees.   A sabbatical serves as both a reward for long-term employment as a way to prevent burn-out.   A research team from Israel, New Zealand, and the United States recently published a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology that found that people who take sabbaticals not only experience a decline in stress during their sabbatical, but experience an overall stress decline after returning to work as well (compared to their stress levels before they went on leave).

Have you ever heard the adage: a change is as good as a rest?  When an employee gets burned out they frequently leave the company that generated the burn-out.   If the employee is in a senior rule this can be costly to the employer.   Why not give them a rest, it’s as good as a change, and it’s cheaper.    Most employees that go on sabbatical say they feel reinvigorated when they return.  Some are so enthusiastic it’s like starting a new job.

What should employees do on sabbatical?  David Baum at Thoughtworks, an IT development company with more than 2,000 employees, says that “Employees may use the time off at their discretion, however it is recommended that employees use the time to enrich their lives or improve the world around them.”   Doing something that fuels the soul is the best way to take advantage of a sabbatical.

Sabbaticals can also help strengthen the company through employees who are left behind.  When someone is on sabbatical management and employees must step in, cross train, fill in, and find new ways to cooperate.   The result is that it builds greater depth, experience and flexibility within the organization which helps achieve long-term business goals.

Before McGovern, the CEO of MeetUp went on his sabbatical, he says he spent six months briefing four members of his team on his work and handing off responsibilities. “It really allowed people to step up and explore new areas,” McGovern says.  There are multiple benefits to a sabbatical.

Managers also have to be willing to cut the cord, physically and electronically. As the study in the Journal of Applied Psychology puts it, if you care about the well-being of your employees when they go away for a respite, leave them alone.

Employers often worry that employees will take a sabbatical and then leave the company.   If history is any indication this is not the case.    Clif Bar, the maker of organic energy bars, offers sabbaticals and has a 3% employee turnover rate.  That’s probably not a coincidence.

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