Should You Offer Employee Sabbaticals?

By: First Union


Should You Offer Employee Sabbaticals?

So first off, many might be wondering what exactly a sabbatical is. A sabbatical is a concept quite common within the world of academia. Essentially what happens is that a professor for example will take an extended leave—generally a semester, sometimes two—during this time they work on book projects and/or articles relevant to their field. Now the concept of sabbaticals is starting to infiltrate the world of business as well.

Many companies are looking into the idea of giving their long time employees time off for them to pursue personal and/or professional projects that cannot necessarily be done over the course of a standard vacation period. Some of the reasons employees are taking sabbatical include travel, professional development, and community service type projects.

So, the question is, are sabbaticals something that your company should look into offering its employees? If so, what sort of guidelines should be established surrounding such time off? Furthermore, how will it be different from the vacation time you currently offer?

How is sabbatical different from other kinds of leave?

So how are sabbaticals different from say paid time off (PTO/) or vacation time? There are a couple of key differences to consider here. PTO for example, that is given to all employees. And generally, it follows a certain formula, so for instance they may get two weeks following the completion of their first year. Then, of course, there are just standard leave of absences for personal reasons and also family leave under the Family Medical Leave Act—neither of these however are paid.

With a sabbatical, these often are for long time employees with the firm, and unlike the shorter blocks of time which make up standard PTO, a sabbatical is designed as a longer leave—say anywhere from a month to three months. Integrating the sabbatical option into your benefits package could be a huge draw for getting that top talent. That said, keep in mind there are a few drawbacks associated, especially because sabbaticals are relatively new to the world of business and as such, there is little regulation surrounding employee sabbaticals. You, therefore, want to ensure that all guidelines and criteria are clearly defined in terms of any such program. You may even want to consult with an employment law attorney to get additional information that could come in handy if instituting a sabbatical option.

Some of the benefits of the sabbatical

The forerunners as far as those companies integrating sabbaticals into their employee benefits packages tend to be IT-based firms. One reason is that they are out to get that top talent; they need those highly skilled superstars to come on board and a sabbatical does seem to be a pretty big draw to this end. Most businesses will award sabbaticals based upon tenure. So for instance, a company may allow 2 weeks of sabbatical for every year of employment after the five-year mark.

What are some of the reasons companies are now looking into offering their employees sabbaticals…there are a few key benefits actually:

  • Offers a more attractive benefits package with which you can attract the best and the brightest
  • Helps with overall retention—especially long term retention
  • Gives employees a chance to not only recharge but broaden their horizons
  • Shows your appreciation for their years of service and dedication

And then of course there is perhaps the primary benefit, and that is that upon embarking on their sabbatical, employees learn new skills, gain new perspectives, and/or have fresh takes when it comes to problem-solving for example…most definitely a benefit to the company.

Some of the cons of the sabbatical

Most cited con: the administrative hassle associated with an employee taking this kind of extensive leave. Among the other downsides to integrating sabbaticals:

  • The overall disconnect it could cause between the employee and the company
  • A decrease in productivity as someone has to fill in who may or may not be quite up to the task
  • Resentment among the ranks—either with employees not yet eligible or those whose sabbatical experience are not as lengthy
  • The temptation for that employee to just “stay on sabbatical” and ultimately not return

So what should you consider before deciding on sabbaticals? First off, you want to have a protocol in place, outline every single detail, and emphasize expectations. Below are a few questions you need to carefully think through:

  • What will the application process and consequent approval process look like?
  • What is the length of time you are willing to extend for a sabbatical?
  • How often can a single employee take a sabbatical?
  • How will the health insurance aspect of it be handled when they are on leave?
  • What will you do in terms of shifting that employee’s workload?
  • Are you going to limit who can apply for a sabbatical?

Consult your current leave of absence policy first. This may have a lot of the answers to the above questions and you can build upon that when structuring a new sabbatical program. Or, additionally, it may make sense just to revisit that policy and add to it in terms of language addressing sabbaticals specifically. What you need to figure out is if the benefit to the employee is going to be too much of a detriment to the company. And on the flip side, are the ways in which the employee could potentially grow and learn going to help the company.

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