Sabbatical Leave: Should Your Company Offer It?

Offering sabbatical leave is a great way to hire and retain valuable employees and also provide them with the work-life balance they need.

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Employee on Sabbatical Program

Looking for a cost-effective way to become more competitive in attracting and retaining talent in today’s market? You might not have to work against your budget. According to a 2022 MetLife study, 73% of employees surveyed say that a wider benefits offering would keep them at their present employer for longer.¹ By offering a sabbatical leave program, you can potentially save money, boost productivity, and excite current and potential employees. Here we’ll explore the details of this perk and why it could be a game changer for your company.

What is sabbatical leave?

A sabbatical is when an employee takes an extended break from work and normal job duties. During this period of time, the employee may rest, travel, research, engage in professional development, or pursue personal interests. While sabbatical leave is most closely associated with academic professions (often to pursue research), private companies also recognize its potential.

There are no set time constraints for what constitutes a sabbatical. But it’s typically longer than PTO, sick leave, and other types of leave. Sabbaticals can extend anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months. The length is entirely up to a company’s sabbatical leave policy.

Many companies offer sabbaticals as an incentive for employee loyalty after working at the company for a number of years. A company’s policies may dictate the sabbatical leave rules, what qualifies eligible employees, and whether the sabbatical is unpaid or paid (whether full or partial salary).

As employers seek ways to attract and retain employees on tightening budgets, benefits that promote employee well-being may be a solution. Let’s explore how a sabbatical leave program can benefit both employers and employees.

What a sabbatical leave program can accomplish

That’s up to you; and your company’s compensation philosophy and strategy can help guide these goals. But many employers find several natural advantages.

Work as an employee retention tool

Offering employees a sabbatical every 5-7 years can give them something rewarding to work toward. This can be particularly effective with younger employees who are new to the workforce and may be prone to job-hopping. So, how do you attract talent of this age and minimize turnover rates? Offer employee benefits they really want.

The tides of work-life balance have shifted. Many millennials and Gen Zers are interested in exploring, experimenting, and traveling prior to retirement. A sabbatical could be attractive to this particular subset looking for non-monetary incentives that emphasize a more balanced lifestyle.

Prevent burnout

Going on a sabbatical can also go a long way toward preventing employee burnout. Employees get tired, particularly those who work from home, and can struggle setting boundaries between work and free time. If employee burnout is left unaddressed, employers could end up with serious turnover problems.

A high employee turnover rate can worsen employee morale and make it difficult to maintain productivity. And the costs of onboarding new employees is more than many people realize. A constructive leave of absence can return on the investment. Companies ultimately save money by retaining satisfied and productive employees who look forward to benefits like a sabbatical period.

Foster employee growth

You might be wondering why you should pay employees who aren’t working. We get it; this doesn’t sound like an inherently cost-efficient offering. However, while employees on sabbatical leave won’t be doing work, it doesn’t mean that work won’t get done. When planned accordingly, all the responsibilities of the traveling employees should be appropriately distributed among other employees.

A sabbatical program can even turn into a unique opportunity. This is specifically true regarding junior employees who want to expand their skill sets and pursue personal and professional growth. Employees may choose to request sabbatical leave for non-work-related or professional growth reasons. Either way, this extended period away from work may leave them feeling refreshed, recharged, and self-fulfilled. A happier employee might be more inclined to pursue professional growth when they return from an extended leave.

Promote transparency

It’s dangerous for an organization to depend too heavily on a single employee or a small team. Operating in a system that allows employees to leave for extended periods of time requires workers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of all responsibilities.

For other workers to appropriately assume responsibilities, necessary prerequisites will apply. The employee taking a work sabbatical will have to demonstrate how to complete different projects, how long specific tasks take, and update all protocols.

This can promote a sense of radical transparency in the company, which may raise accountability between employees and boost productivity. Furthermore, transparency in the workplace can help contribute to employee happiness.

Show that your company values work-life balance

Happy employees are productive employees. Many organizations claim that their company culture values a healthy work-life balance. But how many actually create policies that support that claim? Offering a sabbatical program shows that you respect the personal lives of your current employees and their general well-being.

Consider a conditional sabbatical leave

Conditional sabbatical programs require employees to spend their time in an “approved” activity. Conditional sabbaticals that require participants to volunteer can represent values and causes that are important company-wide. This type of sabbatical policy contributes to a corporate culture of community involvement, social awareness, and giving back.

Additionally, an employee on a conditional sabbatical could experience career development. Employees who spend their sabbaticals volunteering may learn new skills. They may also have the opportunity to hone their existing professional skills in a completely different environment from their workplace. They might return to work with a renewed passion for their job, a different perspective on their role and career aspirations, or new ideas that benefit your business.

Companies offering time off or sabbatical leave for volunteers

Do you need ideas for crafting your own program? Take a look at other companies offering conditional sabbaticals or time off for volunteering. Note how they structure their programs and emphasize service and community-building. Here are a few:

Timberland’s Path of Service program

Outdoor outfitters Timberland is a pioneer in the “paid time off to volunteer” arena. Their Path of Service  program, established in 1992, offers employees at participating locations up to 40 hours of paid time to volunteer. The program encourages staff to participate in local environmental volunteer efforts. This aligns with the company’s commitment to “protect and restore the outdoors.”

Patagonia’s Environmental Internship Program

Outdoor clothing and accessory retailer Patagonia allows employees up to 2 months of paid time off to participate in their Environmental Internship Program. Employees at participating stores continue to earn their pay and benefits while working for their chosen environmental group. In 2022, 34 individuals, 12 stores and 1 department took advantage of this program. Together, they clocked nearly 10,000 volunteer hours for 43 organizations.

Salesforce’s paid VTO and unpaid sabbatical programs

At Salesforce, employees can take up to 7 days of paid time off to volunteer each year through citizen philanthropy programs. Opportunities through their Impact Exchange program range from volunteering at a school to supporting organizations with technical and professional expertise. Employees can use their VTO in ways that are personal to them. Salesforce also allows up to 1 week of unpaid sabbatical time off for each full year of employment to rejuvenate and engage in personal pursuits.

Offering enjoyable and ethical perks such as VTO and service sabbaticals benefits employers and employees alike. Consider offering a conditional sabbatical program as part of your own employee benefits package.

Is sabbatical leave the right perk for your employees?

Free lunches and gym memberships are great. But it’s hard to compete with time for personal growth or extended time spent with family. In a job market full of employees seeking healthier work-life balance, an attractive benefit like a sabbatical program could set your company and its culture above the rest.

We know: In business, there’s always something new to consider. For ongoing support, find tips, tools, and other resources for human resources, people ops, and the workplace at Workest by Zenefits.

1 The Rise of the Whole Employee: 20 Years of Change in Employer-Employee Dynamics, page 39

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