Sabbatical With a Cause: Conditional Sabbaticals Benefit Everyone

If your organization is looking for a new way to attract and inspire your staff, promote your company values, and give back to a cause or charitable organization, offering conditional sabbaticals as a perk could help. Here’s what you need to know.


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Sabbaticals, paid and unpaid, are becoming increasingly popular as companies strive to offer unique and exciting perks to their employees. Although sabbaticals are often associated with academics, a variety of sabbatical-like leave programs have become more common in other fields. Today, more and more companies offer programs such as conditional sabbaticals or paid time off for volunteering (VTO) in hopes of attracting, inspiring, and retaining star workers while exemplifying their core values.

Figures from the Society for Human Resources Management 2017 Employee Benefits Report show that 17% of companies offer paid or unpaid sabbaticals. And 22% of companies offered paid time off for volunteering, while 20% offered paid time off to serve on the board of a community group or professional organization.

“Today employees are looking for opportunities to explore and contribute to the world in meaningful ways,” says Rich Johnson, founder and co-CEO of people development company Ignite, which works with companies to provide experiences and journeys to “inspire, connect and transform” employees. “When their companies give them the chance to do that through a sabbatical, it builds loyalty, increases retention, and produces happier and more productive employees.”

If your organization is looking for a new way to attract and inspire your staff, promote your company values, and give back to a cause or charitable organization, offering conditional sabbaticals as a perk could help. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s a Conditional Sabbatical?

Before jumping into the characteristics of a conditional sabbatical, let’s review the definition of “sabbatical.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a sabbatical as a “break or change from a normal routine (as of employment)”, or “a period of time during which someone does not work at his or her regular job and is able to rest, travel, do research, etc.” According to this dictionary, the word “sabbatical” was first used in 1599, and is related to the word “sabbath” – taking a break.

Conditional sabbaticals are those programs that require workers to spend their time in an “approved-of” activity, often one that reflects the values of the company they work for. For example, outdoor clothing and footwear companies Timberland and Patagonia offer paid time off (also known as VTO – volunteer time off) for their workers to complete volunteer activities with organizations that have an environmental angle.

The Benefits of Offering Conditional Sabbaticals

Research shows that offering sabbatical programs benefits both employee and employer. According to a Harvard Business Review article, studies indicate that employees who return from sabbaticals exhibit lower stress levels, increased feelings of well-being, and “an increase in psychological resources.”

Conditional sabbaticals that require participants to volunteer on their approved time off give companies the opportunity to represent values and causes that are important to the company. It contributes to a corporate culture of community involvement, social awareness, and giving back.

And it can go a long way to boosting morale and loyalty among your workers. A report in Fortune magazine on The 50 Best Workplaces for Giving Back says the ways a company gives back have “as much of an impact in the workplace as the amount donated.”

Additionally, employees who spend their sabbaticals volunteering learn new skills or have the opportunity to hone their existing work 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 innovative ideas that benefit your business.
Related: 5 Reasons Offering a Sabbatical Program Pays Off

Do Employees Want Conditional Sabbaticals?

Supporting employees’ willingness to spend time off work volunteering for a good cause fits well with the lifestyle and values of today’s employees, particularly young people.

A study entitled Millennials: Fueling the Experience Economy found that 82% of millennials “crave” life experiences, and 77% say that these experiences help gather identity capital.

“More university students than ever before are traveling and studying abroad during their college years,” says Johnson. “This interest doesn’t disappear as these young professionals enter the workforce, and a sabbatical program is one way to attract and retain top talent for entry/analyst and manager level positions.”

At the same time, millennials are eager to volunteer, make a meaningful impact on the world, and work for a company that reflects their own personal values. Therefore, working for a company that offers sabbatical programs with a mission to improve the community fits well with this demographic.

Conditional sabbaticals may also appeal to older employees who may feel a little stagnant in their workplace, and who need an income while they offer their services in a different context. And it might also interest those who want their time off to have a purpose – workers who feel more refreshed by a challenge and service rather than a few weeks or months on a traditional sabbatical.

Tips for a Successful Conditional Sabbatical

Creating a successful conditional sabbatical program for your organization takes some planning. Before introducing the program, develop a clearly detailed framework of how the program will work. There are many details to consider. For example:

  • Will your company’s conditional sabbaticals be unpaid or paid? If paid, will employees on conditional sabbaticals receive 100% of their salaries or a portion?
  • Will the length of sabbatical be days, weeks, months, or years? Have a clear outline.
  • Who approves the volunteer opportunities or programs in which your employee can participate during this paid time off?
  • Will your company support sabbatical volunteer work with political or religious affiliations?
  • Does your conditional sabbatical program focus on local or global opportunities?
  • Who will arrange the logistics of the sabbatical – your HR department, an outside company, or the employee?
  • At what point in their careers will staff become eligible to participate? After 3, 5 years, or 10 years? Can they go on sabbatical more than once?

As you work out the fine print of your conditional sabbatical program, keep in mind that participation should reflect your company values as well as provide a meaningful experience for your staff.

“Sabbatical programs, just like other professional initiatives, are most effective when rooted in deeply held corporate values and a healthy team culture,” says Johnson. “More than simply a perk, a sabbatical program can yield significant ROI when aligned to a broader employee experience commitment that seeks to encourage your people to achieve their potential.”

Companies Offering Time Off or Sabbaticals for Volunteers

To get ideas of features to include in your own program, take a look at other companies offering conditional sabbaticals or time off for volunteering to see how they structure their programs. Here are a few:

#1. 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, which now offers employees up to 40 hours of paid time to volunteer, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. The program encourages staff to participate in local environmental volunteer efforts, aligning with the company’s commitment to “protect and restore the outdoors.”

#2. NuStar Energy Offers 7.5 Days of Paid Leave for Volunteers

San Antonio-based NuStar Energy gives each employee up to 7.5 days per year of paid leave to volunteer for a cause of the employee’s choosing.

#3. Patagonia’s Environmental Internship Program

Outdoor clothing and accessory retailer Patagonia allows employees up to two months off to participate in their Environmental Internship Program. During this paid time off, employees also enjoy their other regular benefits while working for their chosen environmental group.

#4. Salesforce’s 1-1-1 Program

At Salesforce, employees can take up to 7 days of paid time off to volunteer each year through their 1-1-1 program, which pledges “1% of earnings, 1% of products, and 1% of employee time” to charitable, non-profit causes.  They also have the option to take an unpaid sabbatical; they receive one week for each year of employment, which they can either take sequentially or bank to use later.

Offering enjoyable and ethical perks, such as VTO and conditional sabbaticals, benefits employers and employees alike. Consider offering a conditional sabbatical program as part of your own benefits package to reward your existing team, attract new recruits, strengthen your company culture, and to give back to your local or global community.


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