Sabbatical Leave

Chelsea Fredericks, SHRM-CP
Are you familiar with sabbaticals? You may think they are just for university scholars, but more and more, businesses are offering sabbatical leave to valued employees. Sabbaticals allow for a full disconnect from work that paid time off cannot achieve. When they return, individuals are renewed, rejuvenated and have new ideas for innovation.

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What Is Sabbatical Leave?

A sabbatical leave is a unique benefit that allows long-term employees to take an extended break from work to pursue personal interests. Employees can take a sabbatical to spend uninterrupted time with their families, pursue traveling, volunteer, study, or other things they otherwise could not do during a normal full-time work schedule. Sabbaticals help reduce burnout, improve retention, and open doors for increased innovation.

Sabbatical leave is most common in the academic world, where it is usually spent on study, research or writing, but is also gaining traction in the business arena. According to a 2016 Sibson Consulting study of 450 four-year academic institutions, 85% offered one-year fully-paid sabbatical leave to faculty. The median leave was 20 weeks, or 1.25 semesters.

According to a 2017 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study, only 17% of businesses offered paid or unpaid sabbatical.

Benefits of Offering Sabbatical Leave

Offering sabbaticals to your employees can pay off in unique ways.

  • Reduce burnout. Many employees who previously wanted to leave the company realize during a sabbatical that what they really needed was extended time off. Sabbaticals help employees take a step back from their work and appreciate it more, improving employee retention.
  • Opportunity to recharge. Sabbaticals offer employees a break from the unhealthy cycle of overworking. Most employees never take more than two weeks off of work at a time throughout their career. Employees return from sabbatical leave feeling refreshed and ready to tackle their work with renewed energy.
  • Unique contributions. When employees take a sabbatical to volunteer, travel, or have other highly memorable experiences, they come back with new ideas and inspiration to draw on. They talk to their peers about their experiences, form connections and spark further innovation.

What You Should Consider Before Implementing a Sabbatical Leave Policy

Sabbaticals are not the cheapest benefit you can offer. Here are a few items to consider as you determine whether sabbatical leaves would work at your company, and if so, how. While they are most common at larger organizations, medium-size employers have found success with the benefit as well.

Your Goal

Of the benefits discussed above, which are most relevant to your organization, and how will you measure the success of the program? Use your employee data strategically to determine where a retention incentive would be most helpful. Then, determine how many years of service an employee should have to be eligible and how many candidates for sabbatical that would create.

How Will the Team Be Impacted

When considering sabbatical leave policies, you should consider how it would impact the various teams and departments in your organization. Some employers tactfully use employee sabbaticals to temporarily promote another employee into the job. This allows the employee to preview the position and employers to implement succession planning.

Explore options on how the team could cover the position’s job responsibilities.

How Much Will It Cost

The financial burden on a company is often the most compelling argument against offering sabbaticals. It is important to consider how much you want to contribute to employee retention. Often, the cost of sabbaticals and its implications on retention, renewed productivity, and increased loyalty to the business actually outweighs the cost of turnover and training new hires.

Sabbaticals don’t have to directly cost anything, and do not need to be paid at 100% (or any) of an employee’s salary. However, employees will be much more likely to use the benefit if some contribution is made. Predict how much money you could spend per year to help cover benefit premiums, pay out a lump-sum bonus, or pay a percentage of normal salary for the allotted leave time. You may determine the length of sabbaticals based on what makes sense for the company.

Determine how many employees will be eligible each year and run the numbers. Knowing the total cost of recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and training a new hire into a position will give better context into this return on investment study. Although there isn’t a straightforward way to calculate savings on a sabbatical leave, you will likely find that the trusted, valued employee’s development is worth the investment.

How to Create a Sabbatical Leave Policy

A lot of thought goes into implementing a sabbatical leave policy that works best for your organization, and no two companies’ policies are alike. Here are some elements to sabbatical policies you will want to consider.

Possible eligibility criteria

  • Senior employees only: this could cause feelings of jealousy, resentment, and hardships upon return with re-establishing the job responsibilities and workload. Be prepared to address and manage this by implementing onboarding-like steps to transition back to work smoothly and preparing the team for the return.
  • All exempt, professional employees: determine further criteria, potentially including years of service, industry, certain performance expectations, and accomplishments or contributions to the company.
  • All employees, based on years of service with the company. The most common threshold is seven years, but some employers offer the benefit at just four years, and others, much higher.
  • Typically, eligible employees are trusted, valued individuals who have put in a lot of time with the company.

Other possible elements of a policy

  • Application: How does an employee request sabbatical leave? How far in advance?
  • Length: Sabbatical leaves vary widely in length, depending on your industry. It is common in academia for sabbaticals to last one to two semesters. In business, they can vary from a month or two up to a year. It also depends on the goals of your sabbatical benefit, what is cost-effective for your company, and the use of the leave. For instance, if an employee is spending a year gaining critical skills or certifications, it may make sense to allow a longer timeframe.
  • Piggybacking: Do you allow employees to combine leaves? For instance, an employee might want to add a sabbatical to a Family Medical Leave to extend time with a new baby or continue to care for a family member.
  • Use: Do you limit the possible uses of a sabbatical?
  • Salary: Employees typically receive a percentage of their base salary, if not 100% of it, during a sabbatical. If you offer a prorated salary for longer sabbaticals, be clear about all the options.
  • Benefits: Typically, employees on sabbatical receive 100% of all enrolled benefits. If you don’t, research carefully to be sure you are still in compliance with federal law.
  • Retention: Some employers write into the agreement that an employee must stay with the company for at least six months after returning from sabbatical. If not, they can be subject to paying back a prorated amount.
  • Reporting: Do you require an employee to show evidence of how they spent their sabbatical?
  • Limited opportunity: Some employers have a “use it or lose it” policy for taking sabbatical, stating that it must be used within one to three years of eligibility. This helps managers prepare for long-term absences and ensure that they are used one at a time.
  • Required leaves: Some employers require a sabbatical after 25 years of service and every five years after.
  • Frequency: If you don’t require them, can your employees take more than one sabbatical over their career?
  • Impact on business: How many people on one team can be on sabbatical leave at once? Are there specific times of year during which sabbaticals cannot be taken?
  • Approval: Be sure to mention that sabbaticals are subject to approval based on the needs of the department and company.

Examples of Sabbaticals

Typically, employers do not mandate how time should be spent, but most employees that qualify for sabbaticals put the time off to good use. Here are a few of the most common uses for sabbatical.

Volunteering

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), one Native American employee that worked in IT used a sabbatical to help his tribe set up a database for its cultural center. Other employees have pursued similar experiences, giving back to charities that impacted their lives or otherwise mean a lot to them.

Traveling

Don’t we all have a dream to travel to Europe for a whole month and fill up a passport exploring every beautiful country and landmark? Sabbaticals are a perfect opportunity to travel for a longer amount of time than PTO may allow. Employees who travel often find new perspectives on life and understand different cultures more deeply, allowing them to be more inclusive, innovative and creative at work.

Family Time

Other employees choose to use a sabbatical to spend uninterrupted quality time with family members. Some choose to take the time off at the birth of a grandchild or upon a major life event for someone else in their family. SHRM reported that one woman planned to use an upcoming sabbatical to spend time visiting prospective universities with her son, then a senior in high school.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Sabbatical Leave

Can an employee refuse a sabbatical request?
It depends on your program. Often, sabbaticals are initiated by the employee rather than the employer. Some employers mandate sabbaticals. In that case, we recommend offering 100% of employees’ pay to ensure that no financial burdens result.
Is sabbatical leave required by law?
No, sabbatical leave is not required by law. It is a unique benefit that some organizations —most commonly in higher education, but increasingly in business—choose to offer.
Is sabbatical leave paid or unpaid?
It depends on the company. Ideally, a sabbatical should be paid at 100% of the employee’s base pay. The goal of a sabbatical is to take the employee away from work to focus on other interests. Employees are much more likely to do that when they have peace of mind and continued, regular income. In some instances, sabbaticals can be unpaid or paid at a percentage of their regular income.
Should the employee provide details of what they did during the sabbatical?
You may strongly encourage, but should not require, an employee to share details from their sabbatical. Typically, employees choose to use their sabbatical on items that are very important to them, and are more than happy to share what they did. Offering an opportunity for them to share their experiences with their department or team, but respecting their decision to decline, is ideal.
Chelsea Fredericks, SHRM-CP

Chelsea is an HR consultant, specializing in internal investigations and employee relations. She recently graduated from the BYU Marriott School of Business with a degree in Human Resource Management. There, she was a four-year member of SHRM and served as the chapter president. Chelsea is passionate about human resources because of the ability to strengthen and encourage others through meaningful experiences and coaching that can improve their work life, satisfaction, and job performance.

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