One of the best cures for burnout is distance from the stressors that have caused it. Unfortunately, with workers now putting in longer hours and taking on more responsibility, a traditional vacation may just not be enough to stave off exhaustion if it’s already set in. Employers looking to keep their most tenured workers onboard and attract great new talent would be wise to consider strategies that better combat exhaustion and support their employees’ mental health – strategies like offering sabbatical leave.
Sabbaticals have been common practice in academia for over a century – professors taking sabbatical semesters or years from their university to rest, research, or teach elsewhere. A weeks-long break from work may seem unrealistic, but it may actually be key to fighting burnout.
What is Sabbatical Leave?
Sabbatical leave is an extended period away from work – longer than paid time off, but distinct from medically necessary leave guaranteed by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It’s usually paid and generally offered to long-term employees.
Sabbatical leave is a break from ordinary work, usually lasting four or more weeks, often paid. It’s a time to rest, recharge, and renew creative energy. What that means exactly will vary from person to person. For some, a sabbatical is an extended vacation; for others, it’s an opportunity to learn a new skill, complete a personal project, or volunteer. The only wrong way to do a sabbatical is by continuing to engage in normal work.
Unlike ordinary paid time off, which is typically available soon after employment, sabbatical leave is a perk usually awarded to workers who have met certain employment milestones. Many packages that include sabbatical leave tack on extra time for each additional year of employment after the benefit has initially been earned.
How Long is Sabbatical Leave?
Most corporate sabbaticals are at least four to six weeks long, but some companies offer as many as three to six months away – and a full year off isn’t entirely unheard of, particularly in academia. Tiered systems, where additional time is earned for years of service, are the norm. Whatever an organization offers, this time is almost always taken in one complete block.
Here’s what major companies are doing:
Adobe offers four weeks of sabbatical after five years of employment, then increases that time by one week for each additional five years.
Citigroup offers 12 weeks of sabbatical leave to employees.
Intel offers four-week and eight-week sabbaticals to employees who meet length-of-service milestones.
Is Sabbatical Leave Paid or Unpaid?
When they’re offered, sabbaticals are usually paid, though employees may not always receive their full wages; paying a percent of base salary during the sabbatical period is fairly common practice. Unpaid sabbaticals are typically shorter or are made available to shorter-term employees.
For some real-world examples:
Citi compensates 25% of base pay in their 12-week sabbatical program.
Deloitte offers eligible employees 40% of their base salary for longer sabbaticals and offers month-long unpaid sabbaticals.
Adobe pays a regular salary, as though the employee is actively at work during their sabbatical period.
The Perks of Letting Your People Get Away for a While
Breaks from work are important for wellness and productivity, but consider that the average worker reports needing three days away to fully decompress during a vacation. With this in mind, traditional paid time off might not be enough to de-stress for your most tenured workers, those who typically have greater responsibilities and bigger workloads. Sabbaticals, being longer, afford both time to shake off the stress and exhaustion caused by work and dive into activities that will revitalize and build creative energy.
Successful sabbatical leave strategies can…
Reduce stress and depression in workers.
Help to prevent and mitigate burnout, improving productivity and retention.
Prevent some instances of avoidable turnover.
Provide employees with opportunities for professional skill development.
Promote innovation by allowing workers to rebuild their creative energy.
Potentially improve your company’s brand, making it more appealing to new talent.
Quick Tips for a Successful Sabbatical Policy
Adding sabbatical leave as a perk certainly has its pros, but you’ll want to do some work beforehand to ensure it all launches successfully.
Start thinking about policy right off the bat. You’ll want to determine whether sabbaticals are paid or unpaid, how much compensation will be received, and which benefits will persist. Decide who is eligible, how long a sabbatical lasts, and at what rate additional time is accrued, if any. In addition to all this, you’ll want to think about how to ensure employees are incentivized to return after a sabbatical and consider any other rules you may want to establish.
Decide how unplugged an employee can be while on sabbatical, and hold your teams to it. Are employees allowed to handle smaller tasks on an as-needed basis? If you really want employees to get away, ensure policy prevents managers and coworkers from contacting them unless it’s an emergency.
Develop an efficient application process, establish deadlines, and stick to them. While an employee is on sabbatical, their work naturally must be handled by someone else. To ensure that you have enough time to prepare, cross-train, and ensure all duties are covered, applications should be due several months before the sabbatical starts.
It’s generally a good idea to take a hands-off approach to employee sabbaticals. While it may be beneficial to incentivize skill development during a sabbatical, requiring it or other activities like time spent volunteering or doing company-relevant activities may actually make sabbaticals more stressful, not less.
Build a culture that embraces time away. American workers are overwhelmingly afraid of taking time off. In order for sabbatical leave programs to be successful, you must ensure that your organization enables its people to take time off and encourages them not to plug back in while they’re away.