Sabbatical - A Significant Break From Work

Minakshi Sharma
August 10, 2022

Summary

This article will introduce you to sabbatical leaves and clarify your doubts about its type(paid/ unpaid), duration, eligibility to apply for it, questions to reflect on before applying for it, and tips for a team to manage when their member is on sabbatical and points to consider while drafting a sabbatical policy. So, lets begin!

  • What is a sabbatical?
  • Why should one take sabbaticals?
  • Are sabbatical paid leaves?
  • How long is a sabbatical?
  • 5 questions to ask before applying for sabbatical leaves  
  • How to take a sabbatical - Top 3 ideas
  • Tips for team management with its member on sabbatical
  • Sabbatical leave rules?

What is a sabbatical?

A simple way to define ‘Sabbaticals is - a period during which an employee takes off from work to promote their personal growth and development. It is a chance to learn new skills like – learning pottery or other art forms, learning a new language, building a website, writing a book, starting a podcast, or working on something that wasn’t possible with their regular job like – going for higher education, creating a business plan, going on a world tour, taking care of family member with critical health, teaching in a school or simply, doing nothing!

The word sabbatical in Hebrew is ‘sabat’, in Latin is ‘sabbaticus’, and in greek is ‘sabbatikos’ all having the same meaning as a rest or break from work. Surprisingly, the concept of sabbatical is related to agriculture. In the early days, Jews were supposed to take a yearlong break from working in fields for continuous seven years. In 1880, Harvard started offering benefits in the form of sabbatical as paid leaves to its faculty, scientists, and physician for resting and recovering. Now, academic sabbaticals are offered to complete some research work for a semester to a full academic year. The non-academic sabbaticals gained momentum in the 21st century. They can be paid/ unpaid and their duration ranges from a few weeks to more than a year.

In the nineteenth century, McDonald’s was the first company to offer sabbaticals to corporate employees. By 2017, fourteen percent of U.S. companies offered some form of a sabbatical policy.

Why should one take sabbaticals?

Sabbaticals are sometimes confused with vacation or annual leaves. Vacation is a shorter time off from work and annual leaves can be carried forward if not used every year. On the other hand, the sabbatical is mostly applicable after five years of service, for a month to a year, and cannot be carried forward. Then why should one take sabbaticals? How does it benefit?

1.      Avoid burnout and return rejuvenated to work: Burn-out at work is a more common phenomenon than we think of. To continue working for long years with high productivity, people take vacations for a couple of weeks. Once they return to work, their engagement level and new ideas are much higher. Now think about being on vacation for a month or a year! Sabbaticals offer this option to employees to stay away from work and spend time on themselves. Once they are refreshed, flowing with new ideas, and return to work, their productivity is higher and longer benefitting the company.

2.     Giving back to the community, personal need: As per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, every human reaches a stage of self-actualization where they want to give back to the community. This is possible by volunteering full time with NGOs or own causes, for example – feeding the poor, rescuing, and taking care of animals, cleaning the ocean or recycling waste, etc. This might be difficult with a full-time job hence one can utilize a sabbatical. Volunteering helps in developing empathy or emotional intelligence in people which again can be beneficial to employees personally and at the company.

3.     Higher education: A lot of times, employees might feel the need of going back to school for higher education in the subject of their interest or subject related to their job. Either way, gaining knowledge has always benefitted the individual and the companies as this newly gained knowledge can be driving a sense of achievement and confidence.

4.     Travelling: “Travel is the best teacher, and we must open our minds to become students of the world”. Try to recall your learnings from reading a travel blog or watching a travel vlog and when you traveled somewhere – which is your stronger and more profound memory? This can be another reason to take sabbaticals. Travelling can open doors to sharing skills, building a new network, and learning new skills which will help you grow as a person.

5.     Realigning your goals: In the rat race of our lives, we sometimes feel lost, we find our purpose to be blurred or unclear and we are unable to justify the reason for working in a company or aligning to its goals. It’s time to take a sabbatical to find yourself and apply to IKIGAI. Who knows you might find a passion project, side hustle, OR be able to see the current job or company from a fresh perspective and drive more value?

Whatever your reason, know that organizations and companies benefit equally as you do from a sabbatical. They get the opportunity to retain the workforce, rejuvenated employees are more loyal and dedicated once they return from sabbatical, and sometimes they come back with mind-blowing ideas which bump up the quality of work. It helps teams become independent and employee’s step-up in their respective roles. When a CEO or CXO level leader takes a sabbatical, the second tier of leadership takes on the role and responsibilities automatically which is the best way of succession planning without any prior plan.

Are sabbatical paid leaves?

A 2018 report on employee benefits of SHRM (The Society of Human Resource Management) mentions, that approximately fifteen percent of companies offer a sabbatical leave of which five percent are paid and ten percent are unpaid. Most countries legally don't require employers to offer sabbatical leave. It’s entirely up to employers' discretion if they want to offer it as a benefit or not. Traditionally, sabbatical has been unpaid leaves however now with changing work environment and needs, it is shifting in some organizations:

  • Deloitte offers two options in their sabbatical programs – without pay for a month (for any reason) OR partially paid for three to six months (to achieve personal or professional growth opportunities). One of their employees has shared details of utilizing the sabbatical by pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Oxford in this blog.
  • Some companies provide sabbatical as an incentive for long-term employees or as part of a benefits package. This type of sabbatical is often granted to academics and researchers so that they can pursue personal projects or interests without taking away work time.
  • Some organizations pay part of salary and freeze benefits until the employee is on sabbatical for their higher education. Once the employee completes their study, their newly acquired knowledge is considered ROI for the organization.
  • Few organizations offer paid sabbatical leaves for eligible employees once they complete designated years of service. For example, Mc Donald’s eligible     employees can take an eight-week paid sabbatical for every 10 years of full-time continuous service with the company

 

How long is a sabbatical?

Traditionally the duration of a sabbatical (also known as a leave of absence) has been for one year and is offered to employees who have worked for more than five to seven years. During this time, the employee does not report to work and usually receives no salary. The duration and sabbatical leave policy have evolved with the changing economic and social environment. The ways of offering sabbatical leaves have changed in some organizations from a minimum duration of four weeks to more than a year:

  • KPMG offers sabbatical leaves as incentives in the form of unpaid time off from work to its employees who need to address their development and personal     emergencies. Employees have utilized it for going abroad to complete their higher education or attending to family emergencies.
  • Adobe offers sabbatical leaves every five years for service. Employees have shared their stories of feeling refreshed and motivated as they utilized them to     volunteer for community welfare.
  • Goldman Sachs employees with fifteen years or more of service can avail of six weeks of unpaid leave for a sabbatical, with an added two weeks for every five years of service. Looking at the work pressure, a sabbatical served as a welcome break for some who went on to explore new business ideas and learned to make guitar or farming.
  • Salesforce offers a week of unpaid leave every year of completion of service. Nancy Kamerer had mentioned reinventing self once she availed the sabbatical leaves in this blog

 

5 questions to ask before applying for sabbatical leaves

Most companies offer a range of benefits to their employees for their well-being – medical health checks, gym, subsidized food, cab services, period leaves, paternity leaves, and so on. The number of employees availing is dependent on their requirements. Sabbaticals are also a kind of benefit offered to the employees and they should be equally mindful about utilizing it. Here are the questions an employee can reflect on to come to an appropriate decision about applying for sabbaticals:

  1. What will be the duration of your sabbaticals?
    Is it for a month or less or more?
    If it is just two to three weeks, then it is good to check with HR about the leave policy and: If it can be considered as earned leave (paid leaves). Also, if sabbatical can be clubbed with holidays or existing leave balance.
  2. How do you plan to utilize the sabbatical leaves?
    If you want to utilize it to ‘do nothing’ then it should be fine till it is your conscious effort.
    If you are considering it as a break from day-to-day work pressure, then it is recommended to plan out the activities which help you gain some peace and new learning. For example, learning terrarium if you have an interest in gardening, or new instrument if you have an interest in music, initiating a blog or vlog if you like writing, and so on.
    If you are planning to utilize it for higher studies then do consider chalking out a plan of action for each day to achieve the same, or else the time might fly by!
    If you are planning to support an ailing family member, then giving a head-up to the manager and HR about the unsurety around the duration of your sabbaticals is important. This will help both to manage headcount/ workforce accordingly and not be taken aback by surprises.
  3. Are you eligible to avail of the sabbatical leaves as per your company’s policy?
    Every company has different eligibility criteria hence good to check it in the sabbatical policy while planning for it.
    If you are short of eligibility criteria for a few days or weeks, connect with your manager to figure out any exceptions applicable to still avail of the benefit.
  4. How will you manage your finances/ expenses?
    If the sabbaticals are paid, then most organizations offer only a base salary hence it is important to plan and manage your expenses accordingly.
    Some of the companies offer sabbatical at twenty percent pay or unpaid hence having a backup budget to accommodate the expenses needs planning.
  5. Do you have enough time to give advance notice (usually of three months) to your manager and team before availing of the sabbatical leaves?
    Usually, the sabbatical leave policy has the condition of application in three months advance to accommodate approval and team alignment process, plan accordingly.
    A team needs this advance intimation to plan their roles and responsibilities, KT (knowledge transfer,) and headcount based on your notice, so it is important to incorporate it into your plan. It also shows your care for your team and company as much as they care for you!

How to take a sabbatical - Top 3 ideas

There could be various reasons for which an employee might need leaves which are for a longer duration that their earned or another kind of leaves offered by the company. First one needs to see if the requirement can be met by availing of existing leaves. If not, then here are the top 3 reasons for taking a sabbatical which is widely accepted by the management:

  1. Sabbatical leave is a good way for employees to refresh themselves. It helps them avoid burnout by providing an opportunity for mental recovery from the daily stresses of work. Giving them a chance to take some time off, helps boost creativity, productivity, and morale. Especially when most organizations are Navigating through the Great Resignation and the Aftermath, offering sabbatical leaves could help retain their talent and improve their mental health. This is not something new, as, in 2001, Accenture offered a sabbatical of 12 months with twenty percent of salary to retain around 2000 employees. Similarly, in 2009, KPMG offered health benefits with a twenty percent salary as a cost-cutting measure.
  2. Sabbatical leaves can be useful to an employee who might be a primary caregiver to a family member with declining health, critical medical condition, or long ailment requiring more support than would be possible during normal working hours. The employee might be experiencing a period of high stress at work that cannot be resolved in the short term.
  3. Volunteering, community service, higher education, research  & development are the remaining reasons for which sabbatical leaves have been availed and benefited both the employer and employee. For example, Adobe offers a sabbatical after every 5 years of service. One of its employees has blogged about     utilizing it to volunteer at schools. The level of satisfaction such volunteering can give, no amount of corporate social responsibility activities could have been achieved and in return the company got rejuvenated, dedicated, employees bursting with new ideas back to work. It also gave confidence to the employee to believe that company cares for them and understands them to achieve their values and belief.

 

Tips for a team adapting to its member on sabbatical

An article in Forbes mentions research done in the year 2016, on sixty-one leaders from non-profit organizations around the effects of sabbatical on leaders. This research proved that leaders got time to think out of the box, and they felt more confident returning to work as they had fresh ideas for generating more funds. Few steps a team can take to manage their goals better:

  1. Drive clarity of roles and responsibilities:

For a team, it becomes important to have clear communication with the team member who will be on sabbatical about expectations, roles, and responsibilities during and post return from their sabbatical. This way the team can avoid any confusion and make necessary amends to accommodate any overlapping responsibilities.

  1. Equipping team to be more self-reliant:

Team members can be asked to take on additional responsibilities during the absence of a member. It can be helpful for team members to develop skills that will help them perform their job more effectively when the person returns from a sabbatical. If required, RASCI (Responsible, Accountable, Supporting, Consulted, and Informed) Matrix could be used to relook at the individual tasks assigned and for one is responsible. This will help drive trust and focus on individual goals impacting the team and organizational overall goal.

  1. Introduce the staffing model:

The manager needs to ensure that team has enough people to cover the workload by making changes to their staffing model so that work can be divided among more people. If they see the need for more headcount, they can even hire a temporary contract workforce. This way the team will not feel the load of extra work generated because of one of their members going on a sabbatical.

Sabbaticals can be an individual decision for an employee. Managers of teams of modern professionals must have a clear understanding of how to rebalance and reconfigure the team around the sabbatical schedules of the team. Few points to bear in mind:

1.     Sabbatical cannot be considered equivalent to long leave. The employee’s aspirations and work expectations may undergo a significant shift post-sabbatical.

2.     Pre-sabbatical planning for replacement must be conducted well in advance, equivalent to an employee exit.

3.     Employees require guidance as they prepare for the sabbatical. Facilitate it.

4.     Post-sabbatical engagement of employees is highly value-adding. Be prepared to inspire the employee to engage back in the team in a meaningful manner.

 

Sabbatical leave rules?

The sabbatical leave policy varies from company to company however, here are a few rules to keep in mind before and during drafting a sabbatical leave policy:

     
  1. Identify and mention the differences between a sabbatical and other leaves offered by the company.
  2.  
  3. State purpose and scope of the policy – dos and don’ts by the employee while availing sabbaticals.
  4.  
  5. Employee eligibility criteria – number of years of service completion with the company.
  6.  
  7. Minimum and maximum duration of sabbatical leaves as, some companies it’s a week to some its even more than a year.
  8.  
  9. List if reasons to avail sabbatical leave - for no stated reason, higher education, research, volunteering, traveling, taking care of a sick family member, etc.
  10.  
  11. Type – duration of paid and/ or unpaid sabbaticals.
  12.  
  13. Rate of recurrence – number of times sabbatical leaves can be availed. For example, after every 5 years of service.
  14.  
  15. Notice period and approval process – number of months advance notice should be given by the employee and the duration of the approval process by the management needs to be stated clearly
  16.  
  17. Obligations pre, during, and post sabbatical. For example, apply at least three months in advance, during sabbatical: cannot work for competitors and on returning: will continue working with the company for one year.
  18.  
  19. Defining exceptions (if any). For example, an Employee with less than 5 years of service cannot apply for a sabbatical.

Sabbatical leaves can be beneficial for the employer and the employee provided the policy is drafted and implemented appropriately. Both need to understand its pre-requisites, impact, and criteria to succeed. It can help companies increase productivity, develop, and retain talent and at the same time help employees trust and value their companies more!

 

BONUS: Watch this TED talk around the research on people who have availed sabbatical.

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