employee sabbaticals

Employee sabbaticals: Are they right for your company?

Even if you’re a small- to medium-sized company, it may be time to consider adding sabbaticals to your mix of employee perks.

Not familiar with the sabbatical concept? That’s understandable. Although they’ve been fairly commonplace in the academic and medical fields for decades, sabbaticals are relatively new to the business world. Professors and doctors are known to take extended time off to get additional training and author books or peer-reviewed articles.

Following their example, some forward-thinking companies have introduced sabbaticals as an opportunity for long-time employees to enjoy time off for personal projects that may be more long-term than their vacation time affords. Professional development, community service and travel are some of the more popular reasons for sabbaticals.

But, before you decide whether a sabbatical program is right for your company, it’s important to understand how sabbaticals differ from any time off you already offer. You’ll need to establish clear-cut rules that define your sabbatical program if you’re going to add it to your suite of employee benefits.

Distinguishing sabbaticals from other types of leave

Sabbaticals are distinct from other leave benefits in some important ways. First, paid time off (PTO) is typically given to all employees and follows a specific formula, such as two weeks’ vacation after the first year of employment. And unlike time covered under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or a leave of absence, which is often unpaid, sabbaticals are generally paid.

Corporate sabbaticals are most often reserved for long-term employees, such as those who have been with the company five years or longer. While regular PTO can be taken in smaller chunks of a few days spread throughout the year, sabbaticals are usually structured to let employees be away from the company for long blocks of time, say four weeks to three months.

Be warned, however, paid sabbaticals, while certainly a big draw for recruiting and retaining top talent, can be murky territory for employers. There are currently no regulations and little case law regarding sabbaticals.

To avoid future hassles and legal entanglements, it’s best to establish a sabbatical program with clearly defined criteria and conditions that explicitly differentiate it from other types of leave. Guidance from professionals with expertise in employment laws for your state and local area can prove invaluable.

Pros of employee sabbaticals

Pioneered by fast-paced, high-stress technology companies, sabbaticals are making their way into other industries in an effort to compete for a limited pool of highly skilled employees – and retain them once they’re on board.

Sabbatical leave is often awarded in tenure-based increments. For example, some businesses award one or two weeks of sabbatical leave for every year of continuous service after five, seven or 10 years of employment. Many large organizations allow one sabbatical every five to 10 years.

So, why are some big companies jumping on the sabbatical bandwagon? There are compelling reasons:

  • Provide a more robust benefits package
  • Differentiate their company from competitors when recruiting top talent
  • Encourage long-term retention among employees
  • Show appreciation for loyal employees
  • Allow employees to deeply recharge their physical and mental batteries

Perhaps the biggest benefit of a sabbatical is that it gives employees time to experience something meaningful that, in turn, allows them to return to work with a fresh, more creative perspective or new skills.

Cons of employee sabbaticals

Cost and administrative difficulties are the most obvious negatives to offering sabbaticals. Other downsides might include:

  • Emotional disconnect from the company, depending on the employee and duration
  • Decreased productivity as work shifts to employees covering for those on sabbatical
  • Administrative challenges with health coverage and other benefits (for longer sabbaticals)
  • Resentment among employees doing extra work to cover for employees on sabbatical
  • Temptation among employees on sabbatical to not return to their jobs (unless program eligibility is contingent on their return)

Questions to consider

As referenced above, before your company launches a sabbatical program, several structural components must be decided, such as eligibility standards and whether the time off will be paid or unpaid. Questions you should ask yourself include:

  • What is the application and approval process for sabbaticals?
  • How long will you allow employees to be gone?
  • How often may a sabbatical be taken?
  • Will employees be able to pair a sabbatical with other types of leave, such as FMLA or PTO?
  • How will health benefits be handled? In most instances, your benefit plan will define how long benefits remain intact while an employee is on leave and who pays the premiums. You and the employee need to be aware when COBRA might kick in.
  • How will workloads be handled while the employee is gone?
  • Is this benefit open to all employees or only certain roles, such as upper management?
  • Will their jobs be available upon return?
  • Is there a penalty for failure to return to work?

When building a sabbatical program, look first to your personal leave of absence policy. It may already contain much of the structure you’ll need to add sabbaticals to your benefit mix. You may also decide to tweak your company’s personal leave policy rather than implement a full-blown sabbatical benefit.

Note: You may want to specify that employee sabbaticals can’t be used to work for your competition.

Think sabbaticals are too expensive or complicated for your company?

Consider this: Corporate sabbaticals typically last one to three months, and three months is the maximum time off covered by the FMLA. So, if your company can handle an employee being out for maternity leave, you can probably handle someone taking off for a month-long personal project.

In the end, their ability to approach workplace challenges with better focus or more expertise upon their return has the potential to benefit your company far beyond the inconvenience or expense of any short-term absence.

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