Sabbaticals Can Help Fight Burnout, Turnover

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. June 6, 2023

​Employee sabbaticals aren't a common benefit at most employers, but one company that offers them finds they're an effective way to fight burnout and turnover.

Since New York City consulting firm SAPRO instituted its sabbatical program, said Mary Maguire, executive vice president of global strategic partnerships, its employee engagement score has risen to 83 percent—13 percent above the industry average. The firm's turnover rate dropped to less than 5 percent—20 percent less than the industry average.

"Those who took sabbaticals reported higher commitment to SAPRO, renewed energy, confidence in their skills and were eager to step up," Maguire said. "Further, those who filled in during the sabbatical-taker's absence had their own experiences of self-discovery and were able to showcase their talents."

At SAPRO, employees do not need to justify their sabbaticals. They can take a break for one to three months with half pay and full benefits.

"Employees may take a sabbatical for various reasons, such as personal growth, career development, burnout or simply to take a break from work," Maguire said. "Sabbaticals can provide employees with time to pursue personal interests, travel, engage in volunteer work or pursue education."

Making employees justify the reason for taking a sabbatical could create the perception that the company doesn't trust or value its employees, she said.

"Employees may be hesitant to take a sabbatical if they feel they will be judged or penalized for it," she said. "Moreover, allowing employees to take a sabbatical without requiring a justification can foster a culture of trust and respect, which can improve morale and loyalty."

Design of the Sabbatical Program

The design of the sabbatical program should reinforce business and employee goals and reflect a company's mission, Maguire recommended.

"Companies should always consider sabbaticals to include compensation—either a portion of their monthly base compensation or, if the company can, a full payment," she said.

Employees should continue to receive their elected health, welfare and retirement benefits, and deductions should continue as usual, Maguire added.

But she said companies should consider a "claw-back" provision if the team member voluntarily ends employment within a year.

In addition, when determining whether someone is eligible for a sabbatical, "consideration should include performance, length of service, business needs and succession planning," Maguire said. But, she cautioned, "If you make the criteria too restrictive, you create barriers to participate in the program that may impact your team members' engagement and trust in the organization."

Sabbaticals require planning, reassignment of work and a robust communication plan, she said. Questions to discuss with an employee who wants to take a sabbatical include what resources the team will use while the employee is out of the office. The employee should draft a "handover document" and present this to the team.

"Investing effort in the exit and re-entry of sabbatical-goers is critical for a successful transition," Maguire said. "It may require extra work, but it's worth it."

After returning from a sabbatical, it's crucial for the employee to work with their team and manager to catch up on new projects and use skills acquired during their time away to provide innovative solutions, she said.

Collaboration among the individual, HR and team leader is essential in defining roles, responsibilities and a well-planned timeline to alleviate concerns and ensure a successful return to work from a sabbatical, Maguire said.

In her view, the ideal length for a sabbatical is two to three months, providing "ample time to rest, renew and explore."

Legal Considerations

Be sure to keep the sabbatical policy and practice clearly distinguishable from vacation time, said Jeffrey Ruzal, an attorney with Epstein Becker Green in New York City. Otherwise, "there is risk that a court or state agency might interpret such sabbatical leave as tantamount to unused paid vacation time, thereby requiring payout," he said.

Tracy Billows, an attorney with Seyfarth in Chicago, added that a sabbatical, regardless of whether it's paid or unpaid, would not count toward hours worked for purposes of calculating the 1,250 hours-of-work requirement under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Whether the sabbatical is paid or unpaid doesn't matter, "as actual hours worked are what count toward the 1,250 hours," she said. To be eligible to take FMLA leave, an employee must have worked 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of leave.

The U.S. Department of Labor has said in an opinion letter—FMLA-46—that time spent on sabbatical leaves, even when employees receive some compensation, does not count as hours worked under the Fair Labor Standards Act or the FMLA.

If a nonwork-time sabbatical is within the employee's 12-month look-back period for determining whether there have been 1,250 hours of service, an employee's eligibility for taking FMLA leave may be impacted, said Jennifer Long, an attorney with Duane Morris in Chicago.

Another factor used to determine an employee's eligibility for FMLA leave is whether the employer employed the person for at least 12 months. "If an employee's sabbatical is paid or if the employee receives any compensation or benefits continued during the sabbatical, then the sabbatical period will count towards the determination of whether the employee worked for the employer for at least 12 months," Long said.



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