Time To Refocus

By Matt Bolch May 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, May 2006A sabbatical program can help employees gain perspective and return to work with a stronger commitment to the company.

"The stories we have will last a lifetime,” Hugh Merryweather says of the monthlong sabbatical he took last summer, with time off courtesy of his employer. He and his family traveled throughout much of the West—the Rockies, Yellowstone, a dude ranch in Wyoming, whitewater rafting in Utah—and he felt rejuvenated when he went back to work as CFO of Circles, a Boston-based marketing firm.

Circles, a nine-year-old company that supplies, among other things, concierge services and loyalty-building experience programs, established a 30-day paid sabbatical benefit in 2000, and two years later the first employees reached the five-year eligibility threshold. Since then, 27 of Circles’ 550 employees in Boston and Ontario have taken sabbaticals.

The decision to offer employees a period of rest and renewal “fit nicely with the values of the company,” says Laura Prendergast, director of HR at Circles. “People who return from a sabbatical are truly re-energized and approach their work with vigor.”

Circles is among the few U.S. companies that offer paid sabbaticals as an employee benefit (see “A Benefit for the Few”). While sabbaticals are common in higher education and in the ranks of the clergy, the concept has not taken hold in business.

The reason is cost, say experts such as Jacalyn Reinberg, vice president in the workforce strategies group in the Baltimore office of Aon Consulting. Companies take on a financial burden when employees take paid leave.

Nonetheless, offering paid sabbaticals can be less of an extravagance than it may first appear if it aids in retention and thus reduces the costs of hiring and training new employees, argues John Bremen, practice manager for compensation at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global human-capital consulting firm based in Arlington, Va. “Especially in customer-intensive businesses, it’s a very effective hedge against burnout,” he says.

Reinberg says: “The question [of offering sabbaticals] is a philosophical one between work/life balance and economics. It’s definitely an attraction and retention tool for those who plan to stay a while,” although it may not appeal as much to younger workers who expect to change jobs several times as they build their careers.

Not in It For the Money

Employers that have sabbatical programs typically find them valuable even if there are no hard-dollar returns that can be cited for the practice. At Mindbridge Inc., a 120-employee intranet software company based in Norristown, Pa., eight employees have taken sabbaticals in recent years, and all but one returned to Mindbridge.

“We haven’t done any metrics around our program, but based on the feedback we’ve received, it’s well worth it,” says Scott Testa, chief operating officer and director of HR.

McDonald’s Corp., which revolutionized the fast-food industry by placing metrics on every step of the food preparation process, has no formalized return-on-investment computations for its paid sabbatical program, yet “it’s worth every penny to provide this benefit to our employees,” says Richard Floersch, executive vice president of worldwide human resources.

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Floersch adds that the pace for workers at McDonald’s “is invigorating, but the jobs are demanding and challenging. We’re a family-oriented company, and this is a great way for our employees to rejuvenate.”

McDonald’s, based in Oak Brook, Ill., and with 400,000 employees in 119 countries, has had a sabbatical program for more than 40 years. At McDonald’s, after each 10-year milestone, an employee can take a sabbatical and lengthen the eight-week leave by tacking on up to four weeks of vacation. Sabbaticals are available to full-time employees in good standing—from corporate executives to restaurant managers, trainees and maintenance workers.

Besides its potential pluses such as helping to prevent burnout and aiding in retention and work/life balance, a sabbatical arrangement can serve a staffing purpose, as it has at McDonald’s. The company’s sabbatical program enables employees who are not on sabbatical to stretch their abilities and try new jobs by filling in for an absent colleague for a couple of months. Doing so affords an employee a much clearer understanding of a job—and of his or her own aptitude for it—than could be gained by filling in for a week or so during someone’s vacation.

That system paid off for Julie Caturano while she was on sabbatical last year. A 13-year McDonald’s employee, she was reluctant at first to take an extended break; she didn’t take her sabbatical until three years after she became eligible for it. But her nine weeks away gave someone else a chance to fill her shoes as a communications and administrative manager in the divisional office near Chicago. That person worked out well and was promoted to the administrator role, and Caturano in turn has been promoted to a communications-only role in the regional office.

While on sabbatical, Caturano spent quality time with each of her children, she says, and took a relaxing eight-day trip to the Boston area with her husband.

Then she spent eight days in Biloxi, Miss., a week after Hurricane Katrina hit, helping McDonald’s restaurants and their employees recover from the devastating storm.

Caturano even found time to take up a new fitness regime, and she lost 15 pounds.

“It’s an opportunity to cleanse, to rethink your life and get things into perspective,” Caturano says. She describes her trip to Biloxi as especially poignant—listening to people’s accounts of how they survived and seeing the signs of poverty that beset the region even before the hurricane hit.

Terms and Limits

Some companies attach financial or other strings to their sabbatical programs. Circles, which does not allow employees to take pay in lieu of their sabbaticals, requires that employees stay with the company for six months after returning from sabbatical or reimburse the company a prorated amount.

“It effectively creates one and one-half years of retention in my mind,” says Merryweather. “Once an employee hits the four-year mark, he’ll stay at least through the sabbatical and the six months after.”

In addition, companies keep their needs in mind when permitting sabbatical leave. Executives at Circles were anxious about the 2005 sabbatical season since so many employees had been hired in 2000 and became eligible at the five-year mark. But there were no discussions about suspending or altering the program, Prendergast says. “The policy states that sabbaticals are subject to approval based on the needs of the employee’s department,” she says. “But everyone worked together so that the business and their colleagues didn’t suffer.”

When Mindbridge set up its sabbatical program in 1998, it decided to offer three to six months of leave to full-time employees with five years’ tenure. Employees on sabbatical receive 50 percent of pay and continuation of their benefits, Testa says, and they decide the length of the leave based on how long they can be comfortable with the reduced pay. “We ran the numbers and saw what made sense to the employees and to the company,” he says of the half-pay arrangement, which was as generous as the company figured it could afford to be.

While Mindbridge, like many employers with sabbatical programs, places no restrictions on what employees do during their sabbaticals, some companies do set guidelines, such as requiring that the time off be used for training or community service.

A company that makes such a request is the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), an employee-owned publishing company in Washington, D.C. “The overarching factors include benefit to the community and benefit to the employee,” says Kevin Wagner, labor relations specialist at BNA. “Employees feel enriched and invigorated when they come back—that’s the impression I’ve gotten.”

BNA’s program attracts as many as 15 applicants a year for up to three sabbaticals—two for employees represented by the Newspaper Guild and one for company correspondents. Sabbaticals are paid up to six months, and employees agree to work for two additional years after returning, Wagner says.

While educational pursuits are common, BNA’s sabbaticals are not limited to study. For example, an information technology employee who is a Native American used his sabbatical last year to help his tribe set up a database for its cultural center. Another employee tutored unwed mothers to help them pass general education diploma exams.

Nancy Montwieler, a 35-year BNA veteran who edits the Daily Labor Report, applied four times before hitting pay dirt in November 1996. She spent three months training journalists at a newspaper in Botswana. “It was an incredible experience,” she says, “as different from the kind of work I do as possible.”

Both Montwieler and Wagner have served on the committee that evaluates applications for sabbaticals—a panel of two management employees and two Guild workers.

“My daughter and son-in-law are both in academia, where sabbaticals are common,” Montwieler says. “It could be more widely applied in the workforce as an opportunity for mid-career people … to reflect on their jobs and go back in a more positive way.”

Reinberg of Aon Consulting says sabbaticals “are part of a company’s bragging rights,” and Floersch of McDonald’s voices a similar assessment. “It’s one of the things we pride ourselves on from a company-culture standpoint,” he says. “It benefits the employees, it benefits their families, and it benefits McDonald’s.”

Matt Bolch is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who has been a business journalist for two decades.

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