Sabbaticals Pay Off

Paid sabbaticals allow employees to recharge—and boost retention, development and training at little cost.

By Kathryn Tyler Dec 1, 2011
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Last spring, David O'Leary's employer paid him not to work.

O'Leary kept his job and got paid while he spent more than five weeks in Sierra Leone, volunteering with the international charity World Vision. Back at the office, a colleague covered O'Leary's workload while he visited villages and learned about the challenges subsistence farmers face and how World Vision helps them. O'Leary was on a sabbatical—time off, doing what he chose, with his employer's backing.

And how did O'Leary's co-worker respond to the added work? "He had already taken his sabbatical, so he couldn't complain too much," O'Leary says with a chuckle. Business "continued seamlessly while I was away. … Maybe that should worry me!"

O'Leary is director of fund analysis for Morningstar Research Inc. in Canada. Employers such as Morningstar use sabbaticals to keep employees motivated and to prevent burnout. HR professionals who help administer paid sabbatical programs say they can be relatively inexpensive tools for retaining, motivating and engaging employees. And, the lengthy breaks that sabbaticals create generate development and training opportunities for other employees who cover for absent workers.

Sabbaticals, common in academia, are more rare in the business world. Only 4 percent of companies offer paid sabbaticals, according to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2011 Employee Benefits research report; however, more than 20 percent of companies on Fortune magazine's list of the Top 100 Best Companies to Work For do so.

At first, the cost of paid sabbaticals may appear daunting: The company is going to pay employees not to work? But HR professionals at companies that offer the benefit say it does not cost any extra money; other employees pick up the slack, so the cost is neutral. "People are on the payroll whether they are there or not, and the work is being covered within the organization, so there's no real cost," says Tami Graham, director of global benefits design for Intel Corp.

Some industries or organizations need sabbaticals more than others, according to HR professionals. They say employers in fast-paced, high-stress fields, such as high-tech or finance, should consider offering an employee sabbatical benefit. "At Intel, most of us work unrelenting hours. Many days start at 6 a.m. and don't end until 10 p.m. to accommodate the different time zones because of the global nature of the work," says Global Benefits Manager Paula Sanderson. "Sabbaticals force us to take a break from what is probably an unhealthy cycle of work, work, work."

While sabbaticals may be easier to offer at big corporations with more resources, medium-sized companies offer them, too. For example, Edelman Financial Services LLC, headquartered in Fairfax, Va., has only 250 employees but offers a four-week sabbatical for every six years of employment.

Good for Employers, Too

HR professionals say employees call paid sabbaticals the best benefit available. Sabbaticals help employers by attracting new employees and retaining current ones.

"It's hard to get a new kid out of college excited about retirement, but they can get excited about two months off after seven years," Graham says. "And the closer you get, the more excited you get. It's something that's highly valued. Employees say, 'Don't ever take away the sabbatical.' "

Pamela Becker, Edelman Financial Services' vice president of HR/training, agrees. "This is among our most favored benefits and has served as a highly effective recruiting tool," she says. "We have employees who have taken two sabbaticals and are working on earning a third, so this benefit is a retention tool. When people do the same thing at the same place for many years, they tend to burn out. The sabbatical enables workers to recharge, enabling them to return to work re-energized. The productivity increase more than compensates for their time away."

A sabbatical can sway a burned-out employee to stay, says Rita Foley, co-author of Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break (Beaufort Books, 2011). "I've interviewed several employees who were ready to leave their companies when they went on sabbatical. Then they realized it wasn't [a problem with] the company; they were just yearning for some time off."

That was the case for Peter Bopp in 1997, when he worked for American Express. "I had been on the career ladder for many years and was approaching burnout," recalls Bopp, now a partner at consultancy Leadership Strategy Group in New York City. "I was definitely 'done' with the job I was scheduled to leave but not energized about taking on my next leadership role." Then American Express gave Bopp a sabbatical. He traveled extensively and spent time with his aging parents to document family history. He returned to work recharged.

That renewed energy is "infectious," Intel's Sanderson says. Employees prepare for their sabbaticals two years before they actually leave, "creating significant conversations with co-workers who share in the plans. Workers look forward to the day they'll be able to enjoy their own sabbatical, and this anticipation helps to boost morale while further lowering turnover. And returning employees are required to report to all staff on their time away." Those reports excite their colleagues, Sanderson says.

Who Goes and When?

Who should get sabbaticals, and at what times in their work lives should employees be allowed to take sabbaticals? Most companies that offer sabbaticals tie participation to years of service, thereby improving retention, HR professionals say. The most common threshold is seven years of service, but a few companies reserve the benefit for those with 20 years or more.

One to two months is the normal length of sabbaticals, Foley says, adding that formal, paid programs usually provide full pay and benefits.

Some HR professionals note that companywide eligibility eliminates resentment among employees who are left behind.

Most companies have a "use it or lose it" policy. At Intel, employees must take the sabbatical within three years of eligibility. "We have lots of married employees, where both are working at Intel," Graham explains. "If you have a three-year window, you can line it up with almost anyone. Married folks who started at different times can take it together."

Intel began its eight-week paid sabbatical program in 1981 for employees with seven years of service. Employees can add up to four weeks of vacation time to a sabbatical to take as much as three months off. "The primary purpose was for the employee to rejuvenate. The secondary purpose was for the development of others," Graham explains. Employees cross-train to cover sabbaticals. Either one person does two jobs or the work is parceled out among several people.

Some companies offer sabbaticals to all employees, while others only provide them for upper-level executives. Some HR professionals note that companywide eligibility eliminates resentment among employees who are left behind. When every individual with enough years of service gets a turn, it makes workforce coverage easier and takes the heat off employees returning from sabbaticals.

"My work team was envious of my opportunity, but generally supportive since all get to participate when they have the years of service," says Leon Harvey, senior petroleum analyst for QuikTrip Corp., a gasoline and convenience store group headquartered in Tulsa, Okla. Harvey spent some of his four-week sabbatical in 2008 on vacation in Europe. "With vacation time off, you don't really get away long enough or allow yourself to fully disconnect from your work life," he adds. "While on sabbatical, I was able to enjoy the time with little worry about what was happening back home."

QuikTrip requires all full-time employees with 25 years of service to take a four-week sabbatical. At 30 years, 35 years and 40 years, employees must take additional sabbaticals. "The purpose is to rejuvenate and reduce burnout of tenured employees," says Kim Owen, vice president of HR.

Time to Decompress

Most employers do not dictate what employees should do with their time off, but many encourage employees to plan thoughtfully and share their experiences.

At Edelman Financial Services, where employees are eligible every six years, HR professionals notify the employee's supervisor at the beginning of the employee's year of eligibility. "Three months prior to the approved sabbatical date, the employee is asked to submit an outline, a syllabus of the proposed personal plan, goal or objective while on this leave," Becker says. "We want for employees to be descriptive, but we don't want the syllabus to become a burden. Once reviewed by HR, each proposed syllabus is sent to the CEO, who often asks questions about the interesting trip or event planned and then gives final approval."

Edelman Financial Services does not require employees to "do something constructive," Becker adds. "The point is for employees to decompress, to do something they are typically unable to do simply because they have to work." Returning employees put together short presentations about their sabbaticals and post them on the company's intranet.

Sanderson has worked at Intel for 27 years and has taken three sabbaticals so far, with her fourth scheduled for next summer. "My sabbaticals track where I was at each stage of my life," she says. During the first one, she took 21 units of college credit. On the second, she spent time with her then-2-year-old son. By the time of her third sabbatical, her son was 10, and they spent a month going to zoos and theme parks, followed by a month in Paris for Sanderson when her son returned to school. Next summer, as her son prepares to leave home, they will likely spend the sabbatical visiting universities.

Covering the Workload

Giving employees four to eight weeks off prompts the question: Who will do their work? How an employer answers that question can create opportunities for employee development and succession planning.

"Train other employees to do the job of the person who will be away," advises Pamela Becker, vice president of HR/training at Edelman Financial Services LLC. "This causes people to become familiar with each other's duties and strengthens the depth of talent in the organization. It also leads to new career opportunities as people get exposed to other functions in the organization. All this increases productivity, fosters camaraderie and reduces turnover."

Adds Rita Foley, co-author of Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break: "If you have senior executives due to retire in the next five years, a sabbatical is a way to prepare for retirement." The sabbatical gives the company a test run with potential successors and helps it figure out what successors need to know now.

In 2005, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants began offering one-month sabbaticals to its executives after they reached seven consecutive years of employment. "Part of the program involves paving the proper succession plan for Kimpton's future leaders, an opportunity for up-and-coming staff to rise to the next level," says Leslie Lerude, vice president of people and culture.

Ric Tanner, Kimpton's regional director of sales and marketing for the Pacific Northwest, Mountain and Midwest regions, found that when he went on sabbatical and his position stayed vacant, his direct reports became more "self-reliant."

At many companies, managers and employees are responsible for scheduling sabbaticals and workforce coverage. "Our HR database feeds into a manager dashboard, so I can see when my employees are eligible for sabbaticals," says Tami Graham, director of global benefits design for Intel Corp. "For example, if three people are eligible and took it at the same time, that would be a problem for me. It takes some planning."

Cathi Rezy, HR director at Morningstar US, says employees must coordinate sabbaticals with their managers, preferably at least six months in advance. "The sabbatical is part of our work culture," Rezy says. "Everyone works together to provide coverage because everyone knows they're going to take it at some point." Rezy has taken two sabbaticals—she spent one traveling in Europe and the other at home with family. "We have sabbatical guidelines, a sort of employee handbook of things to do before they leave, such as setting up e-mail appropriately and finding coverage for while they are gone," she adds.

With good planning, employees who stay behind get development experience and the work gets covered effectively—more effectively than one QuikTrip vice president expected.

"The goal is for there to be no work for the returning employee," says Kim Owen, vice president of HR for QuikTrip. "When a VP took his first sabbatical, he was concerned and somewhat dreaded coming back to his desk, thinking it would be overwhelming. He was surprised when he was totally caught up on e-mails and projects by 3 p.m. his first day back. He had nothing on his schedule the whole first week, as he had planned that it would take at least that long to catch up."

—Kathryn Tyler

Graham covered for her counterpart on Intel's HR operations side during the latter's sabbatical. It was an eye-opener: "Before covering that job, I've always been a strategy person," Graham recalls. She says there's inherent tension in organizations between strategy groups and operations groups, with strategy people like herself sometimes designing programs that are too complicated to administer. "We thought we were good partners to design for simplicity. It wasn't until I tried to do her job [in operations] that I really 'got' the design-for-simplicity issue. It helped me develop a deeper understanding of the impact my job has on others."

Another benefit of sabbaticals: They teach employees that no one is indispensable. Foley notes that when people return from sabbaticals, they realize that the company did just fine without them—they see the big picture. "They don't micromanage people" after a sabbatical, she says. "They're more strategic." And the time off reinforces the concept that clients belong to the company—not to the employee personally, Foley says.

Sabbaticals also build loyalty. Ric Tanner, regional director of sales and marketing for the Pacific Northwest, Mountain and Midwest regions at San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, spent his sabbatical cruising with his wife along the coast of Chile and through the Panama Canal. It was Tanner's first vacation of more than a week in more than 26 years.

"I've been in the business for 36 years," Tanner says, "but no company has ever given me anything close to what Kimpton did [with the sabbatical]. I can never imagine working for anybody else."

The author is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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