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Sabbaticals Could Be the Solution to Employee Burnout

Offering extended breaks from work can reinvigorate workers and reduce turnover

A man in a hammock reading a book.

Employers seeking to recruit and retain talent may be overlooking a benefit that many workers are likely to appreciate—a sabbatical.

Burnout is a major factor driving high job turnover, as employees seek relief from workloads that leave them feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Long-tenured employees in the same position, especially, may suffer from "hamster wheel syndrome"—the type of burnout associated with doing the same tasks over and over.

What if, instead of quitting or retiring, employees suffering from burnout could take not just two weeks of vacation, but completely break away from work for one or two months, or even longer? Those workers would be more likely to return to their jobs reinvigorated, according to The Sabbatical Project, a nonprofit that conducts research on sabbaticals—how they benefit employers that offer them and employees who take advantage of them.

"Whether they're paid or unpaid, a four-week break or a three-month idyll, a growing number of companies are offering extended leave to reward long-term employees before they burn out and quit," Fortune reported earlier this year.

Overall, however, relatively few workers receive the chance to fully disengage for an extended period. As of 2019, the last time the Society for Human Resource Management polled its members on this issue, 11 percent of employers offered an unpaid sabbatical program and 5 percent offered sabbaticals with pay. Yet, sabbaticals are likely to be valued all the more for their relative scarcity.

There is one sector where sabbaticals are nothing new: Colleges and universities have long allowed academics to take periodic sabbaticals to get a break from teaching and concentrate their time on specific projects. Today, some employers in a variety of industries are offering employees an opportunity to take an extended leave of absence without having to accomplish something during their time away.

Fitting Sabbaticals into the Workplace

Developing a workable sabbatical program requires employers to take some important steps.

1. Identify the why.

Employers should decide why they want to offer a sabbatical and what they want employees to get out of it. "It needs to be mutually beneficial," said Seth Turner, co-founder and chief strategy officer of technology firm Absence Soft. For example, if people are still working from home and not imposing limits on the workday, a sabbatical could be an important opportunity to reset work patterns and avoid burnout.

"To recuperate, they need to get away from that desk," Turner said.

Sometimes, a sabbatical program can be tailored to the employer's broader business and values. For example, outdoor-clothing retailer Patagonia offers its employees an environmental internship program, which could be considered a form of sabbatical, that allows them to work for the environmental group of their choice for up to two months. Employees continue to receive their full pay and benefits during the time away from their regular jobs.

For employers, sabbaticals can help them meet their employee retention goals and differentiate themselves in the market for talent.

2. Determine eligibility and set limits.

Decide who will be eligible for a sabbatical and when. Setting frequency at, say, after every five or seven years of service with the organization can help employers plan for employee absences. It is also a good idea to place a time limit on when they can use the sabbatical once they become eligible.

Turner suggested that employers may want to tie sabbatical eligibility to performance goals and results. For example, an employee leading an intense project could become eligible for a sabbatical once that project is completed successfully.

HR technology company Envoy Global allows its employees to take a one-month paid sabbatical after every seven years of employment in addition to the employee's regular paid time off. However, employees must take the sabbatical for the entire month at once within two years of becoming eligible. This helps coordinate absences and prevent shortages created when too many employees want to take their sabbatical at the same time.

Employers may also want to place limits on contact with the office during the sabbatical. Registered investment advisor Arnerich Massena has offered its 28 employees sabbaticals since the firm opened its doors in 1991. Employees become eligible for an eight-week paid sabbatical after every seven years of full-time employment. "The only requirement is that employees on sabbatical must agree to have no contact with the firm for the duration of the leave," said Shelly Kapoor, the firm's chief operating officer. "Vacations rarely allow enough time to completely unwind and disconnect, which is why we aim for a strict no-communication policy during employee sabbaticals."

3. Figure out how to make the most of coverage opportunities.

Now comes the question of who will cover for employees out on sabbatical. Turner noted that many of the approaches employers use when someone takes parental or disability leave also apply to sabbaticals. In fact, when managed thoughtfully, this coverage can offer important development opportunities for the employees stepping into new roles or handling specific responsibilities temporarily.

In this way, sabbaticals serve a broader purpose. When one employee takes a sabbatical, it provides an opportunity for other employees to take on new responsibilities, even if it is for a short period of time. In some cases, employees are able to leverage this experience to prepare for responsibilities for a new position.

"The time away forces team members to fill in on responsibilities and navigate new tasks, which often helps their professional development," said Kira Meinzer, chief people officer at Envoy Global. "It's a great way for employees to be cross trained."

From an organizational perspective, an employee's absence allows other employees to understand how the individual on sabbatical operates. "We can take those tenured employees' best practices and educate the rest of the team," Meinzer said. "It also allows others to have insight into the way the employee on the sabbatical operates and possibly find ways for improvement."

4. Be prepared for changing priorities.

Employers need to be ready if an employee returns to work with a different set of priorities. After all, a sabbatical is designed to allow employees the opportunity to fully rest and evaluate where they are in their career and personal life.

Meinzer recognizes that this evaluation could lead to an employee leaving the firm. "We'd rather have someone figure that out than be unhappy and unproductive in their role," she said. "Sometimes it takes stepping away to realize that."

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

[SHRM members-only tools and samples: Paid Sabbatical Leave Policy]


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