The Ultimate Guide To Sabbatical Leave At Work

sabbaticals and career breaks example

A sabbatical leave, or a career break, isn’t unheard of in academic circles. But, in the corporate world, it is still a bit of an anomaly. Should it be, though? Is there an argument for making sabbatical leaves the norm?

In this article, we want to offer you a comprehensive guide to employee sabbatical leave geared toward HR and what it means for business performance. We’ll run you through what it is, and whether employees should be entitled to a career break or sabbatical leave (as well as the numbers behind it). We hope you enjoy the read.

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What Is A Sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an extended period of absence from work, agreed upon by an employee and their employer. There are multiple reasons why an employee may seek to take a sabbatical, but one of the most common is to pursue some kind of productive passion (like traveling, studying, volunteering, etc.)

What Is A Career Break?

A sabbatical or a career break are often two sides of the same coin. This is an agreed-upon amount of time off from work. A career break, though, is a more popular corporate term — whereas sabbatical has a more academic resonance. In some cases, too, a career break may be shorter (a month rather than a period of months).

What Is Sabbatical Leave?

If we think of a sabbatical in its purest definition, we also need to think about sabbatical leave from an HR perspective. This can be grounded in what we’ll call a sabbatical leave policy which is, basically, how you formulate a policy around extended periods of time off for employees.

In general, sabbatical leave is an agreed-upon period of unpaid time off — or, in more extreme instances, to resign from your role for a set period of time. We can think of it as a clean “break from work,” but where your position is waiting for you when you get back.

What Is A Sabbatical Year?

As the term implies, a sabbatical year is a year-long break from work. This is where the term itself becomes a bit more academic, as ‘sabbatical years’ mostly apply to college professors who take a year off from teaching and use it for study.

Are Sabbaticals A Good Thing?

The overarching idea, which we will discuss further, is that sabbaticals are effective in counteracting the effects of employee burnout. Especially for long-standing employees in high-pressure roles, this affords them the opportunity to recharge, and come back better than ever. It can be a key role in retention, too, as burnout can often result in employee churn.

Can Sabbatical Leave Be Paid?

In some cases, yes. In 2018, a study from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) stated that 15% of employers were offering sabbaticals. That said, only 5% of them were paid. While few and far between, they do exist and are typically dependant upon a set number of years within the company.

What Does UK Law Say About Sabbaticals?

In the UK, there are no laws that specifically deal with career breaks. In short, it is only an agreement between the employer and the employee. According to gov.uk, “Employers do not have to offer career breaks.”

However, if they do, this must be documented. “Employees can make arrangements to return to work after a career break but these agreements are not legally binding and it could mean ending the existing contract of employment.”

So, in essence, if your employees want to step away from work as we know it, you have no obligation to agree to their request or to re-hire them once they have had a break.

But you might want to consider giving employees sabbaticals and keeping them on as employees during their time off from the office anyway. Let us explain why.

Should Your Company Consider Offering Sabbaticals?

Acas states that taking a career break from work can benefit both employees and the organizations. For example, it might increase employee retention, be used as a reward, or even help bring new skills and motivate employees.

Employee burnout is a real risk. It was even classified by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon and was included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases. Here is how the WHO defines burn-out:

“Burn out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.”

There are a few scary stats that illustrate how commonplace burnout is and its effects.

According to Forbes: “Statistics show that more than 60% of work absenteeism is attributed to psychological stress and stress-related burnout. And according to a 2018 survey, 40% of the 2,000 employees said they were considering quitting because of burnout. Experts estimate that burnout translates into a loss of anywhere from $150 to $350 billion annually for U.S. businesses.”

What Are Some Popular Sabbatical Ideas?

If you’re a company interested in promoting sabbaticals or offering sabbatical leave to your employees, it might be helpful to think about what employees can do with that time off.

After all, the whole point of a sabbatical is to take a break from work in order to become better. ‘Better’ here is a bit of a fluid term, which is why it can take on so many manifestations.

Here are some quick sabbatical ideas for your workforce:

  • Volunteer – Encourage employees to volunteer their time for a cause they care about.
  • Create something – A novel, a work of art, anything that gets the creative juices flowing!
  • Travel – See the world, enjoy some new experiences, and come back better for it!
  • Educate – A diploma, certificate, or something that helps expand your mind (doesn’t have to be work related)

How Easy It Is To Request Vacation At Your Company?

Plataforma para la gestión del teletrabajo

Personio allows employees and managers to plan absences, like sabbaticals, autonomously in only a few clicks. HR has a clear overview and the time they need to focus on more important tasks.

Why Should Employers Consider Allowing Sabbatical Leave?

While a sabbatical leave may not always be a solution to burnout at work, it certainly may offer an incentive for employees to keep going until they can finally take extended time off.

It could also provide an opportunity for employers and employees to explore an alternative way of helping employees gain the time, space, and perspective they need to help improve their own mental health.

Simultaneously, allowing employees time off work to pursue career-enhancing projects or goals can bring enormous business benefits when an employee returns to work invigorated, refreshed, and full of new ideas.

Can Sabbaticals Boost Your Employer Brand?

Career breaks can vary in length. Some last a few months while others can last a few years. Career breaks or sabbaticals can also be undertaken for various different reasons.

The Local Government Employers guide to career breaks says that employees might want time off “to care for dependents, do voluntary work, travel or use the time for private study knowing that they have the security of a job to return to”. Career breaks can either be paid or unpaid. The website aboutemployeebenefits.co.uk says that “Companies often include careers breaks as part of their benefits package to entice candidates. Not all employees will take a career break, but having it as a benefit can make an employer look like an attractive proposition.”

Examples abound of employees who have taken time away from the office to pause, reflect on their life and reconsider their options. Those who are allowed the freedom and flexibility to go away and explore, with the full support of their companies, often return with renewed enthusiasm, purpose, and conviction as well as new ideas or perspectives.

As we revealed in our video interview with Asif Sadiq, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Adidas, about the importance of diversity and inclusion, diversity of thinking is an important and beneficial aspect of a diverse workforce. Allowing employees to take sabbaticals can provide this perspective.

In addition, as Garry Crystal explains, “One of the big advantages of permitting career breaks is staff retention. Good employees are valuable assets to a company, and a career break is an excellent alternative to losing a worthwhile employee who has become demoralized”.

Benefits of allowing career breaksDisadvantages of career breaks
Improved employee motivationEmployees may not return from long leave / sabbatical
The ability to retain burned-out or demoralized but valuable staffEmployees accrue statutory entitlement to paid leave while they are away if their contract of employment continues
Renewed enthusiasm for work upon their returnFinancial costs (if you fund all or part of a sabbatical)
Diversity of thought and new perspectives on their return can bring new ideas
Gratitude to the company improves loyalty
Better employee reputation
Sabbaticals can be offered instead of redundancies (so there’s no obligation to pay out employees, saving cash)

What Should HR Consider Before Allowing Sabbaticals?

key considerations before taking sabbatical leave

Acas advises that, “Employers should look at requests on a case-by-case basis, as they will need to consider how the employee’s work and responsibilities will be covered while they’re off. This will help employers if they need to refuse a request for business needs.”

Should You Have A Sabbatical Leave Policy?

Of course! If your company is going to start offering sabbaticals, you should definitely have a policy in place. This would seek to establish who is eligible, how an employee can apply for one, and the steps/considerations that will be taken before granting a sabbatical. In the interest of transparency, as clear a process as possible the better.

Put a Sabbatical Policy or Agreement in Writing, and Keep It Safe

If you don’t already have a way of ensuring you never get lost among reams of paper again, you might want to consider some kind of online document management system to help you store all HR-related documents in one place so you can find them at the click of a button – even 12 months after the employee set their out of office message to “see you in a year!”.

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