With workplace stress, burnout, and employee turnover all on the rise, could sabbatical leave be the solution to a host of contemporary workplace issues?
Illustration: Rose Wong
After seven intense years serving as the chief-of-staff to the CEOs of a large financial organization, Eva* was burnt out. She’d managed the company’s executive board through a bumpy leadership transition, and the extra stress had taken a significant toll.
She approached her bosses with a plan to combat her burnout and figure out whether she was ready to commit to the next level of growth at that company and the change in compensation it required. (She would receive greater equity in the company, but with a reduced salary.) She asked for a six-month sabbatical leave.
Sabbatical leave, long associated with academia and its practice of giving faculty time off for study or travel, is expanding in corporate America. In 2017, 17% of employers offered sabbaticals (either paid or unpaid). While Eva’s employer wasn’t one of them—they didn’t have a formal program—they listened to her case and approved it.
Why do companies offer sabbaticals?
It’s an unconventional idea, isn’t it? Giving someone who works for you extra time to spend not working for you. What do you get out of it?
A great deal, it turns out. Employees who come back from sabbaticals return more refreshed and with new ideas for the organization, and often more committed to the company, too. Outdoor equipment and clothing retailer Patagonia, for instance, offers a two-month paid sabbatical leave for employees to work with environmental groups of their choosing. The greater sense of loyalty that comes from a company putting its money where its mouth is, in terms of its mission, is also a benefit.
Sabbatical leave also gives employers a chance to test their succession planning by seeing how their company functions around the absence of individual employees. When an employee goes on sabbatical, the remaining employees must take on their responsibilities, which gives those employees a chance to stretch into different roles and reduces dependency on one person. The Motley Fool, a multimedia financial services company, offers a type of sabbatical leave they call the “Fool’s Errand,” where they draw a name out of a hat (each employee gets one entry per year of service) each month, with the chosen employee getting two weeks of paid vacation that they must use within the next four weeks. Their goal is to avoid situations where “only one person knows how to do a specific job.”
It’s a practice all companies should use to prevent burnout and make their employees happier
Some sabbaticals are structured to increase collaboration within the company. For example, they may include doing projects with the company’s corporate social responsibility arm. VMware, a software company, offers three-month sabbaticals to participate in projects within the company or with the company’s nonprofit partners that are outside the scope of their regular job. Offered to employees with tenures of five years or longer, part of their sabbatical leave program’s goal is to encourage collaboration between teams that don’t usually work together.
Olga Mykhoparkina, Chief Marketing Officer at AI-powered team chat program Chanty, espouses sabbatical leave from a corporate perspective. “It’s a practice all companies should use to prevent burnout and make their employees happier,” she says. She took a month-long sabbatical to address a personal issue and says she came back to work with “a new burst of energy.”
Sabbaticals can be risky for the company—not everyone returns. (It does depend, of course, on how the sabbatical leave is structured. Some sabbaticals might be paid with a contractual obligation to return, others can be unpaid, but with a job waiting at the end of the leave, still, others may pause financial compensation but let an employee continue with their benefits coverage.) But if an employee doesn’t return after a sabbatical, they probably weren’t a long-term fit for the company, which is good to have found out early.
Eva didn’t go back after her sabbatical. After spending time healing from the stress of her job, seriously reflecting on her future and what she wanted out of it, and enjoying some bucket-list experiences like whisky tasting in Scotland, sailing down the Nile, and taking cooking classes in Italy, she decided she wasn’t ready to take the next step of commitment to that company and began looking for other jobs.
Let people be human so that they have greater allegiance long-term to their work
Funnily enough, she’s now a C-suite executive at an education technology startup where one of her responsibilities is determining what the company’s employee benefits will be. “I have to balance what I think would be attractive to the talent we’re trying to attract and what’s best for them with what’s feasible in a startup. We don’t have the bench depth for an institutionalized sabbatical program, but we do share the mentality behind it—letting people be human so that they have greater allegiance long-term to their work,” she says.
How does sabbatical leave fit into larger trends in the workforce?
The marketplace is changing. The US has the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 50 years, which means employers must entice potential workers with attractive employment packages. And for today’s workforce, an attractive employment opportunity goes far beyond compensation. Recent CareerBuilder surveys showed that benefits like affordable healthcare plans, flexible working schedules, and good work culture are more important to job seekers than salary when considering a position.
Why does today’s workforce care about that? Well, let’s see. As of 2016, millennials (or people between 23 and 38 years old, as of this writing) became the largest generation in the labor force. And they care about different things than the generations that came before. With stagnant wages, increasingly significant student loan burdens, and rising housing costs, millennials are less able to save money to buy a home or retire. Researchers suggest that millennials may not be able to retire at all, or at least not in their 60s; 70 is a more realistic target.
This generation is most likely to view work-life balance as a major career concern and will be working longer than any prior generation.
Then it makes sense, doesn’t it, that millennials might want to take a bit of retirement early? That a sabbatical, with its chance to disconnect from the ever-more-technology-infused world, might be especially appealing? This generation is most likely to view work-life balance as a major career concern and will be working longer than any prior generation. Taking a break at some point in the next 40+ years seems like a good idea, don’t you think?
How should you think about asking for a sabbatical (or if you’re a team lead—approving one)?
Start with a clear purpose in mind. Eva, who recently approved an employee’s month-long sabbatical for a sailing trip, suggests building a logical reason why time off would solve a specific problem. “’I have wanderlust, and I want to travel’ can be tough [to approve],” she says. “I’m really committed to this place, but I have unanswered questions about my long-term commitment, and it’s better for you and me if I can go figure that out, rather than me sitting here with escapist fantasies’? That’s better.”
Other reasonable cases that extended leave could help with include: general burnout, as mentioned above, wanting to spend time with family, pursuing a timely passion (including a volunteer project), or investing in further education or training.
If the reasoning is valid and the sabbatical is approved, then it’s time to make sure the plan is clear for both the person taking the sabbatical and the team they’re leaving behind. You’ll need to prepare answers to the following questions, at a bare minimum.
- What are the specifics of the sabbatical leave? How long will it last? What kind of support or compensation is provided? What expectations upon return (if any) exist?
- How will the employee’s responsibilities be covered while they’re gone?
- What training or preparation is needed for other team members before the employee leaves?
- What will the plan be for emergencies or escalations, especially if the employee has significant responsibilities? Are all necessary stakeholders in sync with that plan?
- What will the reintroduction period look like upon the employee’s return?
Is a sabbatical right for you?
It might be. If you’re feeling burnt out beyond repair, have big questions about your passions in life, or have a specific goal you want to achieve but no time to pursue it, taking some dedicated time off might be the right call for you. While it might not seem possible —the majority of US companies still don’t have a formal sabbatical leave program, and it can be daunting to take yourself off of the career-advancement highway—if circumstances call for it, it’s worth having the conversation. Your health and happiness are worth looking out for, and sabbatical leave can be a powerful tool in the pursuit of their fulfillment.
*Name has been changed upon request.