Could Sabbaticals Enhance Your Benefits Offerings?

Could Sabbaticals Enhance Your Benefits Offerings?

The advantages of sabbaticals.

In the ongoing battle for talent, employers are seeking innovative benefits to attract and retain workers. One solution gaining momentum is the employee sabbatical.

According to the management consultant WTW, only 15% of employers offer a sabbatical program. However, an additional 12% are considering adding this benefit to enhance their paid time off and leave programs.

The advantages of sabbaticals

Sabbaticals can be designed in various ways to serve organizational and employee needs. Typical advantages include:

  • Attracting employees seeking long-term growth
  • Incentivizing employees to stay engaged and extend their tenure
  • Preventing or reversing burnout
  • Allowing employees to gain new skills and experiences
  • Differentiating your benefits from those of competitors

Sabbaticals are often viewed as a break from work. They can help retain employees who are thinking of quitting because of burnout or the desire to pursue personal projects or other career opportunities. Upon returning, employees may find renewed energy and focus.

However, viewing sabbaticals simply as an extended vacation is selling them short. Sabbaticals can also be tied to service requirements such as volunteer work or the development of new skills. For example, some employees may use the time to focus on leading a nonprofit program, taking coding classes or completing a generative AI boot camp. Others may shadow senior executives in a different industry or country to build their knowledge and bring new ideas back to your organization.

At their core, sabbaticals are another attraction and retention tool in your employee benefits offerings. LinkedIn notes that providing a sabbatical can set you apart in a competitive job market. It can also enhance your culture and reputation as a workplace that develops and rewards longtime employees.

The risks of sabbaticals

The advantages noted above make sabbaticals popular with employees. But they also bring risks.

The cost of paid sabbaticals is a common concern. Even with an unpaid sabbatical, your organization must prepare for productivity loss during an employee’s absence. In addition, colleagues may face increased stress, disruptions and workloads.

If your sabbaticals come with service requirements, some employees might disregard the spirit of the program and fail to expand their skill set.

Without proper preparation and administration, overlapping sabbaticals can leave gaps in your workforce and sow jealousy among employees.

And while some employees return refreshed and armed with new perspectives, others may decide to leave at the end of the sabbatical. Sudden departures can lead to the high costs of finding, onboarding and training a replacement.

Designing and implementing your sabbatical program

Sabbaticals should benefit employees and your organization. With proper planning, you can mitigate most risks. To start designing your program, identify the primary reasons for offering it. Examples noted above include preventing burnout, increasing retention rates, and encouraging employees to explore new skills or volunteer interests.

You can have more than one reason for offering a sabbatical. But it’s critical to understand your motivations when creating guidelines for eligibility and limitations.

Questions to ask

The following questions can guide your efforts in structuring your sabbatical program.

  • How long will the sabbatical be? For example, companies aiming to reward and retain long-term employees may offer a six-month sabbatical after 15 years of service. Organizations where shorter tenures are common might offer a three-week sabbatical every four years.
  • Will the sabbatical be fully paid, partially paid or unpaid? If it’s not fully paid, will employees be allowed to use PTO to supplement their sabbatical? As noted, only about 15% of corporations offer a sabbatical. According to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, only a third of those offerings are paid.
  • If you grant the sabbatical as unpaid leave, will employees’ health insurance, life insurance and other benefits continue during their time away?
  • Will the sabbatical be tied to service requirements such as travel, skill acquisition, leadership opportunities or volunteer efforts? If so, how will you document participation?
  • Will employees have a limited time to schedule their sabbatical after becoming eligible? For example, you might require employees to schedule a sabbatical within a year of becoming eligible.
  • Will there be limitations on when employees can schedule sabbaticals? Setting limits can help to avoid overlapping sabbaticals or missing key employees during busy seasons.
  • How much notice must employees give before taking a sabbatical? A typical example is scheduling a sabbatical six months ahead of time.
  • Will sabbaticals be connected to performance evaluations? Most organizations only allow employees in good standing to take a sabbatical.
  • Will employees need to use the sabbatical all at once? For example, some companies might require employees to take a two-month sabbatical continuously. Others might allow an employee to schedule a month off at the beginning of the year and another in the summer.
  • Will you offer sabbaticals to salaried employees, hourly employees or both? Will part-time employees be eligible? Will the offering be limited to executives? Organizations most often offer sabbaticals to full-time exempt employees, according to the total rewards association WorldatWork.
  • Will you allow employees to access their email, phone, computer or other business tools during the sabbatical? Connecting to devices and work responsibilities could reduce the effectiveness of their time away.
  • Will you implement the program internally or with an external partner? Identify who will be responsible for administrative duties, financial recordkeeping, communication and other key factors of design and implementation.

Planning for coverage

When introducing sabbaticals, examine how they will impact your organization. It’s critical to plan for coverage of employees on sabbaticals.

Work with managers to address workload. With proper planning, sabbaticals can benefit employees beyond the one taking leave. Covering for an employee on sabbatical can provide stretch assignments, cross-training and career development opportunities. It also prepares your organization for vital transfers of knowledge and work processes.

A planning strategy provides benefits beyond the sabbatical. In addition to sabbaticals, planned coverage supports your efforts through resignations, successions, medical emergencies, unexpected absences and other forms of leave. According to the human resources association SHRM, a typical approach to sabbatical coverage may be similar to disability, parental and other medical leave.

Sabbatical benefits can get complicated if they interact with other forms of leave. The employment law firm Ogletree Deakins recommends working with your legal counsel to ensure sabbaticals are compliant with leaves under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, and state and local leave mandates.

For more information

For more information on sabbaticals, talk to your benefits adviser. They can help you with the design, implementation and communication aspects of this benefit. They can also connect you to external partners with administrative, financial and legal experience in sabbaticals.