What is sabbatical leave? It's the best kept secret in HR

February 16, 2022 - 11 min read

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What exactly is a sabbatical?

How does sabbatical leave work?

10 benefits of employee sabbatical

Developing a sabbatical leave policy

Time away from work has numerous benefits. With over half of the workforce in a state of languish (and even more on the way out the door), employers have had to get creative about giving people a reason to stay at work. Turns out, letting them leave — for a little while — might be the best way to boost retention.

In 2018, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that about 15% of employers were offering sabbaticals to their employees. That number is on the rise. Keep reading to find out what a sabbatical leave is, why it’s the best perk you’re not offering, and how it gives you an edge in the war for talent.

What exactly is a sabbatical?

Traditionally offered to those in academic professions, sabbatical years were originally a way to give professors a break from teaching. Professors, who were thought leaders before it became a buzzword, were given a year of leave every seven years to pursue research or just time away.

It took over 150 years for the practice to spread to other fields. Even now, just 5% of companies offered paid sabbatical leave in 2018.

The employee isn’t required to fulfill the obligations of their usual role during this time. But even though they’re not working, offering this leave can have tremendous benefits for workplace productivity.

How does sabbatical leave work?

Usually, a sabbatical is offered to employees after they’ve worked with the company for a certain amount of time. Legally, there’s no minimum requirement, but it’s usually at least 5 years.

There’s also no minimum requirement for how long a sabbatical should be. Because it’s not a vacation, there are certain considerations to keep in mind for a sabbatical. These might include training a replacement, covering duties, or other things that you don’t usually have to think about for shorter breaks. To get the most out of this type of leave, sabbaticals are usually at least four weeks and as long as a year.

Are employees paid during a sabbatical leave?

Employees are not required to be paid, but traditionally a sabbatical is paid time away. Organizations may stipulate that the employee is only entitled to a percentage of their pay or prevent them from doing other paid work. 

It’s a good idea to offer pay during a sabbatical from work. One of the primary benefits of sabbatical leave is improved well-being. Being under financial stress will significantly undermine that outcome. 

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What is the difference between sabbatical and vacation?

A sabbatical is similar to a vacation, with a few important caveats. 

For one, a sabbatical is much longer. While some employers might have generous PTO policies, they often limit how long you can be away from work for leisure. You may not be paid or may risk losing your job after more than a few consecutive weeks of PTO, even if you have unlimited PTO.

For another, the intention behind each type of leave is different. Vacation time is usually recreational. People often use this time for family events, travel, or leisure.

However, an extended leave offers an opportunity to do something that you wouldn’t be able to do while employed full-time. Due to the typical length of a sabbatical, employees are often able to take on educational or professional development opportunities. These might include working on a book, taking a course, traveling, or any number of other activities.

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10 benefits of employee sabbatical

Employees receive clear benefits from taking time from work, but a day here or there doesn’t always make the impact you’d like. Research indicates that it takes at least three to four days to decompress from work and ease into a vacation. That’s nearly the entire first week of sabbatical leave.

An extended break gives employees much-needed time to decompress. This makes the other benefits of time away from work more accessible. Here are some of the ways that a sabbatical benefits both employees and the organization:

Benefits of sabbatical leave for employees

  • Reduced stress, depression, and anxiety
  • Lower instances of (and ability to recover from) burnout
  • Freedom to pursue other interests, like travel or volunteering
  • Opportunities for skills development
  • Provides time for reflection and Inner Work®

Benefits of sabbatical programs for organizations

  • Improved employee retention
  • Opportunities to train new leaders (succession planning under stress)
  • Increased creativity and innovation
  • A more well-rounded, satisfied workforce
  • Reduces cost of employee turnover

Developing a sabbatical leave policy

Providing a sabbatical leave policy is a valuable benefit. It can enrich your employee experience and pay dividends for your company. It also makes you an attractive choice for prospective talent. 

There are many sabbatical leave policy templates available online. If you’re looking to add a sabbatical policy to your employee benefits, there are some details you should consider before you get started.

What should the policy include?

Review the following eligibility questions with your executives and human resources:

  1. How long must an employee be with the company to qualify for sabbatical leave?
  2. How long is the sabbatical?
  3. Will leave be paid or unpaid? If paid, will employees receive their full salary?
  4. Will their activities be restricted?
  5. Are we requiring them to use their leave for specific purposes or to build work-related skill sets?
  6. Do they have to stay employed with the company for a certain amount of time following their leave?
  7. Will we allow leave to be extended? How long and under what conditions?
  8. How much notice does an employee need to provide before taking sabbatical leave?
  9. Will employees “lose” their sabbatical if not taken by a certain time?
  10. Can the manager or organization refuse a sabbatical, and under what circumstances?

Answering these questions will prepare you to put a thoughtful sabbatical leave policy in place. 

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Examples of companies that offer sabbatical leave

Looking for inspiration? Here are some companies that have successful sabbatical leave policies in place:

Adobe offers a four to six-week sabbatical leave after 5 years of employment (and every five years after).

Paypal gives employees four weeks off for every five years of service.

Deloitte provides two types of sabbaticals. You can take an unpaid one-month leave for any reason. You can also opt for a three to six-month sabbatical for career development and volunteer opportunities at reduced pay.

Patagonia offers up to two months of paid leave for employees to participate in the Environmental Internship Program.

And finally, BetterUp offers a one-month sabbatical after at least five years of employment.

How to prepare for an employee’s sabbatical leave 

How you prepare for an employee's leave will depend on a few factors. First, you’ll need to know how long the employee will be on leave. You’ll also have to plan differently for employees that work directly with clients or that manage other employees.

No matter what, you'll need to determine whether or not you'll need someone to take over that employee's duties while they’re away. Work with their direct manager to decide if it's better to split those responsibilities up among others or hire someone to fill in.

If that employee is a client’s point of contact (for example, an account manager) be sure to leave ample time to introduce the client to their replacement.

Final thoughts

Sabbatical leave isn’t new, but it’s fairly uncommon in the corporate world. But plenty of companies are implementing sabbatical policies with great success. If you’re looking to boost morale, retention, productivity, and engagement at your organization, a sabbatical could be the answer. It provides employees with time to reflect, grow, and remember what they love about what they do.

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Published February 16, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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