Sabbaticals: considerations for employers and employees

Among the benefits desired by professionals, sabbaticals are often seen as nice-to-have but not a dealbreaker. This is because few jobseekers envisage themselves serving a business long enough to be able to claim this loyalty benefit – but here’s why it might just be the best benefit of all.

6 mins read
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11 Apr, 2024

The early years in a job are filled with learning: new skills, continued development and greater challenges along the way. For those lucky enough to love what they do in a workplace that meets their needs, years fly by – with some companies rewarding continuous long service or achievement with several weeks or months of paid sabbatical leave.

What is sabbatical leave?

Sabbatical leave used to be more commonly associated with academic professions, with educators traditionally granted a period of paid time off – usually one year – for further study or research. Similar opportunities have since filtered into other lines of work, with paid, part-paid and unpaid options, but are offered by relatively few employers across the world.

Unlike career breaks, sabbaticals mean the work contract continues, giving employees freedom to explore without penalty. There’s no set format but it is recommended employers offer the leave on equal terms for everyone in the business rather than using an ad hoc system. A dedicated sabbatical policy can outline terms for both full-time and part-time employees to prevent misunderstandings and protect against discrimination and other claims – fairness and transparency are key.

According to The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD): “Historically sabbaticals have been a benefit for employees. They are agreed for a variety of reasons including rewarding long service, travel, research or acquiring new skills, voluntary work, alleviating stress and burn out or to take care of health. In current times the motivation behind sabbaticals may be more for the employer’s benefit to provide alternatives to redundancy.”

With greater focus on employee mental health and wellbeing, meaningful benefits such as sabbaticals can also encourage a member of staff to spend longer with the business.

Having found their niche in a team and given the opportunity and resources to achieve and excel, many employees feel valued by the prospect of a morale-boosting sabbatical. What better than a reminder of approaching eligibility for a well-deserved break – usually starting after five years’ service.

How much sabbatical leave should be offered?

There is no law that says a business must offer sabbatical leave, paid or unpaid, but it is increasingly being introduced to attract jobseekers in competitive industries.

Although the traditional year out enjoyed by academics is unheard of for most private companies, a more affordable period of four weeks’ paid sabbatical leave is considered fair, rising to six weeks or more after 10 years’ continuous service.

Forward planning is essential to allow managers to reassign the leaver’s workload across the team or advertise for temporary help. This may require the employee to give at least six months’ notice but could well be longer depending on the seniority of the role.

During the leave, the employee may receive full or partial pay, or no pay at all, depending on the company’s sabbatical policy. Some employers may formally request that no other paid work is undertaken during the absence.

As an alternative or an addition to sabbatical leave, companies might choose to grant additional paid annual leave for loyal staff – perhaps five extra days after five years.

What are the benefits of sabbatical leave?

Time out can be an incredibly rewarding experience, and one with lasting benefits for both employer and employee. With the freedom that comes with the extra time off, sabbaticals are ideal for personal development, whether it’s a self-care plan, a period of study, travel or volunteering – the freedom from the 9-5 is ideally meant for discovery as well as relaxation.

Employee benefits

By using the time productively, employees could end up adding value to their role. Here’s a few ideas for how to spend the time:

  • Rest and recharge: A break from the daily grind gives an opportunity to step away from your work-life responsibilities and find out what inspires you.

  • Learning new skills: A sabbatical allows for plenty of free time that can be devoted towards learning new skills or honing existing ones. Whether it’s mastering a language or developing coding know-how, these experiences will enhance your career prospects and help you stand out from the crowd.

  • Greater appreciation: Time out provides an opportunity to reflect on things taken for granted over time, such as our job, relationships, or health.

  • Improved health: A sabbatical gives us the chance to focus on our physical and mental wellbeing by engaging in activities like yoga or meditation. This helps boost productivity levels upon returning to work along with improving overall quality of life.

  • Explore new interests: During a sabbatical, you could take up a hobby you may not have had time for while working. This can be a great way to develop new skills and can even lead to a new career path.

  • Personal development: Focusing on growth through travel, education, or other goals can bring new perspectives to your work when you return.

  • Enhanced creativity and productivity: Stepping away from work can provide a new perspective and channel your interests into projects that could be useful back in the workplace.

  • Eliminate burnout: Many people quit their jobs when they feel exhausted and demotivated through overwork and stress. Time away is a wellbeing solution that means you can retain your job while regaining your mojo.

Employer benefits

Sabbaticals can also provide significant benefits for employers in terms of employee retention and attraction:

  • Retain top talent: Offering sabbaticals can be a powerful tool for retaining workers. Employees who feel valued and supported by their employer are more likely to stay with the company long-term.

  • Improved productivity: Sabbaticals can lead to improved productivity in the long run, with employees returning to work with renewed energy and focus,

  • Cost savings: If an employee takes a sabbatical instead of leaving the company altogether, it can save the employer money in the long run through recruitment and training costs.

  • Enhanced creativity: Employees can explore new interests and ideas, introducing them in their work.

  • Improved employer branding: Companies that prioritise work-life balance and employee wellbeing are more likely to be viewed as desirable places to work.

Returning to work

The hope is that employees return to the workplace refreshed. The break may have brought clarity to their working routine, new skills that could benefit their role, and fresh ideas. The early weeks settling back in are a great time for sharing these ideas and considering how the job may be shaped by the sabbatical experience.

For the employee, a little preparation before the end of their leave can ease any anxiety about the return: catch up on company and industry news, check-in with colleagues, and ask for team updates so it’s not a complete surprise on the first day back.

Work may also seem a little overwhelming at first, with things unlikely to be the same as when the returner left. There might be different tech to get to grips with, new team members and schedules in place. Managers should keep checking in to ensure the returner is coping and not overloaded through this transitional period. Some workplaces provide a structured ‘return to work’ plan to help employees and managers meet their goals.

To encourage and inspire new and existing staff, sabbaticals should be shouted about in job adverts, social media and company websites. The prospect of a break or memory of one may lead to workplace happiness and contentment.

Looking for talented professionals to join your team or seeking a new opportunity? Contact one of our specialist recruitment consultants today.

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