Considering Offering a Sabbatical Program? Explore Your Options

Posted November 13, 2018 by Justworks in Benefits and Perks
Of the many employee benefits available to offer employees, sabbaticals are becoming increasingly popular. Learn why employees and employers love them, and get tips to create a sabbatical policy.

There are so many employee benefits that businesses can offer to attract and retain talent, particularly of in-demand Millennials. The list is long, and we’ve covered lots of them before on this blog.

But one of these employee benefits that’s gaining popularity is the sabbatical. No longer limited to academia, sabbaticals have taken hold in the tech community, and increasingly among other types of companies as well.

According to a SHRM report, nearly 17% of employers in 2017 said they offered either paid or unpaid sabbaticals. That’s far more than the mere 2% who offer unlimited paid vacation time — a trendy employee benefit that arguably gets more buzz.

So what’s the big deal with sabbaticals, and should you consider offering this employee benefit to your team? Let’s take a look at the details.

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What Is a Sabbatical?

Typically, a sabbatical is a leave from work granted by the employer for a set amount of time — generally a period of weeks or months — after which the employee returns to their regular job. The idea is that an employee take that time away from the office to pursue personal or professional growth, to reset, and generally get a fresh experience or perspective.

Sabbaticals are a great way to reward loyal, long-tenured employees. It also helps people avoid burnout by getting the chance to get away from the typical stresses of work. The end result is a benefit to the employee, and ultimately, to your organization as well.

Related Article: Offering Employee Benefits in a Multigenerational Workplace

The Benefits of a Sabbatical

There has been some research done on the benefits of sabbaticals that helps to show why they’re worth considering. Since sabbaticals originated in the academic world, one of the largest studies was done on professors. The main takeaway that the researchers found was that sabbaticals do have the intended effects: Those who took sabbatical leave experienced decreased stress, and increased well-being overall. While this study focused on academics, it’s clear the impacts of a sabbatical could apply to employees in most any industry.

And the benefits go beyond the employee taking the sabbatical. The team members who fill in for that person can benefit, too. According to the Harvard Business Review, when leaders took sabbatical, they reported that the people who filled in for them during their leave were more effective and responsible employees when the sabbatical takers came back.

Sabbaticals really do seem to have a profound positive impact on employees, by lowering stress and improving well-being.

Justworks’ own Chris Goodmacher, Senior New Product Development Manager, is one case study that backs up the research. As the first member of the Justworks team to take a sabbatical, he was a bit of a guinea pig for the program. But when asked how he felt returning after his leave, his answer was a simple one: “extremely happy.”

“The best thing about the sabbatical was honestly completely disconnecting from work,” Chris said. “One nice aspect of the sabbatical was it was coincidentally timed with me transitioning to a completely different role at the company, so there was really no baggage from my previous role for me to worry or even think about.”

Another perk for Chris was that for security reasons, his access to his Justworks email and Slack was disabled. He couldn’t check on work even if he wanted to. “Disconnecting completely was wonderfully freeing,” he said.

In short, sabbaticals really do seem to have a profound positive impact on employees, by lowering stress and improving well-being. Plus they help the team as a whole to gain new leadership skills and experience by filling in for a sabbatical taker. That’s a pretty good return on investment for an employer!

Related Article: The Bottom Line: Employee Happiness is Good for Business

Structuring a Sabbatical Policy

So you’re sold on the idea of a sabbatical, but how do you create a policy around this benefit? Sabbaticals can be set up basically any way an employer wants. In order to figure out the best policy for your team, there are some important questions you’ll want to answer to shape your sabbatical program:

  • How does an employee become eligible for sabbatical?

Typically, companies require that an employee work at the company for a certain amount of time, say five years.

  • Are all roles or levels eligible, or only certain ones?

For example, you could make the program available to just employees in certain positions (executives and managers, for instance).

  • Once they’re eligible, how long does the employee have to take the sabbatical?
  • How long will the sabbatical leave be?
  • Will you offer the employee sabbatical at full pay, partial pay/stipend, or unpaid?

Bear in mind that without some kind of pay, fewer people will be able to take advantage of the program and reap the benefits.

  • What happens if the employee decides not to come back after their sabbatical?

Some companies require the employee to pay back any salary they earned during their sabbatical in these cases.

  • How will you count the employee’s time on sabbatical in their record?

For instance, will the leave count toward their years of service, or in determining employee seniority and eligibility for salary increases?

Sabbatical at Justworks (and Beyond)

Justworks’ CEO, Isaac Oates, decided a couple of years ago to offer a sabbatical policy to employees. The inspiration came from his previous experience at Amazon, where he recalled people really looking forward to their sabbatical and valuing their time off.

“It seemed like it gave people an opportunity to evaluate how they wanted to spend their time and energy going forward,” Isaac said. “I think it’s important to create space for that kind of thinking.”

At Justworks, full-time employees in good standing are eligible for sabbatical if they’ve been continually employed at the company for five years. Employees can take up to three months without base pay, but with a monthly stipend. Again, that’s just one example, and many other companies that offer sabbatical programs utilize a variety of strategies and structures to suit their business.

If you’re considering implementing a sabbatical policy at your company, Isaac’s advice is, simply, do it! “Americans work hard. When you create space for other things, you are giving someone a real gift,” he said.

At the end of the day, a sabbatical program might not be feasible for your business. It may be worthwhile to think back to the ultimate goal of giving people the space to explore things beyond work. Consider other ways you could provide similar value to attract and retain talent. Maybe you revisit your vacation policy, or develop another creative solution that fits your team and your budget.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.