A well-thought-out sabbatical leave policy can be beneficial to employees and businesses alike.

Productive employees are an invaluable resource. However, managing organizational expectations while juggling life outside the office can be stressful for workers. Forward-thinking businesses recognize that tension and seek to provide benefits that allow employees to balance their personal lives and remain productive. One way businesses can support this objective is through having a sabbatical leave policy.

While still a rare benefit outside of academia — according to an Employee Benefits report by the Society for Human Resource Management, only about 17 percent of businesses had a paid or unpaid sabbatical leave policy in 2017 — it's one that's gaining a lot of attention. Sabbaticals are usually offered to employees that have been with an organization for a certain number of years, and occupy key roles. Most are unpaid, although some organizations offer pay, either in part or full.

No matter its design, a sabbatical leave policy should be seriously considered as part of an organization's overall employee retention strategy.

The length of a sabbatical varies, but typically runs for several months or up to a year. Deloitte, a multinational professional services firm, provides two sabbatical programs: an unpaid one-month leave; and a three- to six-month program where qualifying employees receive 40 percent of their pre-sabbatical salary. After 15 years of service with REI (an outdoor gear and clothing company), eligible employees earn a consecutive four-week, paid sabbatical.

A sabbatical leave policy, as part of a package of benefits that's suited to an organization's employee population, can have numerous benefits. It can help recognize qualified employees for their contribution to the business. Sabbaticals also allow qualified staff to recharge, which can mean anything from traveling to exploring personal or professional growth opportunities that can be used when that employee returns to work. This could result in an increase in an organization's retention rate.

As an example, designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his design studio for 12 months every seven years. He says that this sabbatical period allows him to explore ideas of interest, as well as remain engaged in his design work once he reopens his studio.

Before deciding on whether to implement a sabbatical leave policy, an organization should take several factors into consideration. Since this benefit isn't legally mandated, there is no standard format by which sabbatical leaves are structured. Therefore, criteria that businesses may use to determine eligibility — as well as how to request leave and on what basis it shall be approved — must be clearly defined, applied consistently and properly managed.

Other matters to consider include:

  • Employment/Benefits status. Unlike job protections provided under legislation such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), firms offering sabbatical leave are under no obligation to guarantee continuation of employment or benefits under the same terms of condition as if the eligible staff member didn't take a sabbatical. Firms will need to make clear what changes for an employee should they choose to take a sabbatical. For example, will a qualifying employee's job be guaranteed upon return? How will paid time-off eligibility (e.g., accrual of vacation time) be handled during the sabbatical period? If an employee is terminated during their sabbatical, what obligations does the organization have to that former employee (e.g., vacation payout, continuation of health insurance benefits). To answer these questions, in addition to consulting internally on what's appropriate considering the organization's culture and values, it will be critical to engage legal counsel. This way, a business can balance its wish to provide a great benefit without violating local, state or federal guidelines.
  • Availability. Should it be available to all staff, or for certain roles only? If the latter, how do you decide which job positions should be eligible for leave? How many staff members may be out on sabbatical at any given time? This last question is particularly important for small organizations, or in team-focused environments. Figuring out how to arrange work to be done where one or more members may be on leave can help prevent productivity loss.
  • Compensation. Will the sabbatical be paid or unpaid? If it will be paid, how much of a staff member's salary will be provided, and for how long? If it will be unpaid or partially paid, will eligible staff be able to utilize available paid time off?
  • Sabbatical period. Will a sabbatical leave policy be for a specific length, or will qualified staff have flexibility?

To construct and roll out an appropriate sabbatical leave policy, it helps to know the targeted employee population. Having the right method to introduce, educate and inform employees about the policy will be important. Lastly, effective communication allows an organization's workforce to be informed about, and able to take advantage of, the sabbatical leave policy that reaps benefits for them and the business.

A sabbatical leave policy can provide eligible employees a chance to recharge, an opportunity for other colleagues to grow in one's absence and improve the organization's bottom line. As with any benefit, the creation and implementation of it can be challenging. But the rewards for both the organization, as well as the employee, may be worth the effort.

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