How To Give Sabbaticals to Long-Term Employees  


Companies are introducing sabbaticals for long-term employees to use for personal projects that take more time than a vacation affords. Professional development, community service and travel are packed into sabbaticals.

Leave is often awarded in tenure-based increments — one or two weeks for every year of continuous service after five, seven or 10 years of employment. You can tie sabbatical eligibility to performance goals and results. Sometimes, employees in managerial and professional roles can also decide to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Are sabbaticals right for your company? Consider how they'll differ from the paid time off you already offer. PTO follows a specific formula, like two weeks' vacation after the first year of employment. Time covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act or a leave of absence is often unpaid.

Why you should do it

Sabbaticals are a big draw for recruiting and retaining talent. Programs were pioneered at fast-paced, high-stress tech firms with a need to combat burnout. Time off can be offered as a reward for long-term employees, resetting work patterns, especially in a work-from-home setting where employees need to get away from their desks. What would such a program look like at your firm? You'd definitely want to:

  • Establish rules — criteria and conditions that differentiate a sabbatical from other types of leave.
  • Seek guidance from professionals with expertise in employment law in your state and locality since there are no regulations and little case law regarding sabbaticals currently.

You allow your employees to recharge their physical and mental batteries, experiencing something meaningful that lets them return to work with a fresh, more creative perspective or new skills. But what's the downside?

  • Cost and administrative difficulties — challenges for health coverage and other benefits. How long are benefits intact while the employee is on leave? Who pays the premiums? Might the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act kick in?
  • Emotional disconnect from the company, which depends on the employee and the duration.
  • Temptation not to return to the job, unless program eligibility is contingent on their return.

How can you make the most of coverage opportunities? When managed thoughtfully, coverage can offer important development for employees who step into new roles, handling specific responsibilities temporarily. Employees can leverage this experience to prepare for new positions while you use it for cross-training. Tenured employees' best practices can be used to educate the rest of the team.

Some of the drawbacks

The flip side of offering sabbaticals can be decreased productivity, as work shifts can create resentment among employees doing extra work to cover. You should also consider:

  • The application and approval process. You may decide that employees must take the sabbatical for the entire month at once within two years of becoming eligible in order to better coordinate absences and prevent shortages created when too many employees want to take their sabbatical simultaneously.
  • How long your employees will be gone.
  • How often a sabbatical can be taken.
  • Whether the sabbatical can be paired with other types of leave, like the FMLA or PTO. (You can tweak your personal leave of absence policy to create the structure for sabbaticals.)
  • Whether the program is open to all employees or only certain ones, like upper management.
  • Whether you want to place limits on employees' contact with the office during the sabbatical, since the idea is to completely unwind and disconnect.
  • Whether you want to specify that a sabbatical can't be taken by an employee to work for your competition.

You'll weigh employees' ability to come back with better focus and more expertise against any inconvenience or expense. Be prepared if an employee returns to work with a different set of priorities, having reevaluated their career and personal life. Sabbatical takers usually describe experiences of self-discovery and the ability to showcase hidden talents.

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