What is Sabbatical leave in the workplace?

A quick summary:

  1. What is sabbatical leave and are they important?
  2. Is sabbatical leave paid for employees?
  3. Can employees work during leave?
  4. Does every company offer sabbatical leave?
  5. How long does sabbatical leave typically last?
  6. Sabbatical leave rules to consider
  7. Our final thoughts on sabbatical leave in the workplace

Sabbatical leave isn’t a new concept, it’s just not a popular one. But in a working world burdened by burnout and stress, it could be the solution companies need. The question is, do you really understand the ins and outs of sabbatical leave?

When we think back to the global pandemic, there were mixed feelings about furlough. A period of time in which millions of employees had to step back from their roles, and sometimes on a reduced wage. Some loved it, others not so much.

Regardless, it’s possibly the closest many have been to taking sabbatical leave — and that’s unlikely to change. According to an SHRM survey of its members, 11% of employers offered unpaid sabbatical leave, whilst only 5% offered it with pay.

The statistics don’t lie. Employers aren’t really offering sabbatical leave as an incentive. But that shouldn’t be too surprising, given the nature of this type of leave. However, this guide to sabbatical leave is all about understanding what is and whether you should consider it for your company.

Who knows? It might be a game-changer in retaining your longest-serving talent, attracting new hires and supporting employees through times of heightened stress. Without further ado, let’s jump right into things!

What is sabbatical leave?

Sabbatical leave refers to an extended break from work, allowing an employee to step back from their responsibilities for anywhere between a month to an entire year. This means people can focus on themselves without the worry of falling behind at work.

An employer will often fill a role temporarily until they return or split the duties amongst existing team members. Sabbatical leave is usually given to longstanding employees as a reward for their unwavering commitment to the company over the years.

Whilst it’s not the most common fringe benefit, it is definitely an attractive one for employees who have remained loyal to your company. That said, it does have its positives and negatives, as you can imagine.

Below, we’ve listed some of the benefits of sabbatical leave that you should think about when weighing up your options about this incentive:

  • Reduces the chances of employee burnout
  • Lower levels of employee stress and anxiety
  • Opportunity to chase personal goals and ambitions
  • The chance to develop new skills and talents
  • Improved employee experience
  • An attractive incentive for candidates

As for the negatives of sabbatical leave, there are a few you must consider as a people operations manager:

  • Absent employees could mean unfulfilled duties
  • Loss/lack of talent within your organisation
  • The possibility of employees not returning after sabbatical leave
  • Hindered company growth

Now that we’ve explored what sabbatical leave is and the pros and cons, let’s focus our attention on another frequently asked question…

annual leave and sabbatical leave comparison
Annual leave vs sabbatical leave

Is sabbatical leave paid?

Unfortunately, most companies do not offer paid sabbatical leave. This is because the length of a sabbatical leave can range from one month to one year, which can cost an employer thousands in compensation.

For example, if an employee's annual salary is £55,000 per year, a company will still have to pay a monthly salary, plus the taxes involved in employment. This just isn’t feasible for most organisations.

That said, some organisations do offer paid sabbatical leave. We discovered that companies such as Deloitte, PayPal, Buffer and Adobe all offer some form of paid or part-paid sabbatical leave.

Ultimately, paid sabbatical leave packages are few and far between, as are unpaid programs. Our advice to employers is to start by offering unpaid sabbatical leave. This makes the idea a bit more appealing from a business perspective.

Can I work on sabbatical leave?

Legally, there’s nothing stopping an employee from working during sabbatical leave. However, it may be written in a company’s sabbatical leave policy that employees mustn’t work during a sabbatical.

This might be due to an intention to fill a role temporarily, or the lack of awareness employees may have about projects should they be absent for months at a time. That’s not all, it’s important to spend sabbatical leave focusing on other ambitions and goals.

Employees shouldn’t want to work during a sabbatical, as it provides them with a unique opportunity they’re unlikely to have until retirement. It should be a time to relax and fulfil other needs in life outside of our careers.

Do all companies offer sabbatical leave?

No, not many organisations offer sabbatical leave to employees. Those that do often require more than five years of service before accruing any sabbatical leave. As we’ve touched on above, it’s mostly well-established businesses that have some sort of sabbatical leave policy.

For the majority of employers, it just isn’t a possibility, financially. This shouldn’t dissuade candidates from choosing your company, nor you from choosing an employer. It’s just not such a common benefit, as we’ve already stated.

Bonus tip on sabbatical leave

Read through Buildremote’s guide to companies that offer paid sabbatical leave. There are 72 on this list. If you’re serious about becoming a company that offers sabbatical leave, here’s your chance to learn from the best. If you just want to work for a company that offers this form of leave, this is your sign to research these businesses!

How long is sabbatical leave?

Generally speaking, sabbatical leave is offered by organisations for one to twelve months. Employees can accrue sabbatical leave by staying with an employer for around five to ten years. However, there are some exceptions whereby a company will offer sabbatical leave even earlier.

In the same way that employers offer an additional day of annual leave for each year of service, employees must wait till a milestone of five or ten years to take sabbatical leave. Even then, this is usually only accepted on a case-by-case basis.

Employers should consider offering sabbatical leave within five years. This will give you a competitive edge when recruiting new team members and appeal to existing employees.

Ultimately, the length of sabbatical leave depends on the policies within your organisation. If you work in HR, you’ll likely know about such policies and should circulate them around your company and during job interviews.

two employees chatting near a window
setting sabbatical leave rules

Setting sabbatical leave rules for employees

Now that we’ve covered some of the most common questions around sabbatical leave, let’s look at some of the rules you should set. Think of this section as a guide to developing your own policy.

Make sure to read through each point to gain a better outlook on why it must be considered and how it can influence your overall approach to sabbatical leave. Why not share this guide with your wider HR team for more input and ideas?

Below we’re covering the following points:

  1. Eligibility for sabbatical leave
  2. Duration of a sabbatical
  3. Paid or unpaid leave
  4. Notice required by employees
  5. How often can sabbatical leave be granted
  6. Encouraging employees not to work

Sabbatical leave qualification

First and foremost, you need to know who qualifies for sabbatical leave within your company. Are they aware of this? How will you go forth notifying employees as they become eligible? These might sound like very basic questions, but they're important.

By understanding who qualifies and how you leave out no mistake in awarding sabbatical leave to the wrong people. So, ask yourself, and your wider HR team, who deserves this incentive? Should it be awarded after one year, three or five years?

For most organisations, it’s sensible to provide sabbatical leave after five or more years of service, so maybe start there. However, as we’ve mentioned, it could help to give your company a competitive advantage to offer this form of leave after three years.

a woman working at her laptop with books and notepads
Understanding which employees are eligible for sabbatical leave

Duration of sabbatical

Next up; the duration of the sabbatical. Now that you’ve decided when employees are entitled to this leave, you need to choose how long it lasts. This will vary depending on the kind of business you are and how you operate.

As a general rule of thumb, most companies offer four weeks after five years — that’s the standard choice of sabbatical leave. However, you might want to start at two months or three months, if you’re feeling generous.

Ultimately, decide how long your company can comfortably manage without an employee due to sabbatical leave. If the fort is likely to crumble after eight weeks, it doesn’t make sense to give three months off work as part of a sabbatical.

To pay or not to pay

We’ll keep this brief, as we’ve covered this point already. What you should think about, however, is whether you will offer paid or unpaid sabbatical leave. Now, most companies do not offer paid sabbatical leave.

Therefore, it would help your company’s reputation as an employer massively by offering paid leave. Granted, it isn’t really something small to medium-sized businesses do. But if that’s not you, why not try it?

You might find that by offering paid sabbatical leave, you can retain talent twice as much as you would with unpaid options. It may also mean you can push back the date for which employees can activate sabbatical leave to perhaps 7+ years of service.

All-in-all, we would recommend unpaid leave. It keeps things affordable and makes sabbatical leave more readily available as a benefit for employees.

an employee making notes at work
How much notice should employees give?

Required notice

Now that we’ve covered whether you should include pay or not in your sabbatical leave rules, let’s look at the required notice. This refers to the amount of time an employee must give before going on sabbatical leave.

As we’ve already discussed, sabbatical leave should be requested and considered on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the nature of your business, it may be unwise for employees to take three months off for example during your busiest months.

However, for a more flexible approach to sabbatical leave, set a required notice period for this perk. For instance, if employees know they have to put in their request at least three months before taking sabbatical leave, it gives you enough time to plan.

That’s because you might need to make temporary hires or complete project handovers for other employees. These all take time and careful planning.

Frequency of sabbatical leave requests

We’ve decided how much notice employees must give, now let’s think about how often employees can go on sabbatical leave. After all, if they’re away once a year, it’s going to have drastic consequences for progress and productivity within their role.

Within your sabbatical leave rules, think about adding a clause that prevents employees from taking another sabbatical for at least three or more years. When researching, we found that some companies offer sabbatical leave every five, ten and twenty years.

It’s worth getting a few different opinions on this question, so invite responses from your wider team and other HR professionals that you work with.

Expectations during sabbatical leave

Finally, let’s not forget the expectations that should be drawn up for employees. We’ve said already that employees shouldn’t be working during sabbatical leave. It’s important you encourage this within your team.

The last thing you want is for employees to return still stressed and suffering from burnout — the things sabbatical leave can help quash. This is supposed to be time to focus on themselves, not on work commitments.

Try to outline this in detail so employees are fully aware of the importance of avoiding work projects whilst on sabbatical leave. It might mean asking that they leave work equipment within the office setting. Perhaps silencing work emails.

Have a list of things they can do themselves to prevent working whilst on sabbatical leave. Also, think about how you can promote healthy sabbatical leave as an employer.

Final thoughts on sabbatical leave rules

These sabbatical leave rules above highlight the various considerations that are crucial to a successful policy. They are all just as important as one another.

Whilst it isn’t an exhaustive guide to developing your own policy, it should form the basis for a sabbatical leave program that supports both your business and its workforce.

Other considerations for your sabbatical leave rules should include some of the following listed below.

  • A return to work strategy
  • Request handling for leave
  • Reasons for sabbatical leave requests
  • Communication process during leave

a bucket list of travel destinations

Conclusion on sabbatical leave for employees

Sabbatical leave is an underutilised incentive that could be a game-changer in the modern world of work. As employees suffer poor mental health and burnout, it can be a supportive measure as much as an initiative.

Sabbatical leave encourages a number of positives in your company, including loyalty and commitment. This is especially true if you have a growing workforce that has a lot of existing, longstanding employees.

Knowing they now have access to sabbatical leave may encourage them to stick around even longer. Businesses are tackling multiple uphill battles. Not just poor workplace wellbeing, but retention issues and talent acquisition hurdles. It’s things like sabbatical leave that can help your business tenfold.

As an employee wellbeing platform, we strongly recommend sabbatical leave for certain employees who meet a set criteria. It’s a great opportunity to help people pursue their personal goals and ambitions without leaving your company.

And if they’ve proven to be loyal for at least five years or more, it’s likely you’ll want to keep them around even longer. Hopefully, this thorough guide to sabbatical leave can help you form the basis of your own policy and program for employees.

But it should be known that, alone, a sabbatical leave policy won’t completely revolutionise employee wellbeing. It must be coupled with other initiatives and incentives that drive healthier, happier employees.

That’s precisely why some companies steer away from sabbatical leave, due to its costly investment; an investment that could be spent elsewhere like other wellbeing benefits.

What are your plans? Will sabbatical leave make it into your benefits in the near future? Could it add substantial value to your employee experience?

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