Sabbaticals Are a Valuable Recruiting, Retention Perk for Some Employers
Workspan Daily
August 11, 2023
Key Takeaways

  • Sabbaticals as a benefit are on the rise. As more employers offer sabbaticals to employees, organizations are working to determine how to compensate them.  
  • Paid sabbaticals in practice. At Collabora, a global private company headquartered in Cambridge, UK that provides open-source consultancy, training and products to employers, the company’s sabbaticals are six weeks long and are paid. 
  • Sabbaticals are tenured based. Sabbaticals are typically not accessible to the entire workforce, as they require some level of tenure. Due to this, there are a myriad of factors that go into implementation, from program design and policy creation to communication and administration of the benefit.  
  • A valuable recruitment and retention tool. Paid sabbaticals have served as a valuable recruitment and retention tool for Collabora, as it not only adds to the well-being of employees, but it promotes development of other employees who are required to step up in the absence of more-tenured employees on sabbaticals.  

While the notion of taking a sabbatical from work is hardly new, the concept of giving employees some extended time off — apart from vacation or sick leave — has become a bit more attractive as employers look to add a new incentive to their benefits package. 

Considering that since a sabbatical can be utilized as a stress-reducing benefit, it’s not surprising that sabbaticals have gained some traction in a post-pandemic world. 

Recent WorldatWork research, for instance, showed that interest in sabbaticals has grown among employers. The “2022 Inventory of Total Rewards Programs and Practices” report found that about 10% of the 990 organizations surveyed offered employees paid sabbaticals (it was 8% in 2016). Also, 27% offered unpaid sabbaticals (in 2016, it was 18%). 

Alex Henry, group benefits leader at WTW, said that based on his firm’s research, there has been a recent uptick in the prevalence of sabbatical leave as employers struggle to attract and retain key talent.  

According to WTW’s “2022 Best Practices in Healthcare Survey,” 15% of the 455 employers surveyed offered a sabbatical leave and another 12% of employers were considering implementing this benefit over the next two years. Of the companies that offer sabbatical leaves: 30% provide full income replacement, 17% provide partial pay and 54% do not provide any income replacement during the sabbatical. 

“When offered, this benefit is typically provided to all full-time exempt employees in good standing with the company,” Henry said. 

Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner, health and benefits at Mercer, said sabbaticals come in several varieties: 

  • Some offer employees an extended amount of paid time off after long service (e.g., six months off at full pay after 20 years of service). 
  • Some sabbaticals are triggered simply by meeting a certain service requirement.  
  • Some offer employees a short amount of time after relatively brief service (e.g., two weeks off after three years of service).  
  • Some are triggered both by a service requirement and some other criteria, such as using the time off for charity work or to learn a new skill.  

“While all of these leave policies fall under the broad heading of sabbaticals, each is targeted at different segments of the employee population with varying objectives,” Fuerstenberg said.  

He added that while the most common sabbaticals come with full pay or no pay at all, there are some companies with sabbaticals that offer employees time off at partial pay.  

“When employees use a sabbatical at less than full pay, they may be able to use accrued but unused PTO to supplement sabbatical pay,” Fuerstenberg said.  

Sabbatical Pay in Practice  

At Collabora, a global private company headquartered in Cambridge, UK that provides open-source consultancy, training and products to employers, the company’s sabbaticals are six weeks long and are paid.  

“Every Collaboran has access to this benefit — unless they have a current warning or are in performance management,” said Deirdre Daly, global salary and reward specialist at Collabora. “They can apply for sabbatical once they have five years of service and must give six months’ notice. They are again eligible to apply five years after their return from sabbatical.” 

In her role, administrative tasks include tracking the dates of last sabbatical and start date for eligibility to apply, verifying the six months’ notice and securing approval for the dates. The sabbatical also has to be discussed with the manager and a plan put in place for cover during the six weeks. Finally, letters setting out the dates are issued to confirm the sabbatical has been approved. 

“Take up [usage] is about 70%,” Daly said, adding that sabbaticals give people the opportunity to take a longer break, recharge, pursue other interests and spend time with their family. And it helps avoid burnout. “Generally, they are used for travel or family time. In my case, I'm planning a wedding and long honeymoon for my sabbatical in a couple of years,” she said. 

How to Implement a Sabbatical Program  

WTW’s Henry said like most company-sponsored leaves, a lot goes into implementing a sabbatical program, from program design and policy creation to communication and administration of the benefit.  

“As sabbaticals are tenure-based, one of the most important implementation considerations is how to account for the tenure of existing employees,” he said. “Honoring all prior service could result in workforce availability issues, while not honoring any prior service could negatively impact the reception of the program by existing employees.”   

Henry added that another unique aspect of sabbatical programs is that there are nuanced accounting requirements that need to be considered by employers.  

“For these reasons, it is important to work with an industry expert that understands the unique implementation and accounting requirements of these programs,” he said 

Mercer’s Fuerstenberg said the utilization of sabbaticals varies as widely as the policies themselves.  

“Clearly, usage is going to be based on two main factors — the number of employees who qualify for the sabbatical and the percentage of those who qualify who use it,” he said. “If the eligibility bar is high, the number who qualify — and use it — will inevitably be low.” 

Putting aside the eligibility criteria, usage of sabbaticals after earning the benefit depends on a number of factors, Fuerstenberg added. 

According to Fuerstenberg, a key success factor is how HR and local managers encourage employees to take sabbaticals. Chances are that the employees most at risk of burning out are those least likely to take a sabbatical.  

“If HR or the employee’s people manager does not tap him/her on the shoulder and encourage the employee to take the sabbatical, it may never happen,” he said. “We’ve seen this happen with a few clients — the employees most in need of taking sabbaticals (and potentially the employees for whom the policy was built) are the ones most resistant to using it. Unless they are coached or encouraged to use the policy, it won’t be used.” 

If implemented and communicated properly, sabbaticals can be a key recruiting and retention tool, Daly said.  

“Job candidates love the idea,” she said. “We are, as a company, very focused on well-being; we have lots of resources to help people and paid sabbaticals is one of those resources.” 

While Daly noted that sabbaticals are not a “cure-all for burnout,” they do give people a long break to do whatever they want without having to worry about finances.  

“The handover when someone goes on sabbatical also allows less experienced workers to step up and ‘stretch’ themselves,” she said. “All in all, it is an important aspect of our benefits program.” 

Editor’s Note: Additional Content 

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