Key Considerations for Employers When Offering Sabbatical Leave

Both the Employer and Employees Benefit From Sabbatical Leave Programs

Parents on sabbatical leave spending time with their daughter watching a video on a laptop.

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The word sabbatical comes from the Old Testament practice of letting fields lie fallow every seven years. It was like a sabbath, a day off that lasted for an entire year.

Companies that offer sabbatical leaves now don’t generally give you a year off to let your brain (your modern-day fields) rest, but they do allow for more time off than you’d get for a regular vacation.

While United States law doesn’t require any vacation time, most companies offer it, with people new to the workforce averaging 11 days per year, and move up to 17 or more after 10 years of experience. But, what if you got six weeks or more vacation, all in one lump? That’s what is known as sabbatical leave.

Who Offers Sabbatical Leave?

Surprisingly, many companies in a wide variety of industries offer employees sabbatical leave during which they aren’t expected to even check their email. From restaurant Cheesecake Factory to tech giant Intel, employees get the time off to do what they want to do.

University and College professors often have the opportunity to take sabbatical leave. The nature of their work allows them to take a full semester off without disrupting their colleagues too much. Although, many professors on sabbatical leave are expected to do work related to their field. They just do not have to show up in the classroom. While that definitely offers a break of sorts, it’s not a full break.

Who Benefits From Sabbatical Leave?

Of course, the person who gets to take six weeks off in a row gets a lovely break, but according to a study by TSNE MissionWorks the whole company can benefit from a leader’s sabbatical leave. David Burkus wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the time away allowed people to “generate new ideas for innovating in the organization and helped them gain greater confidence in themselves as leaders.”

That is a great thing, but the research found something else as well; those who filled in while the boss was away on a sabbatical leave, gained a variety of skills while the boss was out. They often exceeded expectations, which helped the business in the long run.

Because sabbatical leaves are so helpful for developing talent, companies should also start looking at the benefits of maternity and paternity leave, not just for the new parents, but for people who are allowed the opportunity to grow and stretch their skills. Just like with a sabbatical, you have plenty of notice before a baby comes.

While the new parents aren’t getting the refreshing mind boost they’d receive on true sabbatical leave, those who take over their duties are. Looking at parental leave as a benefit rather than a burden can also change how organizations approach it.

What Should Your Sabbatical Leave Program Look Like?

Each company has different needs, so there isn’t a one size fits all solution for a sabbatical leave program. But think about the following issues as you’re developing your policy.

  • How long does an employee need to work before being eligible for a sabbatical leave? Many companies require five years or more. You most likely want to make it part of your retention strategy. Think about whether paid time off for such issues as parental leave or a long-term illness will continue to accrue time.
  • How long does the employee have to take the sabbatical after gaining eligibility? To have an effective leave program, it’s better if the employee has time to prepare and plan. This is helpful to the company and the employee. How long do you give the employee before they lose the days? One year? Three? Many employers require the use of the sabbatical leave before the employee becomes eligible for the next sabbatical.
  • How often are your employees able to take a sabbatical leave? Every five years, every ten years? Do you want to make them recurring?
  • Are all employees eligible, or only people in certain roles? Is this a perk for executives only, or are administrative assistants eligible as well? Keep in mind that you may experience benefits for people at all levels of your organization. But if a sabbatical leave is limited to a certain set of people, does the clock towards eligibility start when they enter a sabbatical leave-eligible position, or when they were hired?
  • Does the employee have to repay their sabbatical salary if they don’t come back to work after the sabbatical leave? What if they leave within six months? Do you want to require partial repayment? The sabbatical leave is a bonus to the employee, but it needs to serve the business as well. No business benefit exists in a situation where you give an employee six weeks off work with no obligation to come back. (For example, many tuition assistance programs have a length of employment requirement contingency.)
  • Will your sabbatical leave count toward the employee's years of service and when you determine employee seniority and eligibility for salary increases.
  • Is the sabbatical leave provided at full pay or partial pay? If the latter, how much? Keep in mind that without a paycheck, very few people will take advantage of this perk.

Sabbatical leave is an excellent way to give employees a break and a reward for their hard work and years of service. Just like farm fields that need a rest, employee brains do need some time to relax as well. A sabbatical leave may serve as your answer about how you can support employee rest.

However, if a sabbatical leave program won’t work well for your company, you may wish to re-evaluate your vacation policy to ensure that your employees do get smaller breaks. It’s great for everyone when employees have some time away.