In the past 20 years the popularity of employee sabbaticals has wavered. It peaked somewhere in the early 2000s when a booming economy could support generous leave programs like that of Deloitte’s US division, which at one time was offering staff five years' leave. But leaner economic circumstances may be the perfect time to put sabbatical’s back on the table. Not only as a more attractive option to layoffs, but also to revitalise an increasingly stressed-out workforce.
Depending on the program in place a sabbatical might offer employees an opportunity to learn new skills, apply their skills in a different sector, expand their network or rest and avoid burnout. Sabbaticals can also fit the organisation’s wider organisational culture and support other programs like community engagement and social responsibility.
Many companies who have sabbatical programs have a review process in place to look at the merit of each application.
Some major international companies such as Deloitte offer a choice to pre-approved employees of either a one month unpaid, unrestricted time off or three to six months off to pursue career development or volunteerism at 40% of their base salary.
Others offer employees flexibility to use the time as they wish. Employees at KPMG Canada, for example, can take three weeks to six months unpaid leave with full benefits and they can use the time as they see fit.
Kristy Carscallen, CHRO for KPMG Canada says the organisation implemented its sabbatical program to become a more attractive employer.
"We see it as a win-win," she says. "We were looking to provide our employees with some additional time to pursue something of interest to them and also to keep them engaged, to decrease attrition rates so we’re not losing people because of a short term pursuit."
Where other companies have reported employees using sabbatical leave to look for another position, Carscallen says she hasn’t seen it herself.
“Most people who take a sabbatical want the time off to do something for themselves,” she says. “Usually if you’re taking the time off it’s with purpose.”
Carscallen also says while there is some initial work to ensure the individual on sabbatical’s workload is covered, it is manageable and other employees often see it as an opportunity for their own career.
Better than layoffs?:
In 2001 Accenture implemented a sabbatical program during particularly lean times. Employees could take up to 12 months leave with 20% of pay. A whopping 2,000 employees volunteered for the program, a move that, the company has said, helped it avoid layoffs.
KPMG also introduced sabbaticals as a cost saving measure in 2009, offering employees full health benefits along with 20% of their salary.
Having a formal review process in place to capture the learning is integral to a good sabbatical program design. Organisations often require employees returning from sabbatical to fill out an assessment, or share with staff via email reports or presentations.
Carscallen says it is also important to be transparent when returning an employee who has been on sabbatical leave to work.
“You need to ensure they know what they’re coming back to,” she says.