The idea of a sabbatical strikes many people as strange. Being able to pause your current work life to explore other aspects of life sounds great, but it just doesn’t seem like a realistic option for anyone building their career, in a key role or at a dynamic company.

And yet, the idea of worker sabbaticals is becoming more popular.

Historically, sabbaticals have existed primarily in higher education. The option for professors to take a year away from teaching every seven to ten years was an important part of their career. For academic thought leaders, a sabbatical isn’t just a break from teaching, it’s a chance for them to explore topics in new areas. This helps professors publish more research and remain at the top of their field—a major benefit to the reputation of the university.

Today, sabbaticals are embraced by other types of individuals and organizations and can look a little different. Of the businesses that offer sabbaticals as a benefit (about 16% of corporations, according to the 2022 Employee Benefits Survey), only a third of them offer paid programs. So, in most cases, sabbatical programs are simply extended unpaid leave.

Goals and Costs

Sabbatical programs are frequently offered as a way to prevent burnout or reward long-term employees for their service. However, sabbaticals also provide a unique way for workers to broaden their experiences and bring new perspectives and insight back to the workplace.

The cost of sabbatical programs depends on how they are run. Obviously, if a sabbatical is paid, the cost will include the employee’s salary (often reduced) and benefits. The other cost (regardless of pay) is the lost productivity, disruption and added stress caused by the temporary absence of a long-term employee.

Sabbaticals Come with Risks

Aside from the costs, many organizations fear the additional risks from sabbatical programs.

The primary concern for most organizations is that the person simply will not return. After all, if a person is given the opportunity to explore a different aspect of themselves while on sabbatical, they may discover they need to make a permanent change to their career.

Another concern is that the sabbatical benefit will simply be used as a long vacation. If a sabbatical is supposed to be an opportunity for personal enrichment and experiences related to the profession, then its use as a prolonged stretch of time off could be interpreted as a misuse of the program.

A third risk for organizations is the chance of a sabbatical contagion—where workers see someone take a sabbatical and then rush to take their own. This could lead to periods of multiple, simultaneous absences that inhibit an organization’s ability to function.

But They Aren’t As Bad As You Might Think

While all those risks are real, they may be less serious than organizations imagine.

The fear that a worker won’t return from a sabbatical is valid, but likely inconsequential. Yes, a person may quit during sabbatical, but they were probably going to leave anyway.

It’s important to recognize that currently, most individuals who take “sabbaticals” simply quit their jobs to pursue their personal goals for a while before finding new work. While some people won’t return from the sabbatical they were offered, others might quit a job they mostly enjoyed because they weren’t offered a way of taking a sabbatical they needed.

Similarly, an employee using a sabbatical as just an extended vacation speaks to a deeper issue with their current job. If a sabbatical is just an escape from work, that person is already burned out. This is particularly true for unpaid sabbaticals. Taking multiple months off work with no goals and no pay means that a person is already willing to be unemployed. It’s not the ideal use of the program, but a sabbatical does give the organization a chance to retain their burned-out workers if they just need a reset.

Finally, the risk of too many people taking sabbaticals at once can be mitigated easily. Avoiding the issue comes down to creating guidelines that prioritize requests and limit how many people can schedule sabbaticals simultaneously. Ultimately, benefit plans who believe in their sabbatical programs should be happy when more people are using them—They just need to plan accordingly.

The Guaranteed Risk

Sabbatical programs can be designed to fit different types of organizations. They can be paid or unpaid; limited to three months or extended for two years, or; taken all at once or allowed to be broken up over time. For many organizations, offering sabbaticals will simply not work. (That’s okay.) For others, sabbaticals may help attract and grow their best employees. (That’s okay, too.) Like all other benefits, an organization needs to evaluate how the program would apply to them specifically.

But some decision should be made. Sabbaticals have long been a benefit that could safely be ignored. Today, it seems the only certain risk is missing out on a benefit that was never even considered. Whether it gets offered or not, there is still value in thinking about it. The growth of this benefit offers organizations the opportunity to take some time and explore a new idea, if only to understand themselves and their workers better.

Jonas Leyrer, CEBS

Favorite Foundation Product:  Financial Skills for Life: an online learning course that apprenticeship programs and companies can offer to their younger workers to ensure they have a foundational knowledge of personal finance and benefits.
Benefits-related Topics That Interest
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In his free time, Jonas enjoys playing board games, running and watching professional soccer matches.

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