Sabbaticals said to reduce burnout, improve worker loyalty
The number of companies offering sabbaticals as an employee benefit has been relatively static for the last several years, but there are several notable examples of organizations outside of academia offering paid sabbaticals for employees at all levels, and not just those in the executive suite.
Thirteen percent of companies grant unpaid sabbaticals and another 5% have a paid sabbatical program, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Employee Benefits Survey. Fortune, meanwhile, reports that about 20% of its 2015 list of 100 Best Companies to Work For offer paid sabbaticals of varying lengths and styles to employees.
It is not surprising to see Adobe, the Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, General Mills and Pricewaterhouse Coopers among the 21 companies on Fortune’s list. But organizations like the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based convenience store chain QuikTrip and The Cheesecake Factory have broken new ground in their industries.
“You don’t typically see companies in retail or hospitality offering cutting edge benefits because sabbaticals are focused on retaining top talent and there is an assumption that these industries are going to experience a significant turnover,” says Ed Yost, HR business partner with SHRM .
The software company Adobe, based in San Jose, Calif., offers U.S. employees a paid sabbatical after five years of employment and every five years thereafter. The first sabbatical is for four weeks and it increases to five weeks after 10 years, maxing out at six weeks after 15 years for subsequent five-year periods.
Eligible employees work at least 24 hours/week and they continue to receive their full salary plus benefits when they are away. “Employees should obtain approval from their manager at least 60 or 90 days in advance, but they can use the leave for any purpose,” says Rosemary Arriada-Keiper, senior director, rewards at Adobe.
The most recent data provided to Fortune reveals that between April 1, 2013 and April 1, 2014, 411 employees took advantage of the benefit. On the Adobe blog, several employees talk about how they spent their sabbatical and how it changed their life.
Craig S., a senior user-researcher in San Francisco, recounts that he spent his sabbatical with his wife and eight-year-old daughter in Switzerland. When he came home, he says finding more balance in his life became a top priority. He bought land in the Sierra Nevada mountains and decided to spend as much time as possible there.
“I also realized that I needed to be strategic and focus on quality work — on what has the highest value to Adobe customers — not on quantity,” he said. “Thinking about that, I feel like I’m now making a greater contribution to the company and doing a better job.”
Catherine Allen, co-author of the book Reboot Your Life, calls sabbaticals “a gift of time to yourself.” She believes employees need at least 12 weeks to detox from work and then have time to really explore prior to the re-entry period in the last few weeks before returning to work. Nevertheless, she recognizes that getting a full three months of job-protected leave may not always be possible.
“Intel was one of the first companies to offer sabbaticals. Employees get two months of paid time off every seven years but they encourage people to save up their vacation so they can take three months,” Allen says.
Perkins Coie LLP
Support staff at the law firm Perkins Coie LLP can also tack accrued PTO and even primary or non-primary caregiver leave on to their two-month paid sabbaticals. The firm’s staff of about 2,300 (1,000 of whom are lawyers) are located in 19 offices across the U.S. and Asia. Partners, exempt and non-exempt employees have been eligible for the program since 1984.
“Eligible attorneys qualify once they have been at the firm for eight years, based on a proprietary points system,” says Darrin Emerick, chief personnel officer at the firm. “Exempt staff are entitled to a sabbatical when they have worked for 10 years. Non-exempt employees can take sabbatical leave after 13 years of service.”
There are no restrictions on employee activities during the sabbatical except they cannot work for pay. “If an employee wanted to, they could work full-time for a non-profit or other organization in an unpaid position. We have people who have done that or gone on missions to underdeveloped countries,” Emerick says.
In 2015, 49 employees went on sabbatical, which Emerick says is about average. Employees can take advantage of the program within six months of their anniversary date and leaves are only deferred if a staff member is involved in a crucial project.
Emerick views the firm’s sabbatical program as an opportunity for attorneys and staff to rejuventate. It has also proved to be a great attraction and retention tool. “People who may have considered leaving the firm for another position have decided to put it off because in a few years they will be eligible for their sabbatical and they don’t want to miss the opportunity,” he says.
Emerick has had one sabbatical already and he is due for another one in two years. “I split my first sabbatical into two one month periods,” he says. “In the initial month I rebuilt a house and in the second month my spouse and I travelled with another couple through Africa.”
“Not one person we spoke to was demoted or penalized for taking the time off. In fact, most of them got promotions.”
Allen says that rejuvenated employees are an important way that organizations benefit from sabbatical programs. “Our research for Reboot Your Life found a strong correlation between creativity, renewed interest in the company and loyalty in employees returning from sabbaticals,” she says. “Also, not one person we spoke to was demoted or penalized for taking the time off. In fact, most of them got promotions.”
Since 2003, the QuikTrip convenience store chain and gasoline marketer has been ranked as one of the best companies to work for in the U.S. The privately held company is based in Tulsa, Okla. and currently has about 20,000 employees at 727 locations in 11 U.S. states.
According to QuikTrip spokesman Mike Thornbrugh, the voluntary employee turnover rate of 8% is one of the lowest in the industry. Furthermore, the company says it has not laid off a single employee since it was founded in 1958.
The incredible loyalty of QuikTrip employees can be attributed to comprehensive training, a great corporate culture and generous total rewards which include a paid sabbatical program. Employees on sabbatical also continue to receive benefits and accrue vacation pay.
“We offer a four-week paid sabbatical to employees after 25 years with the company. Then employees can do it again after 30, 35 and 40 years,” says Thornbrugh. “As a matter of fact, we may have to expand the policy because we have some folks coming up to 45 years.”
He views the sabbatical program as a way to help employees revitalize and reduce burnout. “They can do whatever they want. We turn off their phones and email, take away their badges and say, ‘see you when you get back,’” he says.
Thornbrugh can hardly wait for his own sabbatical coming up in three years. “One person came back and told me, ‘you know I never really had any particular hobbies or passion outside the company. And now I’ve developed some,’” he says.
If sabbaticals are such a win/win for companies and employees, why don’t more organizations offer them?
“I think it’s because the majority of employers emerging from the financial challenges of 2008 and 2009 don’t have a lot of extra bodies around who they can pass on responsibilities to when someone goes on a sabbatical leave for an extended period,” says SHRM’s Yost.
But Allen views a sabbatical program as an exceptional chance for companies to enhance the skills of employees covering for people on leave by cross-training them in other areas. “This provides opportunities for development which makes these employees more flexible and more moveable within the organization,” she says.