Sabbaticals are companies’ latest weapon against the Great Resignation

Yes, it’s come to this. Employers have gotten so eager to attract and retain talent that they’re increasingly offering workers what looks like a counterproductive benefit: not working.

We’re talking about sabbaticals. Whether they’re paid or unpaid, a four-week break or a three-month idyll, a growing number of companies are offering extended leave to reward long-term employees before they burn out and quit.

Sabbaticals have long been a feature of academia, of course, as universities gave professors time off from teaching so they could research, write, and publish, publish, publish. In recent decades, the sabbatical was adopted by industries such as law, tech, and management consulting where the long hours and frantic pace can fry employees alive. Among the list of employers who offer some form of the break (each with their own nuances): Patagonia, Adobe, Genentech, and McDonald’s. Still, as of 2019, according to the most recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 11% of employers offered an unpaid sabbatical program, and just 5% offered sabbaticals with pay.

Now, spurred by the Great Resignation, sabbaticals are going mainstream. Employers leading the charge range from Goldman Sachs, which last fall started offering six weeks of unpaid leave to employees with 15 years of service, to the City of Paynesville, Minn., police department, which is offering a month’s paid leave to its officers.

Among the most notable is Citi, which in early 2021 launched a 12-week sabbatical program for all North American employees with five years of service. Those who participate will receive 25% of their base pay. Patricia Gould, Citi’s global head of Total Rewards, says that since the program launched, more than 200 employees took the time off, often for education or travel. “We’re thrilled to see them return to work more energized and engaged as a result,” she says.

Other employers, dealing with record turnover levels, will be keeping a close eye on these experiments, says Roselyn Feinsod, a principal in Ernst & Young’s People Advisory Services practice—and weighing them against other popular perks such as flexible hours and unlimited time off. If not given more flexibility, “more than half of employees say they will quit,” she notes, citing her firm’s June 2021 survey.

Some employers that have been offering sabbaticals for years sing their praises. Health care provider One Medical, for example, has given employees with five years of service a month’s paid leave since 2013, says chief people officer Christine Morehead. Not surprisingly, almost everyone eligible takes advantage of the perk, with folks taking time off to herd wild horses across Iceland, teach English in Vietnam, or just stay home to learn a craft. Employees can use the time however they please, but are encouraged to try something new, says Morehead: “It helps you grow both on the personal and professional side to say, ‘I can take on these risks. I’ve accomplished something I wasn’t sure I could do.’”

While some companies reserve sabbaticals for top executives, One Medical offers the program to everyone from staff doctors to front desk employees. This guards against folks feeling resentful when filling in for a colleague on leave. “They’re happy to do that, because they know at some point, they’re going be eligible for their own sabbatical,” says Morehead.

It’s best to offer a universal sabbatical program if possible, says Linda Villalobos, HR consultant with Insperity. “And it’s probably easier to cover for the receptionist than the chief science officer.”

If a company is so small, however, that one employee’s sabbatical creates big-time stress for everyone left behind, it’s better to wait until the organization grows to the point where extended-leave gaps can be covered gracefully. “To pull a key player out of a small company for that length of time is something to consider carefully,” says Villalobos. “Can you really cover that job and not be calling them while they’re on their Zen retreat?”

Some employers offering sabbaticals say the perk’s benefits extend far beyond giving loyal employees a needed break—they strengthen the entire company. Ken Kortas, a partner at Wipfli, a national accounting and consulting firm based in Milwaukee, says that giving executives time off helps ensure the company’s clients are loyal to the firm rather than individual partners.

Before he took his own six-week sabbatical last year—a road trip with his wife and dog Zora—the 56-year-old executive, who heads the firm’s 500-employee management and technology consulting practice, spent months preparing both his staff and clients for his absence, empowering those working under him to make client and project approvals, for instance.

His staffers learned new skills while his clients got connected to other partners at the firm, strengthening the client-company bond, he says.

An unexpected bonus: “When I came back from sabbatical, the things I had delegated I didn’t necessarily take back,” says Kortas. Now that the folks working under him take more responsibility for day-to-day operations, he can focus more on higher-level projects, like buying out smaller firms.  

Not everyone returns from a sabbatical refreshed and ready for new challenges, of course. Just as a sabbatical can reveal a company’s overdependency on certain staffers, it can also show an employee that it’s time to make a broader change.

In interviews with more than 200 professionals who took extended time off, and in later surveys with employers, DJ DiDonna, founder of research firm the Sabbatical Project, found that roughly 20% never come back. The long break gave the person the time and space to question their work identity, satisfaction, and job fit. Some found jobs with other companies. Others pursued new careers or even launched their own business. “They gained new insights about themselves and what mattered to them,” he says.

The wake-up call prompted by a sabbatical needn’t lead to a breakup, however. The employee’s new awareness can spur a frank conversation about how he or she might better serve the company, and vice versa. “There has been a burnout and disengagement crisis,” says DiDonna of the current workplace scene. “You don’t want to keep disengaged, fatigued, burned-out employees—you want to help them find a role that’s working better for them.”

Some say corporate America’s flirtation with sabbaticals will end as soon as employment rates fall and employers regain the upper hand. But Morehead at One Medical believes that any employer willing to give sabbaticals a try will retain the program even when the tables have turned. “The ROI,” she says, “will be there.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the launch timing of Citi’s sabbatical program. It was started in early 2021.

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