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What Is a Sabbatical Leave Policy & Should You Offer Employees One?

Man on sabbatical typing on his laptop on a retreat

The idea of giving employees a sabbatical leave of absence has been gaining popularity among employers. In addition to combating burnout, sabbaticals in the workplace are another way employers can provide a valuable perk to help attract and retain employees. With stress and exhaustion being some of the primary drivers behind the Great Resignation, sabbaticals can be helpful to both employees and their employers.

There are many ways employers can establish a sabbatical program. Employer sabbatical policies may vary based on length, compensation, and qualifying criteria. The time is ripe to learn if providing employees with sabbatical leave is right for your business. This includes familiarizing yourself with important considerations when establishing your organization's sabbatical program and associated policies.

What Is a Sabbatical? A Definition

Wondering exactly what a sabbatical program is? It's an extended period of time away from work granted to an employee for study, travel, or personal growth. They can be paid or unpaid and range from anywhere between a four-week break to a months-long period away from work.

The ways employees may use their sabbatical leave vary. Someone may use the time to travel while another may seek volunteer opportunities to make a meaningful impact. Others may further their professional development or personal growth by taking classes or engaging in activities that fuel their passions. Participating in an extended retreat or writing a book are other classic examples of how people use their sabbaticals.

What Is the Difference Between Sabbatical and Leave of Absence?

Both a leave of absence and a sabbatical involve extended time away from work, but there are key differences between the two. A leave of absence is for employees who are faced with an atypical circumstance and need extra time to manage it (e.g. childbirth or adoption, military leave, or coping with a severe, acute health condition), and in certain instances may be required by federal/state law.

A sabbatical is time granted to an employee for any number of purposes (e.g., personal, and professional growth). Neither a sabbatical nor a leave of absence is considered a vacation.

Benefits of Offering a Sabbatical

Permitting an employee to be away for an extended stretch of time to increase their productivity may sound counterintuitive, but that's exactly what a sabbatical can accomplish. Taking a break from the daily grind of work-related deadlines, responsibilities, and pressures can help replenish mental energy and restore creativity. Employees who take a sabbatical may gain fresh experiences, perspectives, and skills that can fuel their personal and professional growth.

Sabbaticals can also benefit employers. Employees can return with a higher level of engagement, renewed interest in their work, and a greater sense of well-being. New ideas and professional growth gained from their experiences can be used to improve the business.

In the right situation, advantages can extend to colleagues. When an employee leaves for a sabbatical, their responsibilities must be covered by other team members. This creates an opportunity for other employees to step in and gain valuable experience of their own. Team members who stretch their understanding of various roles also benefit the business by shaping a workforce that is more adaptable and resilient to unexpected challenges.

Sabbaticals carry an HR benefit as well. A sabbatical leave policy can serve as an attractive benefit and help a business stand apart from its competition in its search for talent and retaining employees. Turnover carries a large cost both to the bottom line and to overall employee morale. With its ability to help an employee strengthen a positive attitude and growth mindset, a sabbatical leave policy can play a role in nurturing a positive company culture while potentially reducing attrition-related expenses.

Challenges of Offering a Sabbatical Leave

While there are many benefits to having a sabbatical program, providing one is not without its challenges. An employee needs to figure out how they can afford an extended period of time away from work if their employer’s policy provides for an unpaid sabbatical. When the employee returns, they may initially struggle with finding their workday cadence after so many days away.

For the employer, there are other issues to resolve. Understandably, employees may not welcome the added tasks associated with covering the work of their absent colleague. Employers need to also consider whether those employees risk reduced productivity in their own roles as they shoulder those of their absent team member. Depending on the length of the sabbatical, HR may have to sort out potential compliance implications to benefits coverage, such as health and retirement, as well as employment status if the employee is absent for an extended period. Don't overlook the fact that once a sabbatical policy is established, all the associated rules should be outlined in the employee handbook to ensure clear communication.

Creating Sabbatical Leave Program Rules

There is no one-size-fits-all sabbatical leave policy. Rather, you need to consider the issues and structure a policy with rules that benefit your overall business and employees.

There are numerous issues to explore when establishing sabbatical leave rules. What is your process for evaluating a request for a sabbatical? Do you want an employee to fill out a form and/or communicate with their manager and HR to outline sabbatical goals and objectives? How might you identify an unqualified request for sabbatical leave? How much notice must an employee provide before leaving for their proposed sabbatical? It is critical to outline the specific procedures employees must follow (outside of your published sabbatical leave policy) and ensure consistent enforcement across all employee sabbaticals.

Be sure to specify employee expectations upon completion of the sabbatical. What happens if an employee decides not to return at the end of their sabbatical? What obligations does an employee have to the business during their sabbatical? You may want to include that even though an employee is on sabbatical, they are still expected to adhere to company rules regarding non-disclosure agreements, security and data protection, and non-harassment of other employees.

Sabbatical Leave: Paid or Unpaid?

One of the more pressing questions about sabbaticals is whether they are paid or unpaid. Even with a paid sabbatical, you need to decide if an employee will continue to receive their full pay and benefits or a reduced amount. The ability to pay wages may depend on both the length of the sabbatical and your budget. It's important to consider that without some level of compensation, the option of a sabbatical will preclude those who lack the financial resources to take unpaid time away from work.

Because not all sabbaticals are identical, you can consider basing your paid or unpaid sabbatical leave policy on the activities an employee plans to pursue. For instance, advancing their education in a way that directly benefits the business may merit a fully paid sabbatical, while taking time to travel to fulfill a passion may qualify as one with a lower rate of pay. Another option would be to pay an employee's full compensation for the first month, then reduce it by 25% for each additional month. However, you decide to structure your policy, be sure it's explained in a clear and consistent manner and complies with any applicable wage and hour regulations at the local, state, or federal level.

How Long Is a Sabbatical Leave?

In general, a sabbatical can be any duration of time that is longer than a typical vacation. Bear in mind that not all employees may have the same annual vacation allotment. You can establish a maximum time-off period based on the years of service or review each request on a case-by-case basis. To help avoid any claims of bias or discrimination, it is important to establish a consistent review process that includes criteria to evaluate such requests. In addition to establishing how long a sabbatical is at your organization, you also need to determine the frequency in which an employee can request one.

Who Can Take a Sabbatical?

Because a sabbatical represents a significant amount of trust and investment of time and resources between both employee and employer, your policy should establish who qualifies for one with care. Sabbaticals are often considered a reward for years of dedicated service in good standing. How many years does an employee need to be with your business to be eligible? And do the years of service factor into the length and compensation of the sabbatical?

In determining eligibility, you can use the sabbatical as a powerful retention tool. One strategy would be to analyze average employee tenure and then establish eligibility for sabbatical leave as a reward for longer tenure. For example, if you find that employees in key positions leave after four years of service, you can offer a sabbatical as a reward after five years of continuous employment. Perhaps executive leadership positions receive one after 10 years, but it's a longer sabbatical with full compensation. Consider your options to find the right formula for your business needs.

Should You Offer Sabbatical Leave?

If nurturing creative, engaged employees is a priority, offering a sabbatical leave may be one way to do it. Using an outsourced employee handbook builder to effectively communicate your sabbatical policy and rules can simplify the process and ensure no detail is overlooked. With the sabbatical policy outlined in the employee handbook, new hires and veteran staff members will know exactly what to do and find inspiration in working toward this coveted employee benefit.

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* Este contenido es solo para fines educativos, no tiene por objeto proporcionar asesoría jurídica específica y no debe utilizarse en sustitución de la asesoría jurídica de un abogado u otro profesional calificado. Es posible que la información no refleje los cambios más recientes en la legislación, la cual podrá modificarse sin previo aviso y no se garantiza que esté completa, correcta o actualizada.

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