What is sabbatical leave?
A sabbatical is an extended period an employee takes away from their professional duties with their employer’s approval. Sabbaticals can be any period of time the employee and employer agree on, but they’re always longer than standard employee vacations. They may be paid or unpaid, depending on the company’s policies. Employees may use sabbaticals to pursue activities that their usual working schedules would prevent them from doing.
Examples of sabbatical leave
Some common reasons to take a sabbatical include:
- Traveling, especially overseas
- Volunteering, especially on extended projects or in another country
- Researching topics of interest or relevance to their career
- Studying or training to advance or change careers
- Caring for an elderly or unwell loved one
Why offer sabbatical leave?
Research shows that sabbatical leave is beneficial for employees, improving their well-being. In addition, employers that have flexible time off policies are more likely to recruit and retain high-quality employees. A properly designed sabbatical policy benefits both the employer and the employee.
When employees take a sabbatical to undertake training, they’ll come back to their job armed with new knowledge and skills, making them more valuable and productive members of the team. This applies to volunteer work too, as the experience offered by volunteering abroad can teach a variety of transferrable skills.
Read more: How to Find Good Employees
Things to consider before adopting a policy
Government guidelines for time off include only the types of time off covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and not other types of leave. There’s no legal requirement to offer sabbaticals, and employers have the freedom to set their own policies for who is entitled to sabbatical leave and how the leave system works. When drafting a sabbatical leave policy, consider the following:
- Qualifying years of employment: Sabbatical leave is typically offered to senior employees as a reward for their service. Consider how many years an employee must serve before gaining this privilege. It’s common for employers to grant sabbatical leave to employees who have been with them for 5 or more years.
- The maximum length of sabbatical permitted: Consider the maximum amount of time you can run your organization without a particular employee. Your policy may set a blanket limit on the duration of sabbaticals, have a limit that scales based on length of service or see sabbaticals negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
- Sabbatical purpose: Some companies permit staff to take a life sabbatical for any purpose, while others only approve leave for certain activities, such as volunteering or studying. Consider how sabbatical leave is defined for your company, and state this clearly in your policy.
- Paid or unpaid: Consider whether you plan to pay your employees while they’re on sabbatical. You may pay full wages, a reduced wage or no wage at all, depending on your company’s budget. You could also consider paying employees who use their sabbatical to improve their professional skills but offer unpaid sabbatical leave to employees taking time off for personal reasons. Your policy should explain how your business will handle wages and benefits during an employee’s sabbatical leave.
- Required notice: Consider how far in advance an employee should notify you of their sabbatical plans. Notice of 2-3 months is common, as this allows time to reassign the employee’s duties, hire any temporary staff if required and perform any necessary training before the employee leaves.
- Frequency of sabbaticals: Decide how often employees can take sabbaticals to minimize disruption and maximize connection in your workplace. For example, you might require employees to work for 3 years or more after taking a sabbatical before requesting another.
- Evaluating sabbatical requests: Explain who reviews sabbatical requests and define the approval criteria in your policy. Having a transparent process with clearly documented eligibility rules helps reduce confusion and maintain good morale.
- Employment agreement post-sabbatical: You may also choose to add a clause that requires your employees to work for your organization for a set period after taking sabbatical leave. This prevents employees from taking a sabbatical to gain new skills and then taking those skills to another company.
- Pensions and other benefits: Consider whether you will continue paying into an employee’s pension and medical insurance during the sabbatical. If you offer a company car, phone plan or other benefits, consider whether the employee will still have access to these during the sabbatical.
- Employee contracts: Clearly specify whether an employee on a sabbatical is subject to the same contract rules as someone currently working for the organization. For example, if an employee’s contract includes a Patent and Invention Policy, consider whether that policy covers anything the employee creates during a sabbatical.
- Other obligations: Your company may also like to introduce other obligations that govern how to take a sabbatical. For example, you may require employees to remain available for contact via phone or email during their time away. Outline all obligations so employees know exactly what is expected of them.
Your policy should make it clear that employees on sabbatical must still adhere to company rules, even though they’re not actively working. This means they must respect nondisclosure agreements and rules about harassment, behavior on social media and data protection, for example.
Read more: 10 Recruiting Strategies for Hiring Great Employees
Alternatives to sabbaticals
While sabbaticals are popular with employers and employees alike, they’re not always a practical option, especially for smaller organizations. If you feel it’s not possible to offer an employee a sabbatical, talk to that employee about the reason they want time off and try to come to a compromise.
For example, some companies offer flexible working arrangements to allow employees to work part-time or schedule their hours around caring for a loved one. Others pay for an employee to undertake part-time university qualifications or study for industry certifications and give them time off to attend examinations.
Closing thoughts about sabbatical leave
Sabbatical leave helps your employees relieve stress, feel rejuvenated and enrich their lives. Many employees gain new experiences and skills that can help them work better when they return to your organization. If you’ve instituted a sabbatical leave policy, you may find it improves employee retention. A sabbatical leave policy can also help you attract new talent by differentiating your company from others.
Introducing sabbatical leave is usually more successful with a clear, detailed and transparent policy. Your policy will ensure your employees understand their obligations while minimizing disruption to your company. Consider how sabbatical leave might work for your organization, and detail all elements of the request, approval and leave process to make your sabbatical leave program as successful as possible.
Sabbatical leave FAQs
Is sabbatical leave a right or a privilege?
Sabbatical leave is a privilege you can choose to extend to your employees. As it’s not a right, you have the choice to approve or refuse any sabbatical leave requests on a case-by-case basis and make any restrictions on sabbatical leave you like. However, you should always use the same procedure, as outlined in your policy, to review and implement any sabbatical leave so your system is fair for all employees.
What is the minimum length of a sabbatical?
Since a sabbatical should be longer than a standard employee vacation, it should be at least 4-6 weeks. This amount of time allows employees to disconnect from their professional duties and get the full benefits of sabbatical leave. Some sabbaticals may be much longer than this, depending on your organization’s needs and the employee’s planned activities.
What is the maximum length of a sabbatical?
Employers can set their own limits for the maximum duration of a sabbatical and may evaluate each sabbatical on a case-by-case basis, considering their budget and the role the employee plays in the organization. Sabbaticals of up to 12 months duration aren’t uncommon, and many employees use this extended break to undertake training or care for family members.
What responsibilities do employees have during a sabbatical?
A company’s sabbatical policy will determine employee rights and responsibilities during their sabbatical. Some organizations forbid employees from taking a second job during their sabbatical, especially if they’re being paid during their career break. Others may permit the employee to take a second job as long as it’s not in the same industry.