Sabbatical leave is an employment benefit that allows long-term employees to take an extended period of leave from work to pursue personal interests. The time away is often taken to explore activities such as travel, volunteering, personal development, and of course, rest.

Sabbatical leave was commonly used by academics to take approved breaks away from their educational institutions to dedicate time for research, studies, or writing, to expand their knowledge in their field. Nowadays it has become a popular workplace benefit, often used to reward long service, with eligibility requirements of 5 or 7 years’ service—for example. 

During sabbatical leave, employees remain employed under their usual contract but are not expected to report to work for the agreed duration, which can vary depending on an organization’s policy and the agreement made with the individual.

What Are Sabbaticals For?

Employers tend not to be too descriptive about the purpose of sabbaticals these days, but they do give ideas as to what an employee might use the time for.

  • Traveling. Travel broadens the mind and gives people exposure to diverse cultures and practices. These new experiences and perspectives can be beneficial to their work.
  • Volunteering. Be it combined with travel volunteering for an international charity or closer to home, dedicating time to a cause can be immensely rewarding.
  • Family Time. Careers are often spent juggling home lives with work, at times missing important personal moments. Taking some uninterrupted time off to spend with loved ones, a growing family, or ageing parents is invaluable.
  • Studying. Although many courses can be taken part-time alongside work, a sabbatical allows for a period of dedicated, full-time study which is useful in pursuit of formal qualifications and higher education. In some cases, employers may offer financial contribution if the studies are relevant to the job.
  • Passion projects. People have an array of interests outside of work but might not have as much time as they’d like to dedicate to them. Creative projects like writing a book, recording an album, or starting a business require the considerable time investment that a sabbatical provides.

How Does a Sabbatical Differ From Other Forms of Leave? 

Annual leave

The most common form of leave that allows employees a break from the workplace is annual leave. Annual leave differs from sabbatical leave as—depending on your workplace and contract—it’s a benefit that allows you a certain amount of leave each year from your job. Sabbaticals on the other hand are a discretionary benefit for which the employer can set eligibility requirements. 

Duration and frequency are two of the main differences between a sabbatical and annual leave. Assuming your organization doesn’t offer unlimited annual leave, most employees can only take a specified number of days or weeks off from work each year, which can be taken intermittently throughout the year. Sabbaticals offer a longer period off—e.g., 1 month to 1 year—which is taken in one consecutive period.

 Career break

Often used synonymously, career breaks and sabbaticals can differ between organizations, with some companies having distinct and separate policies for each form of leave. What they do have in common is that they both are extended breaks from the workplace. Where they differ is in duration and purpose. 

Sabbaticals tend to last up to 1 year, whereas career breaks can be much longer—or in some cases indefinite. In light of this difference, career breaks tend to involve a termination of the contract of employment and loss of continuity of service for that period. There will also often be a return clause in the agreement specifying the terms by which you may rejoin the company should your prior role or similar be available at the end of your break. In contrast, during a sabbatical the contract of employment remains intact, although entitlements may be ‘frozen’ for the duration of leave—your job is usually held for you with temporary cover, pending your return.

Parental leave

Employees can take extended time off from work with maternity, paternity, parental, and adoption leave. In the US, The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for these purposes—once an employee has achieved 12 months’ service. 

In the aforementioned types of leave, the main criterion for eligibility depends upon being a parent as the leaves are granted on the condition of having a child to care for. In contrast, sabbatical leave is open to all and used for a wider variety of purposes. 

What Are the Benefits and Challenges of Sabbatical Leave?

There is a multitude of benefits to both employer and employee from sabbaticals. Offering sabbaticals as a company benefit is attractive to prospective employees, which could help your organization to stand out in a crowded labor market and attract top talent. Below are some beneficial outcomes of a sabbatical.

Benefits for employees

  • Mental wellbeing. Work can take a toll on employees’ mental health. Instances of burnout are becoming more prevalent in the modern workplace. Sabbaticals offer an opportunity to disconnect from the stresses of working life, prioritize self-care and well-being, and reconnect with a happier, healthier version of themselves.
  • Renewed energy. An extended period of time off for an employee that has been with your organization for a long time can help them to fully recharge and continue their service with the company with renewed energy.
  • Fresh perspective. With the broad range of activities employees might do during a sabbatical, they can bring back fresh perspectives from their experiences traveling, volunteering, studying, etc. This can benefit their employer by sparking innovation and creativity on their return and bringing increased emotional intelligence and empathy to their roles.

Benefits for employers

  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR) contribution. As employees may use their sabbaticals for volunteering and activities that positively impact society, employers may choose to incorporate the sabbatical benefit as part of their strategy to demonstrate commitment to corporate social responsibility.
  • Attractive employee value proposition (EVP). An EVP defines what the company stands for and what employees can stand to gain from working there. A company’s benefits are a huge point of attraction for talent and in a time where flexibility and balance are valued more highly than compensatory benefits, having a robust sabbatical leave policy can give your organization a competitive advantage over other organizations that don’t.
  • Development and succession. Employees who take sabbaticals temporarily vacate their positions, which can allow for more junior employees to step up and gain practical experience in view of succession. The organization can build a pipeline of internal talent through such opportunities.
  • Cost savings. Reducing staff turnover can save your company a significant amount in terms of recruitment costs. Additionally, if unpaid sabbaticals can offer an alternative to compulsory redundancies or “lay-offs”, you can reduce your staffing costs during difficult periods for your business.
  • Increased productivity. If employees are feeling worn out or lacking the work-life balance they desire, they are unlikely to be working at optimal productivity levels. Having taken a break to address this can be beneficial to employee well-being and motivation, which positively impacts productivity.
  • Boost job satisfaction. Having an employer who values employees’ out-of-work lives enough to offer sabbatical leave can increase feelings of positivity towards the organization. Showing employees that you are happy to give them the time they need and value them enough to want them back after can boost their satisfaction in their jobs.
  • Increased retention. As many organizations offer sabbaticals as a reward for long service, employees may stay with your company longer if they know this could make them eligible for extended leave later in their career. You also demonstrate your commitment to employees by allowing them the time away for their own personal reasons with the knowledge that they are welcome back. Showing that your company cares can improve employee loyalty and aid staff retention.

Challenges of sabbatical leave

As plentiful as the benefits are, there are some challenges you’ll need to consider when deciding if a sabbatical leave policy is right for your organization. 

  • Impact on the structure of the team. When an employee vacates their position there is likely to be an impact on their team members. This can be because of redeploying another employee to fill their position or relying on team members to take on the extra workload that a colleague on sabbatical may create. Sabbaticals require meticulous planning to ensure workflows are not disrupted and the business is not unduly impacted.
  • Financial implications. If you offer paid sabbaticals—irrespective of whether this is full or partially paid— you must consider the financial burden it will place the business under. If your sabbaticals are unpaid, there may still be costs to consider, such as recruitment and training of replacement employees. It is also worth considering the financial strain an unpaid sabbatical may have on individuals. This alone is enough to make employees less likely to take up the benefit, even if it would be worthwhile for them to do so. Consider what contributions your company could make to alleviate this barrier.
  • Loss of talent. Allowing an employee an extended break from work could lead to the possibility that they may not want to return once their sabbatical leave is over. Think about what you can do to incentivize employees to return—rather than mandate them to—as it’s important that employees genuinely want to return, rather than feeling forced to do so.
  • Consistency of application. Whilst you may set eligibility requirements for sabbatical leave, be mindful of equality and consistency in the process. If the main qualification is the length of service, this should be irrespective of whether someone has worked part-time, taken maternity leave, or extensive sick leave in line with a long-term health condition. Failing to apply the policy fairly and consistently exposes you to the risk of complaints and discrimination claims.

What to Consider When Implementing a Sabbatical Leave Policy  

Before rolling out sabbatical leave as a benefit, you will need to create a robust policy, clearly outlining the rules and practicalities of the offering. Doing so minimizes risks to the business and maximizes the success of the program.

Your policy should detail the key elements, such as the eligibility criteria, the application process, and the expectations and obligations of both the business and the applicant.

As sabbatical leave is not a legal entitlement, it should ideally be a non-contractual policy to allow for flexibility to make changes to ensure the policy meets the needs of your business and its people. Some points to consider when implementing a sabbatical leave policy are:

Purpose

Firstly, you need to establish the purpose of the policy. Give the organization’s definition of sabbatical leave and its objectives. Why has the company decided to offer this benefit? How does it align with the core values, mission, aims, and goals of the business?

Eligibility criteria

When you have established the purpose, you will need to determine whether this is a benefit for all or whether there is going to be a criterion for eligibility.

Some organizations have set the purpose of a sabbatical as a reward for long service and therefore to be eligible to apply for a sabbatical, employees must have accrued a minimum period of service with the company—e.g., 4-10 years. Performance requirements can incentivize productivity and reward those who have made a significant contribution to the business.

Be mindful of setting criteria that could be discriminatory or divisive.

Length/duration of leave

There isn’t a standard duration for sabbaticals as they can range depending on their purpose. However, you may want to specify a minimum and a maximum duration that distinguishes sabbaticals from other forms of leave. 

Typically, sabbaticals should be longer than annual leave and tend to range from 1 month to 1 year. You may want to detail whether you will offer extensions to the initial period requested and up to what length of time. Also, consider the protocol should an employee wish to shorten their sabbatical.

Approval process

As sabbatical leave is a discretionary benefit, it will be subject to approval. It is important to clearly outline how an eligible employee can apply for a sabbatical, what the steps of the process will be, the timeframe for approval, and the grounds for denial. 

The application will need to detail the requested duration and purpose of their sabbatical, and provide the required notice e.g., 3 months to allow sufficient time to plan for cover.

Your policy may advise them to have an informal conversation with their manager before submission and the formal request may then be sent to the manager, HR, or a committee, depending on the size and structure of your organization.

For transparency, it is good practice to outline the possible grounds for refusal within the policy. This could include business reasons such as inability to source adequate cover, high utilization of the benefit or other forms of leave in the team at the given time, performance concerns, or disciplinary proceedings against the individual. Before refusing a request consider how you can balance supporting the applicant with managing any potential disruption to the business.

Pay and benefits 

A critical point of clarity in your policy is whether the sabbatical will be paid or unpaid and what happens to employee benefits during that period. 

There are a variety of options around pay and benefits that will depend on the business resources and industry. Unpaid sabbaticals are the norm in many businesses, but some companies may opt to pay for a set period—e.g. the first 3 months—with the remainder being unpaid. Another option is to pay a percentage of an employee’s salary for the full duration of the sabbatical. Fully paid sabbaticals are a rare but very attractive proposition if your budget allows it. It removes financial burden as a barrier to application, allowing employees to focus on the purpose of the leave, without worrying about money. 

You have full discretion as to whether an employee will receive monetary benefits during their sabbatical leave such as employer pension contributions, bonuses, and allowances.

Research the local laws to ensure you fulfill any statutory requirements regarding pay and benefits during a sabbatical leave.

Rules of usage

To be as clear as possible, you should consider any rules, obligations, and expectations you will place upon those who take sabbatical leave.

  • What obligations will employees have to fulfill before commencing their leave? E.g. preparing a handover or returning any key equipment.
  • How many employees can take a sabbatical leave at one time?
  • Are there any business-critical periods when sabbatical requests will not be granted?
  • Is a sabbatical a one-off benefit or can multiple be taken over time? If so, how long might an employee have to wait before becoming eligible to apply again?
  • Whether the employee is still subject to company policies during their leave e.g. can they still face disciplinary proceedings, can their actions bring the company into disrepute even though they are not reporting for work at the time? How will issues regarding breaches of confidentiality, non-compete clauses, allegations of harassment etc be dealt with?
  • Will they be guaranteed a return to their same position or similar?
  • Will continuity of employment be preserved, or will the sabbatical constitute a ‘break in service’ for the benefits of calculating entitlements?
  • What are the expectations around contact during the leave? Will there be keeping in touch days built in like parental leave or agreed check-ins as determined by the individual and their manager?
  • Will employees be permitted to work for other companies whilst on leave? If permitted, will you specify that they mustn’t work in the same sector or for a competitor?
  • How will the success of the program be measured? What metrics will determine the return on investment?
  • Will the company require a report from the individual on how the sabbatical was spent?
  • Can different types of leave be used in succession? E.g. Can an employee on long-term sick leave, commence a sabbatical at the end of their sickness absence?
  • Is it necessary to implement a mandate requiring an employee to return to work for a minimum period or face pay clawbacks?

Return to work

As sabbaticals are not a statutory entitlement, there is no automatic right to return to your previous job. It is at the company’s sole discretion as to whether an employee’s position will be held for them to return to after a sabbatical. Most policies will allow this as it makes the benefit more attractive and helps retention.

You should detail the expectations for the end of the sabbatical and include a return-to-work plan that re-onboards employees who return from extended leave. Consider the role they are returning to and what would help them have a smooth transition back to work.

Conclusion

Sabbatical leave is an invaluable benefit that offers an employee time for personal and professional development, as well as the opportunity to de-stress and recharge.

Employers can benefit from offering their employees sabbatical leave too. It can help to improve employee well-being and bring fresh perspectives and new skills to a business. It can also have a positive impact on job satisfaction, productivity, and employee retention rates. Offering sabbatical leave can make your organization more attractive to new talent and can differentiate you from competitors in a crowded labor market.

There are many considerations to be made before rolling out a sabbatical leave program in your workplace—such as the financial impact and disruption to the business—but these can be overcome with proper planning and the implementation of a robust policy.

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