Companies are concerned about productivity loss due to an employee's absence; there are insecurities of letting the employee go for a long time
Allowing employees to take sabbaticals will be beneficial to both the company and the staff in the longer run
A friend of mine did what I had been planning to do for years. He took a sabbatical, a three-month long break from work. Sample what this break comprised of: A road trip to Jaipur, trekking in Uttarkashi, exploring all the monuments and libraries in Delhi and volunteering for an NGO that teaches underprivileged children. Besides this, during this break he fell in love with the camera and experienced a Eureka moment: A brilliant idea for his company’s (an ad agency) upcoming project that he was made in-charge of. Back from his holiday, he has already discussed his plans with his boss and is all geared up for work. This is a clear example of why companies are not wary of giving long leaves to their employees, and why employees taking ‘break’ from work don’t scare them anymore. According to an article on personneltoday.com almost 25 per cent of Fortune 100 companies offer paid sabbaticals to their employees). This is quite an encouraging number. However, not many companies, especially the ones beyond this list, seem to be supporting this idea.
Is there a benefit for the companies?
While the benefits of sabbaticals are often talked about, not many companies encourage their employees to take sabbaticals. Off the record, HR professionals quote many reasons for not being able to do this. Some companies are concerned about productivity loss due to an employee’s absence; there are insecurities of letting the employee go for a long time. Then there is the cost factor, where someone is to be hired/arranged to take that employee’s place in his absence. In some cases, existing employees cover for the break-taker. In any case, this requires some arrangement that many companies deem as unnecessary.
Rita Foley, author of “Enhance Your Career and Life by Taking a Break”, corporate director, retired Fortune 500 Global president and a founding partner of Reboot Partners LLC, believes “with some careful preparation and juggling, work can be covered by existing employees.” In an article titled ‘Sabbaticals Help Employees, Company, Customers’ she writes, “Corporations that offer sabbaticals don’t do it as a nicety. They do it because it’s downright good for the bottom-line business results, employees, the company and customers.”
Companies such as American Express, Intel, Microsoft offer fully-paid sabbaticals to their employees. An event production company Red Frog gives its employees a full month vacation every five years (source). A US department store chain John Lewis runs a scheme under which employees having more than 25 years’ service with the company get a fully paid leave for a period of up to 26 weeks (source).
However, not every company offers fully-paid vacations. Some companies go for partially-paid or unpaid options. This friend of mine took a no-pay vacation (like most of the employees), his reason to part with his salary for three months seems simple but strong, “I was feeling the burnout and was desperate to switch jobs. Then I realised it was not about the job, it was about me. I needed some time off to reflect over things and break this vicious cycle of work.” His company was considerate enough to give him a three-month break. It now appears that it was the right thing to do because after his vacation he is full of enthusiasm and new ideas to boot.
How to make it work
While experts agree that sabbaticals are a great retention tool and in the longer run affect company’s productivity in a positive way, many companies encourage this. An ascent article quotes Kamal Karanth, MD, Kelly Services India, “It's imperative to connect with the employee needs. Many of these initiatives come from the employees themselves than the HR. They know what drives them and come up with new ideas to keep them engaged to the organisation.”
The key is to make it work for the organisation. Here are a few tips:
1. Not every company can afford to pack off its employees on a tour around the world for a month-long vacation. This is understandable. In such situations, companies can work out if they would prefer to give a paid sabbatical, partially-paid sabbatical or no-pay leave. Employees will love it in any case. If the employee is entitled to get any benefits during this duration, it should be stated clearly in the agreement.
2. Most of the companies give this privilege to the employees who have been associated with them for longer durations. Depending on what works best for a company, a similar reward programme could be worked out. Not only would it help a company give sabbatical benefit to its employees, it will also work well for employee engagement.
3. One dilemma a company faces is how the employee’s job will shape up once he is back from his sabbatical or more importantly what will happen to his work when he is away. It is best to have a discussion with the employee about all of this. Whether the employee will re-join the organisation in the same capacity or his responsibilities will be changed should be categorically mentioned in the agreement.
What needs to be understood is that not every employee wants to go on a six-month or one-year sabbatical. If planned properly, an employee’s sabbatical will not make much difference to the work as long as he is going to re-join the company, rather it will work as a motivator and engagement factor for many star performers.