Employee Sabbatical Leave: How and When to Take One

Sabbatical Leave
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Off late Rhea has been late to work, remains silent mostly, and is missing important deadlines. When asked, she expressed that she does not feel motivated about work as before, and she’s not sure why. She said, “I really need a break but that can’t happen, can it?”

  • Can you relate to how Rhea is feeling?
  • Have there been times when you’ve thought it’s been way too long, and you just need a break from work?
  • Have you ever wished to have enough time off work – either to reflect on what you really want to do in your career, or to just get some rest from the regular work schedule?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, then the concept of sabbatical leaves could come in handy for you.

What is a Sabbatical Leave?

Sabbatical is an extended period of leave that an employee takes from their professional responsibilities, as agreed upon with their employer. This leave is usually longer than the standard vacations and can be used for professional development or for personal reasons.

Provided the company has a policy of granting sabbaticals, the company decides the terms/ guidelines for the sabbatical, in terms of:

  • Eligibility criteria – this is usually decided on the basis of the employee’s work experience and contribution to the organization.
  • The duration – it can last anywhere between 4 weeks to a year or more.
  • Remuneration – During the course of the sabbatical, the company can choose to pay full salary, partial salary or keep the sabbatical unpaid.
  • Purpose – Some companies grant sabbaticals for specific purposes such as pursuing further studies and upgrading skills, whereas in some other cases, the employee has the personal freedom to decide how to use their sabbatical.
  • Reporting – Some companies want the employee to submit regular reports of how they’re spending their time during the sabbaticals.

Benefits of Sabbatical leaves for Employees

  • Employees who have taken sabbaticals report feeling rested, refreshed, and able to return to work with more motivation and enthusiasm.
  • Some employees have also shared that the sabbaticals allowed them to evaluate their career decisions and reflect on the larger question of what they want to do with their lives.
  • Many employees were able to gain new experiences and skills that made them better at their work when they returned.

Regardless of the nature of the sabbaticals taken, a major benefit reported by employees is that a break of this kind has helped them learn more about themselves – they’ve gained perspective on what engages them and are then able to use these insights at their work once they return.

Benefits of sabbatical leaves for companies

It might interest you to know that 25% of companies listed in “Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For” offer sabbaticals (2012).

  • Having a sabbatical policy in place can serve as a hiring incentive and help to attract new talent.
  • A wellbeing survey by the American Psychological Association (2021) shows that over 40% of employees were planning to leave their job in the coming year due to stress. Sabbaticals are noted to fight the effects of burnout and overall help to improve employee retention.
  • When employees take sabbaticals for training or professional development, they return to work armed with more knowledge and skills and hence contribute better to the organization.

When to take a Sabbatical leave

Work takes up so much time in our daily lives that very often it becomes our whole identity – we end up focusing most or all of our energy on work at the cost of self-care, relationships or other priorities. This often disturbs work-life balance and can impact both mental and physical wellbeing in the long run. The very idea of the sabbatical is that it is an “approved break” that could give us a sense of “permission” to get rest and also reflect on life priorities.

You can consider taking a sabbatical, if:

  • You are on the verge of burnout and need to rest and recover.
  • You are unable to feel the same enthusiasm or excitement for work as before.
  • You want to focus exclusively on professional development – to pursue further studies, undertake training or build new skills.

Please note that it is always helpful to check if your company has a policy which approves of sabbaticals.

How to take a sabbatical leave

As an employee – Below are some pointers to keep in mind before going ahead with a sabbatical:

  • Discuss with your colleagues/supervisors and make adequate arrangements before you leave for the sabbatical so that the transition can be smoother.
  • Taking a break from work if you are not used to it might leave you feeling lost or empty, not being sure how to use your time. Hence it can be helpful to create a basic structure in advance and set clear goals for the time off.
  • Financial planning and preparation for daily living arrangements or any other potential plans – gathering the financial security/savings to either manage unpaid sabbatical or to fund any plans you may have for travel or training, can help you feel more grounded about entering into a break of this sort.
  • In fields like IT and healthcare, taking a long break could lead to skills becoming irrelevant or losing out on clients/patients. Planning how to be up-to-date with skills and how to build a consistent client base upon returning can help tackle these potential risks.  

As a stakeholder in company policies, if the idea of sabbaticals appeals to you, you may want to consider the terms of the sabbatical policy by weighing out the costs and benefits incurred in the process.

It can help to have strategies in place for the employee’s exit and return, so that the transitions can be smoother for others in the team (as roles and responsibilities may be shifted/ redistributed). It can also help to have a plan in place if at all the employee decides not to return to the company after the sabbatical – this can also be outlined in the agreement.

Research has shown that if sabbaticals are implemented correctly, they do have positive effects both for employees and the organization. (Journal of Education for Business, 2005).  

In conclusion, all of us have a different relationship with work and what our work means to us. Our motivation for work also varies. Moreover, some of us are working in fields that we’re passionate about, whereas some of us have followed the path available to us for specific reasons.

Regardless of where we come from or what our profession is, the common fact is that we all seek to have a balance with work so that we can engage with it more enthusiastically and to our best potential, rather than experience it as stressful or purposeless. Sabbaticals can support a great deal in moving towards such a balance.

Please note that it’s always helpful to check if your company has a policy which approves of sabbaticals

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