Firms hope time off yields good behavior

Need a break from work?

A real break, not just a vacation where you spend the first week trying to stop thinking about work and the second week thinking about going back.

We're talking about some quality time away from the office - without your pager or laptop (that's right, no logging in) - where you can rejuvenate, reconnect with family, or just hang out.

Enter sabbaticals.

With the talent-starved marketplace, a growing number of American workers - from 20-somethings to senior executives - are pushing for and getting extended breaks from the rat race.

Sabbaticals can range from a few weeks to six months or longer. And more often than not, they have nothing to do with work. Tour the south of France if you'd like, or build that deck in your backyard.

The goal for most workers who take sabbaticals: to reestablish a sense of normalcy in their lives.

"We have seen a huge change in people's attitudes toward sabbaticals," says Barbara Moses, author of "The Good News About Careers: How You'll Be Working in the Next Decade" (Jossey-Bass Publishers). "They used to be something tenured professors took to recharge themselves. Increasingly they are becoming part of mainstream America's response to overwork, overcommitment, and not having a life."

No doubt giving people more time off is a big draw these days. Nearly half of Fortune magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work for in America now offer sabbaticals or similar leave programs - up 18 percent from a year ago.

Take some time, or else

Companies such as Intel Corp., Ralston Purina Co., and Netscape Communications offer sabbaticals. (In fact Intel, which has offered the perk for more than two decades, has employees on their second and third sabbaticals.) And they're not alone.

Investment house Credit Suisse First Boston just unveiled one- to three-month paid sabbaticals for workers who have been with the company at least five years. A handful of people have already been approved.

And Charles Schwab & Co. recently revamped its program, making it available to both full-time and part-time workers.

Ric Edelman, chairman of Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax, Va., feels so strongly about the power of sabbaticals, that he made them mandatory.

"If they don't take it, we kick them out," says Mr. Edelman, who grants four-week paid sabbaticals to employees after seven years at the firm - and requires that workers take them by their ninth year. "After seven years in an organization, you need to get your batteries charged - you need to get away from daily life."

The company goes so far as to disconnect employees' e-mail and forbid them from checking voice mail.

"If you look at it strictly from the dollar cost and productivity hit, yes it is expensive," says Edelman, who has yet to take his sabbatical. But the company, he says, gets a big boost from lower turnover as well as higher morale and camaraderie (employees must give a short presentation about their sabbatical to the firm).

Ed Moore, president of Edelman, was the first at the company to be up for a sabbatical, which he took two summers ago. He spent half the time in London and Greece with his wife and another couple. The rest of the time he hung out with his two children on the beach.

Because it was mandatory, "I didn't have to feel guilty about going," says Mr. Moore, who clocks between 50 and 60 hours a week. "The most difficult part was to leave the voice mails and e-mails behind and to train myself not to call in," he adds.

(Easier said than done. It just so happened that the stock market was in tremendous turmoil while he was off.)

A downside for some companies

About 20 percent of companies offer sabbaticals today, with 17 percent being unpaid, according to the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

It's a benefit that's not always easy to come up with.

"Companies are struggling to staff their organizations to begin with," says Kristin Accipiter of SHRM. "To let somebody go for that long may not be possible."

In addition, she says, some companies worry that people will job hunt during their time off - or even opt not to return.

Case in point: Microsoft's technology chief, Nathan Myhvold, who recently decided not to return from his year-long sabbatical.

How much time is enough?

While most companies tend to offer sabbaticals on the shorter side, work/life gurus argue that anything less than three months isn't long enough.

"A four- to six-week sabbatical isn't really a sabbatical, it's really a long vacation," argues Ms. Moses, who recommends at least four months off. "It needs to be long enough so that you can really separate yourself from your work."

Moore of Edelman Financial Services wishes his sabbatical would have been longer.

"The time just screamed by," he says. "But being a small company [the firm has 75 employees], that would be difficult."

Yet plenty of companies also worry that the longer employees are away, the longer it will take them to gear back up again.

Moore admits that it was harder to "get back into the rhythm or focus" than he anticipated. "But that's part of the beauty of it frankly," he adds with a laugh.

Yet, he argues that employees who take a month or two away from the office are, over time, more productive than those who never take a break.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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