Bosses see benefit in giving sabbaticals to workers

Managers take a page from academia, see extended time off as a way to reward and retain employees.

After working as a divorce lawyer for 12 years, Lisa Angel needed a change from the rigors and emotions of the job. So when her firm announced a paid sabbatical for employees who had been there five years or more, she was the first to raise her hand.

"It was the perfect time to take a break and reassess," says Ms. Angel of Raleigh, N.C. "I walked away from my life for a while." That decision led to a three-month sabbatical, biking alone in China and Southeast Asia. She even studied meditation in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. "I wouldn't have been able to do that on a normal vacation," she says.

Sabbaticals have long been a way of life in academic settings. Now they are getting more attention in the corporate world as well, although the number of companies offering them is still relatively small.

About 18 percent of firms offer unpaid sabbaticals, and 5 percent give paid sab­­baticals, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. These are often available to those who have worked for a firm between five and 10 years.

"Most sabbaticals are confined to organizations that are pretty progressive," says Charlotte Anderson, managing director of a consulting firm in Hillsborough, N.J.

Employees who take advantage of these programs speak enthusiastically about coming back relaxed and rejuvenated. Managers see them as a way to reward and retain employees.

Most programs come with no strings attached. Those taking sabbaticals are free to use the time as they wish. "We encourage them to do something that's meaningful to them," says Lee Rosen, CEO of Rosen Law Firm, where Angel works.

For those taking time off, plans and motives range widely. One of Mr. Rosen's employees who has a passion for surfing plans to teach surfing in Hawaii.

A woman at Standing Partnership, a public relations firm in St. Louis, will spend two weeks in Croatia, her birthplace, exploring her roots. One of her colleagues spent part of a two-month paid sabbatical with her grandmother, capturing her life story. "It energizes our team and our clients," says Melissa Lackey, the company's chief operating officer. Her own sabbatical included spending time with her four children, traveling, and taking an art class and golf lessons.

At Jackson Spalding, a creative services firm in Atlanta that gives paid four-week sabbaticals after 10 years of service, one staff member, Pat Hill, used the time to attend Boy Scout camp with his son and go hiking in Colorado with his sister.

Ken Smith, a general manager at Logos Research Systems in Bellingham, Wash., spent part of his paid sabbatical taking his family on a historic tour of Washington, D.C., and Virginia. Employees can take four weeks off every 10 years. They also receive a $1,200 bonus for travel.

"That paid our entire airfare for all six of us to fly to Washington," Mr. Smith says. In addition to giving his children "a great educational experience," the sabbatical kept him out of the office for three weeks, a welcome change from his usual practice of taking only a week's vacation at a time.

Bob Pritchett, Logos's president, instituted the program a year ago. "I see it as one more piece of our plan to be an attractive employer, a way for people to have a long-term perspective about working here," he says. "We want to give them a chance

to take a real break and not just go home and paint the garage."

Executives at BKD, a financial-­services firm in Springfield, Mo., place such a high value on the need to recharge employees that they mandate a one-month-long sabbatical every five years. The company even disables absent partners' e-mail accounts so they cannot work from home while they are away.

"The time away gives the partners a chance to relax and spend time with their families," says Randy Hultz, human resources director. "That benefit is incalculable." Equally important, it gives other employees a chance to show they can handle extra responsibilities.

Yet challenges arise. One difficulty, Rosen finds, is that it is not easy for some people to take advantage of the program. "Picking up and leaving for three months if you have children or a spouse is hard." That makes him concerned about the overall program. "You end up with people who can use it and people who can't, and the people who can't feel they've lost out."

Another challenge for some workers is learning how to let go of the office and relinquish control to colleagues.

"When Lisa [Angel] was gone, all employees agreed not to tell her what was going on," Rosen says. "She stopped calling."

For some managers, delegating an absent colleague's work is also a potential obstacle, particularly in small companies. But when Susan Bassett, director of Corporate Ink in Newton, Mass., went to Tanzania to teach English for three weeks, she found how much employees at the 10-person firm could accomplish without her. "I realized how much they know and how good their instincts are," she says.

Ms. Bassett offers reassurance to other small businesses: "So many people I talk to say, 'We could never do it. Our company is too small. We can't afford to have people out.' But this next generation of workers thrives on new things. It's a fabulous way to keep employees, and to keep them happy and productive."

Noting that he, too, hears "a lot of discussion about sabbaticals but not much implementation," Rosen says, "People think it's a great idea but think they can't do it for some reason or other."

Explaining his rationale for offering this benefit, he says, "We want employees to have an experience that revitalizes them and changes their thinking – that brings them back with brand-new ideas and perspectives. If they're not growing as people, we're not growing as a company."

That kind of potential growth, coupled with a desire to help others, inspired Susan Davis and her husband, Walter Moora, of East Troy, Wis., to spend six months in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, an ecovillage.

"So many of my friends at other companies have had life-changing sabbaticals," says Ms. Davis, president of Capital Missions Co., writing in an e-mail from Ecuador. "We both have ideas about how we can give back to this village during our time here."

A few offer paid time off so employees can do community service. Ernst & Young's Corporate Social Responsibility program deploys top-performing people to countries in need, giving them a three-month paid sabbatical.

Jo-Ann Harrington, an assistant vice president at Citizens Bank in Rumford, R.I., spent three months working at a homeless services organization as part of Citizens Financial Group's paid Community Service Sabbatical program.

"I did a little bit of everything," she says. "It was just an amazing experience." Describing herself as "completely changed," she adds, "We all have ambitions; we all want to succeed. But we don't very often take a step back and realize how lucky we are. This experience brought me face to face with that fact. Sometimes we lack gratitude."

Occasionally, companies ask those returning from a sabbatical to share their experiences, either in a formal presentation to co-workers or in writing. Citrin Cooperman & Co., a New York accounting firm, requires those taking a sabbatical to submit two 1,000-word essays when they come back. One focuses on where the employee sees his or her career going in the next few years. The other must offer advice on how the firm can improve.

Angel, the divorce attorney who bicycled around China and meditated in a Buddhist monastery, still savors her experience, saying that it enabled her to continue practicing law.

"It broadened my sense of the world in a way I'll always have with me," she says. "It's changed my perspective about the balance of work and life. Remembering my time abroad enables me to put things in perspective."

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