Suzanne Lucas

Finding the Right Sabbatical Leave Policy for Your Company

It’s not uncommon for college professors to go on sabbatical, but what about other types of employees? At its base, a sabbatical is a long-term break from work. While most businesses can’t afford to lose an employee for an entire year, they might be able to swing it for six weeks or a few months. With a little care, even small businesses can use sabbatical leave policies to boost employee retention and drive innovative problem-solving.

Would a sabbatical leave policy be a good idea for your organization? To help you decide, here are five questions to ask and answer.

Why Have a Sabbatical?

Giving your employees a rest can help renew their minds so they can do their work. For many people, though, a sabbatical is more than a chance to rest — it’s an opportunity to work on a personal project like conducting independent research or writing a book. But both a rest or a new project can be helpful for your business, since either can bring employees back to work re-energized with new ideas.

While it can be tempting to allow only people with planned projects time away from the office, don’t underestimate the value of letting someone put aside the daily grind to see the world. An employee could gain personal and professional benefit from taking a seasonal job at a ski resort, traveling around Iceland or touring Revolutionary War battle sites. The idea is to give someone’s brain a break from the old and apply it to the new.

How Long Should a Sabbatical Be?

There isn’t a fixed answer for this, but you want a sabbatical to be long enough that it provides a true break. A six-week sabbatical gives your employee time both to rest and relax and to go and do. A two-week sabbatical is simply a vacation. It’s a good break, sure, but it doesn’t provide the chance to completely step away from work and into another immersive pursuit.

When creating your policy, ask your employees what they would see as an appropriate amount of time.

Should a Sabbatical Be Paid?

Pose this question to your employees and they’ll all say yes, but a paid sabbatical isn’t the only solution. Sometimes people will ask to take an unpaid personal leave of absence, happy enough just to know that their job will be there for them when they return.

That said, many people simply can’t afford to take any amount of unpaid time off, let alone six weeks or more. In order to have a truly effective program, it makes sense pay your employees. But that doesn’t mean you have to pay a full salary. Offering a percentage will allow more employees to take time off while still meeting their financial obligations.

Who Should Be Eligible?

A sabbatical leave policy should encourage employee retention. Just as you may wait to vest 401(k) matching funds until an employee has been with the company for a certain number of years, you should award sabbatical privileges after long service. Once you set the tenure threshold, anyone who meets it should be allowed to take a sabbatical, regardless of other factors, like position within the company.

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How Should Sabbaticals Be Scheduled?

While it would be great if the company could simply plan in advance when each qualifying and interested employee should take their sabbatical, it won’t effectively serve its purpose without employee input.

If you have a busy season, it’s reasonable to limit or disallow sabbaticals during this period of time. Otherwise, allow employees to schedule their own sabbaticals. Managers, of course, will have to work together to make sure that the right combinations of employees or roles remain in tact for the organization to meet its business goals.

While small businesses may face more logistical challenges in allowing employees to pursue nonwork goals for extended periods of time, they’re also more likely to benefit from the positive effects of sabbatical leaves, since the loyalty and creative thinking these programs inspire will make a greater impact at organizations with fewer people. If the relatively traditional arrangements described above still won’t work at your company, consider other ways of cultivating similar forms of engagement, recognition and creativity.

If you’ve thought about creating a sabbatical leave policy at your business, now may be the time to do so. As the economy improves and unemployment rates drop, people will be more likely to look for companies with better benefits. Sabbatical leave can be a stand-out attractor of top talent.

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