Crash Course in: Offering sabbaticals

A valued employee has quit because she wanted time off to do something else and was told she couldn't have it. Now you have the trouble and expense of finding a replacement. Maybe offering sabbaticals wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What's one of those? 'A sabbatical is basically a career break - usually unpaid - where you keep the employee's job open for them,' says Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, founder of TheCareerBreakSite.com. Once a privilege reserved for academics, clerics and a few others, sabbaticals are being adopted by firms as an employee benefit.

Rationalise it. The main reason for offering sabbaticals is to boost recruitment and retention. 'It's quite often cheaper to let someone take a sabbatical than to find someone new,' says Morgan-Trimmer. And in the war for talent, holding out the prospect of a pause to travel the world a few years down the line can be a handy piece of ammunition.

Be flexibile. The original concept was about taking every seventh year off, but most employers have a more open-minded approach. 'There are no rules and it depends on what you want to get out of the scheme,' says Jeni Dougan, head of fundraising at Voluntary Services Overseas. 'Some employers specify that you must be in continuous employment for a certain length of time to be eligible for a sabbatical.' Breaks of up to a year are quite common.

Pop it in a policy. If everyone knows what the organisation's policy is on sabbaticals, there's less room for resentment. 'It also gives people something to work towards,' says Lynette Swift of flexible working consultancy Swiftwork. 'They know that after 10 years, say, they will qualify for that three-month break.' If your policy is to offer sabbaticals only to key people, explain why.

Mind the gap. Plan ahead to provide cover for your career-breaker; require a good notice, and if your business is seasonal, make clear when sabbaticals can be taken. 'Ask your employee to come up with ideas for how their position could be covered,' says Morgan-Trimmer. 'As they're coming back, they'll want it to be handled well.' Adds Dougan: 'Sabbaticals provide a natural development opportunity for other staff.'

Take an interest. Don't try to control how the time is spent, but talk to the individual about their plans; a sabbatical spent constructively - doing voluntary work, say - can result in the employee bringing valuable skills and experience into the organisation.

Follow up. 'When the person on sabbatical comes back, get HR to do a return-to-work interview,' suggests Morgan-Trimmer. As well as bringing them up to date, it's a chance to find out what they've gained. Monitor the performance and loyalty of those returning.

Do say: 'You've given us your all for 10 years; have three months for yourself, and come back refreshed.'

Don't say: 'If you want to sit in a tree in Borneo and observe orangutans, that's absolutely fine by me, but don't expect to have a desk when you come back.'

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