Employee Sabbatical Leave: Everything You Need to Know

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Taking a sabbatical leave from work can do wonders for both employees and organizations. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the sabbatical. We’ll give a definition of sabbatical leave and discuss the benefits of going on a sabbatical. We’ll also zoom in on the key elements of a sabbatical leave policy and share real-life examples of sabbatical ideas and programs. Let’s go!

Contents
What is sabbatical leave from work?
Why is a sabbatical important? 7 Benefits
Sabbatical leave policy – Key elements and template 
Sabbatical ideas and programs
Wrap-up
FAQ

What is sabbatical leave from work? A definition 

A sabbatical leave is a period in which an employee takes an extended break from work. The reasons for taking a sabbatical can vary from pursuing a degree or working on a personal project to volunteering, traveling the world, or spending more time with family.  

A sabbatical leave from work is different from other types of leaves in that it usually lasts longer – somewhere between a month to a year – and that companies usually only grant a sabbatical to employees who have been with the company for a certain amount of time. As such, the sabbatical can be considered as a type of employee benefit.  

Why is a sabbatical important? 7 Benefits 

Going on a sabbatical has benefits both for the employee as well as their employer. Let’s start with the positive effects of a sabbatical leave on employees: 

  • Less stress. According to a study conducted among university professors, those who went on sabbatical experienced less stress at work upon their return.  
  • Increased psychological resources. The same study found that the people who came back from a sabbatical leave benefited from an increase in psychological resources such as health, a sense of control and independence, energy, and even more professional knowledge!
  • Increased wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, the above led to an increase in the overall wellbeing of those who enjoyed an extended break from work, especially when they spent their sabbatical outside their home country.

Offering employees the possibility to take a sabbatical has advantages for employers too: 

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  • Increased wellbeing. The fact that employees are well – and, according to the study mentioned above, remain well even long after they’re back from their sabbatical – benefits the organization as a whole. When people feel good, they’re more likely to have a positive impact on their colleagues, less likely to be absent, and they could be more productive too. 
  • Succession planning stress test. Another study found that when executive leaders (in non-profit organizations) take sabbatical leave, this can be a good test for the entire leadership of an organization.
    While the ‘number ones’ are on sabbatical, aspiring leaders get a chance to grow, take on new responsibilities, and demonstrate their leadership skills. As such, a person’s sabbatical leave can be a good opportunity to stress test your succession planning – and if necessary adjust it.   
  • Ready for unexpected absences. Being dependent as a team on one or more individuals is never a good thing. Having people go on a sabbatical pushes managers and teams to prepare for (long-term) absences so that when someone does leave, the business can continue as usual. 
  • Employer Brand. The ‘sabbatical option’ is a nice perk, not only for current employees but also for candidates. It shows people you care about your workforce and that you reward loyalty. Of course, a sabbatical program won’t be the number one reason candidates choose to work for you (and it shouldn’t), but it can make a difference when a candidate compares one company to another.

Sabbatical leave policy – Key elements and template

What does a sabbatical leave policy look like? What are the rules for a sabbatical leave? The exact interpretation of a sabbatical policy depends on the organization, but in this section, we’ll list a few questions you may want to cover in your policy. We’ll also include a sabbatical leave policy template you can download. 

Let’s start with the elements your policy ideally covers: 

  • Who is eligible for a sabbatical leave? Some companies want to use a sabbatical as a way to reward their employees for their loyalty. In that case, people usually become eligible for a sabbatical leave after they’ve spent a certain period with the company.
  • How long does a sabbatical last? Can people take three months off? Or a year? Does that depend on how long they’ve been working for the company? What’s the maximum period that employees can go on a sabbatical leave? 
  • Is the sabbatical paid or unpaid? This will probably depend on budgets and the length of the sabbatical. Some companies decide to pay a certain percentage of people’s salary while they’re on sabbatical leave, others pay full salaries and there are also organizations that decide not to pay.
    You can also decide to pay (or not) depending on the reason someone wants to take a sabbatical. If, for instance, an employee wants to take a year to get a (master’s, PhD, or other) degree, you can consider this an investment in their development and, as such, cover their expenses.
    On the other hand, one could also argue that going on a sabbatical leave is an investment in people’s (personal) development regardless of how they decide to fill in that period. 
  • What’s the purpose of the sabbatical leave? Most of the time the purpose of a sabbatical leave for employees will be something along the lines of ‘self-development’ or ‘the opportunity to pursue personal interests’.       
  • What’s the process? How can employees apply? Do they have to write a cover letter, like when they respond to a job offer or can they simply use the company’s time off request form? How much time in advance do they need to apply? Who needs to approve the sabbatical leave? All these questions, and more, need answering to create a well-structured process to manage the sabbaticals in your organization. 

Based on these elements we’ve created a sabbatical policy template that you can download here. Please keep in mind that this is just an example of what a very basic policy could look like. The document does not take into account any relevant local laws and regulations and it is not a legal document.

Sabbatical leave from work

Sabbatical ideas and programs

At AIHR, we like to include examples where we can. Below, we’ve listed 5 companies that have already implemented a sabbatical program. You can use them as inspiration if you’re thinking about including a sabbatical leave to your employee benefits or to modify your existing sabbatical policy if you feel that’s needed. 

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1. Alta Planning + Design 

Alta Planning + Design is a North American multi-modal transportation firm with a mission to create active communities where bicycling and walking are safe, healthy and fun daily activities.

At Alta, employees are eligible for a (short) sabbatical leave after 5 years of employment. They can receive a stipend toward an excursion to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or another city/region where biking is a way of life. 

I like the fact that Alta’s sabbatical program is linked to the company’s mission of creating active communities although I can see why employees may feel that it limits their sabbatical options. 

2. Autodesk

Autodesk is an American multinational software company. At Autodesk, employees get a six-week, paid sabbatical every four continuous years of full-time US Autodesk employment. While the sabbatical period may not be very long, it does occur every four years and is fully paid which makes it an attractive benefit. 

3. Deloitte 

At Deloitte, a large multinational consultancy, there are various sabbatical programs. In the US, employees can take an unpaid, one-month sabbatical or a three-to six-month sabbatical. 

The former can be taken for any reason. The latter comes with a few more strings attached and can be taken to pursue personal or professional growth opportunities for career development or volunteering. If employees want to go on the several-month long sabbatical, they still get 40% of their pre-sabbatical base salary.   

4.  Epic

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At Epic, a US healthcare software company, employees have the possibility to go on a sabbatical leave every five years. If they decide to go the can do so for four weeks and they continue to be paid. But that’s not all, if an Epic employee wants to go on sabbatical to a country they have never been to, the company helps them fund the trip and they get to bring a guest for whom they’ll pay too!

5. Patagonia

At Patagonia, an American outdoor clothing company, they offer their employees a different kind of sabbatical leave. People can go on a two-month, paid, sabbatical to volunteer for an environmental company of their choice. 

While I’m not sure this is a ‘full’ sabbatical since people don’t get to choose what they want to do with their time off, I like the fact that the company offers its employees the opportunity to take an extended break from work while supporting a good cause.  

Wrap-up

Sabbaticals come in many different forms. But whether they last six weeks or a year, and whether they’re spent volunteering or traveling the world, they can have a very positive impact on both employees and organizations.

FAQ

What is a sabbatical leave from work?

A sabbatical leave is a period in which an employee takes an extended break from work. The reasons for taking a sabbatical can vary from pursuing a degree or working on a personal project to volunteering, traveling the world, or spending more time with family.  

Why is a sabbatical important?

Going on a sabbatical has benefits both for the employee as well as their employer. For employees, it can reduce stress and increase overall wellbeing. For organizations, it is the occasion to stress test their succession planning and prepare teams for unexpected absences.

What does a sabbatical leave policy look like?

Key elements to cover in a sabbatical policy are eligibility, whether or not the leave paid or unpaid, what the application process is, the purpose of the company’s sabbatical policy and the duration of the leave.

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