What is Sabbatical Leave? How and When to Offer It

Andrew Buck August 30, 2021

Sabbatical leave is not as common as regular annual leave, sick days, or family leave. But for some companies, this can be a core part of their leave policy.

There are many things to take into account when offering your workers a sabbatical, paid or otherwise. It doesn’t make sense for all companies, or all employees.

In this article, we’ll get down to the heart of sabbatical leave – what it is, when it makes sense, the benefits of offering a sabbatical, and how to handle it in your company’s workflow.

What is Sabbatical Leave from Work?

Realistically, there’s no universal definition of when a vacation becomes a sabbatical leave. However, generally speaking, an employee is on sabbatical leave when he or she takes an extended leave period, usually longer than a month, while remaining employed by the company.

Sabbatical is often used to let employees pursue other interests or attend to personal commitments. The leave period can range anywhere from a month to a year long. 

An extended leave less than a month is typically categorized under an annual leave type instead of a sabbatical. 

Sabbaticals can be paid, unpaid, or a combination of both, depending on your time off policy (more details below).

What types of companies provide sabbatical leave?

In the past, the practice of providing sabbaticals was primarily prevalent in academic institutions. 

For example, a professor might take an extended leave of absence to travel, gain new perspectives, or to conduct research on their own. 

More recently, businesses and corporations have been realizing the value in providing some high-level team members extended leave to pursue their personal interests. 

In 2018, 15% of business employers included sabbaticals as a benefit, with 55% of those being paid leaves. 

A sabbatical leave is typically reserved for long-term employees in the company – for example, someone who has been with your company for more than five years and holds a certain position of seniority.

Sabbatical Leave vs. Regular Leave

There are some situations when regular annual leave is simply not long enough for your employee to achieve their desired outcome. 

As we mentioned before, sabbaticals are at least more than a month-long, and can even last up to a year. This is why these types of extended absences are reserved only for specific high-level employees. 

You only want to approve these leaves in situations where the benefit of holding on to an employee is greater than the cost of their extended absence, or it is significantly more costly to replace them than to grant a sabbatical.

When Might Someone Take Sabbatical Leave?

Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons why someone might want to take a sabbatical leave, and in some cases, why it might even potentially benefit you, the employer.

Study 

Continuing education is one of the main reasons why one might take a sabbatical. 

It could be to pursue a higher education degree like an MBA or a master’s degree. But it could also mean taking time to attend coding bootcamps or online courses on the team member’s areas of interest/expertise. 

Some companies go one step beyond and even offer to pay for the education if they think the new skills could benefit them. 

Typically, there’s a contract that requires that the employee commits to a certain period of employment after they return to work, in such cases.

Travel

One might request a sabbatical for extended travel. 

While vacation days are good for a quick trip with the family, they typically don’t provide enough time to do any real exploration or soul searching.

A sabbatical allows one to travel in a more relaxed manner to explore, learn, and gain new perspectives. 

Volunteering

Another big reason to take a sabbatical is to use the time to give back. 

Your employee might want to use his or her skill sets to make the world a better place for children, people who are less fortunate, and work on projects that promote environmental sustainability, just to mention a few ideas.

Volunteering could help one learn more about themselves, make new connections, and obtain new problem-solving skills, all of which could benefit your company when the employee returns to work.

Personal Commitments

Personal commitments can include things like taking care of official matters with one’s family or taking care of a loved one.

One example might be a death in the family that creates a requirement for long-term leave for one of your employees.

Let’s say you might provide 3-7 days of bereavement leave when an employee’s family member passes away. But now they might be left with another elderly relative who needs care. 

A sabbatical would allow enough time to provide appropriate care or to find the right caregiver who can do the job.

Stress Management

Sometimes, people need some time off to wind down and de-stress, especially if they’ve been burning the midnight oil to hit critical deadlines. 

Burnout can be a real problem that impacts performance and motivation, and it can also lead to additional issues like absenteeism and sick leave abuse.

If you have an employee that’s been a consistent high-performer for you, but you’re noticing that they’re struggling a bit, it could be caused by stress, and an extended leave can help them rejuvenate and get back to their best.

Further reading: learn more about Employee Burnout, and how this is affecting your team.

Personal Interests

Your team members might have personal goals and passions that they want to pursue. 

Maybe they want to compete in a sporting event and need time to really train like an athlete. IT could be that they’ve always wanted to achieve an incredible goal, like climbing Mt. Everest. 

Or perhaps they have a passion for arts and literature, and they want to make a film or write a novel. 

They may have reached a point in their career where they feel a certain level of professional accomplishment, and now they want to take some time off to pursue their other interests.

Is Sabbatical Leave Paid?

Whether a sabbatical is paid or not would depend on your agreement with the employee. 

It could be that you have standard sabbatical guidelines in your time off policy, or it could be more on a case-by-case basis.

You can either provide full pay while they’re gone or the sabbatical could be unpaid. You could also pay a portion of the employee’s regular salary during the leave period. 

Whether it is paid or unpaid would depend on several factors, but here are a few big ones. 

Your time off policy – if you have set guidelines for sabbaticals for every employee, then that would dictate whether it is paid on unpaid.

The team member – The less replaceable the employee, the bigger the incentive for you to make sure that he or she comes back to work after the sabbatical. 

A paid sabbatical leave can demonstrate that you really care about their wellbeing and create long-term loyalty with a key team member.

Industry norms – There are some sectors where sabbaticals are more common than others. For example, we previously mentioned that these leaves are more prevalent in academic institutions and they tend to be paid. 

If a lot of your competitors are providing paid sabbaticals, then you should consider a similar policy to stay competitive when it comes to attracting and retaining top performers.

Further reading: learn how to set an effective and fair leave policy for your business.

How Long Does Sabbatical Leave Last?

Once again, it would depend on the specifics of the leave, and your agreement with the employee. 

But sabbaticals typically last between a month to a year. This allows enough time to pursue goals/passions, acquire additional skills, travel, or attend to personal commitments.

Why Would a Company Offer Sabbatical Leave?

You might be wondering why it would ever make sense for you to allow one of your employees to take a year off from work without replacing them. 

Especially if they want to be compensated during that period.

Let’s discuss a few reasons why it could be in your best interest to provide sabbaticals to select team members, and potentially even paying them for it. 

Optimal Performance

Your company’s long-term success is tied directly to how well your top employees (leadership or executive team) perform. 

Top performers are often more in tune with how they feel. If they’re not turned on, switched on, and running on all cylinders, then you might not be getting the most you can out of them. 

So, you want to make sure they’re feeling good, feeling creative, and they’re bustling with enthusiasm. 

Providing them an extended leave every few years to pursue their passions, or simply to de-stress and rejuvenate, could do wonders for their performance, and the results for your company.

Succession Planning

Allowing leadership team members to take some time away also presents you with the opportunity to train the next generation of leaders within your organization. 

In the absence of the senior team member who is on sabbatical leave, others will have to assume some of their responsibilities, solve problems on their own, and learn new skills to perform tasks. 

And when the senior member returns to work, the entire team will function better because presumably, the junior team members are now more capable than before.

Reduce Turnover Cost

Employee turnover, especially when it comes to senior team members who are more likely to request a sabbatical, can be very expensive.

According to Employee Benefits News, replacing an employee can cost approximately 33% of their salary. 

So, it is feasible, depending on their role, the length of their leave, and if you can get the job done in their absence, it might be less expensive to allow an employee to take a sabbatical than having to replace them.

Final Thoughts – Should My Business Offer Sabbatical Leave?

You’re not required by law to provide sabbaticals. Nor is it expected that you provide such extended leaves of absences unless you’re in a sector where it’s common, like an academic institution.

But if it’s feasible for you, and you can afford it, it could be a benefit that allows you to hold on to your most valuable employees. 

Allowing your top employees to pursue their passions and interests will show them that you value them at the highest level. It will elevate their sense of loyalty and satisfaction, and they keep performing at their best for years to come.

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