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Do Employee Sabbaticals Really Pay Off?

Sabbaticals often make big news – Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review (HBR) have both extolled the virtues of the practice – yet relatively few U.S. employers offer this as a benefit.

According to SHRM’s benefits report, only 12% offer an unpaid sabbatical option, and a meager 5% of U.S. employers offer paid sabbaticals. Yet here’s an interesting fact: a full 20% of Fortune 100 companies offer paid sabbaticals.

Do those Fortune 100 organizations know something others don’t; or do they just have the deep pockets and cash to burn of an enterprise?

According to the pundits, sabbaticals give employees a chance to rest and refresh. They can quote research that indicates employees who have taken sabbaticals come back less stressed and more productive, with the experience having fostered creativity and collaboration. HBR argues that there are organizational benefits as well: having leaders take extended breaks is a chance to “stress test their organizational chart.” An older but comprehensive review of sabbaticals from the Society for Human Resource Management found that they “boost retention, development and training at little cost.”

Cost, meanwhile, is difficult to pin down. SHRM argues that other employees will pick up the slack, leaving the offering “cost neutral.” It’s worth nothing that sabbaticals are not as expensive as many employers might fear. Intel, for example, offers an option of four weeks every four years or eight weeks every seven years. That separates the sabbatical from extended paid leave; rather than being a cost center, the employee (presumably) earns it through productivity and performance over time.

But that may bring us to the real reason to offer sabbaticals, one in which the decision pertains more to company culture than employee engagement or cost considerations. “At the forefront of the sabbatical is the individual–we want employees to do what is most important to them,” Tim Miller, founder of Rally Software, wrote for Fast Company.

In other words, the question is less about what’s going to make an attractive benefit than about what’s good for your people to maintain their health, well-being, and energy. SHRM writes,

“Some industries or organizations need sabbaticals more than others, according to HR professionals. They say employers in fast-paced, high-stress fields, such as high-tech or finance, should consider offering an employee sabbatical benefit. ‘At Intel, most of us work unrelenting hours. Many days start at 6 a.m. and don’t end until 10 p.m. to accommodate the different time zones because of the global nature of the work,’ says Global Benefits Manager Paula Sanderson. ‘Sabbaticals force us to take a break from what is probably an unhealthy cycle of work, work, work.’”

 

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