Productivity | November 18, 2019

Sabbatical Leave: The ideal tool to increase workplace productivity?

The American style of work is plain stressful - says James, the project manager of Company X. 

James has been a devoted employee of Company X for the past 7 years, dedicating 2x more work hours than the average employee just to ensure that the company delivers successful projects. However, those extra work hours have drained James of his energy. As such, after 5 years of hard work and commitment, James decides to take a sabbatical leave.

But what exactly is a sabbatical leave?

The concept of a sabbatical is derived from the word “sabbath” that denotes rest. The history of sabbatical leave takes us to the Old Testament practices of labor. In the ancient lands of Israel, farmers used to work for seven consecutive years in the fields before taking a year-long break to rest and recover.

Sabbatical leave today follows similar practices, companies that offer sabbatical leave do not generally provide an entire year off to their employees but they do encourage extended vacation periods. In the case of James, the leave period would range anywhere from one to six weeks.

While the majority of businesses still perceive sabbaticals as unnecessary, there has been a movement that suggests otherwise. According to the findings of the 2018 Employee Benefits Report from The Society of Human Resource Management, 

15% of all US-based companies offer paid (3%) and unpaid (12%) sabbaticals to their employees.

As the voice of the employee gains prominence, we can expect the number of companies offering sabbaticals to increase by 2-3% over the next five years.

Sabbatical Leave: A Win-Win Condition

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Different from traditional PTO, Sabbaticals are usually provided in a lump sum. The duration of the lump sum depends on the internal policies of the company offering the sabbatical. However, it is commonly recognized that it does not extend beyond six weeks. So, let’s see how six additional weeks of work could benefit the employee as well as the employer.

A capacity-building tool for executives

Every executive has his or her own set of personal objectives in life, while one may want to travel the world, another wants to write a book. However, accomplishing these personal goals can be difficult when working a full-time job.

An important factor to bear in mind is that employers are also employees of a business, meaning they are subject to the very rules they create - similar to any other employee. 

On that note, the goal of a sabbatical is to provide employees with space and time they need to undertake personal endeavors that will bring peace and quiet to their minds. A research study coined Creative Disruption surveyed 61 leaders running nonprofits to determine the impact of sabbatical programs. What they found is executives came back rejuvenated with elevated levels of motivation and creativity in the workplace.

Another interesting finding that emerged indirectly from the study was the fact that employees filling in the shoes of the executive gained a wide variety of managerial skills that would serve the company in the future.

Therefore, sabbatical programs - although counter-intuitive by nature, should be recognized as capacity building tools that allow executives and employees to attain higher levels of satisfaction, motivation, and productivity. 

A burnout relief program for employees

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Since we’re on the topic of productivity, the United States is notoriously known as one of the most overworked nations in the world, right next to China and Japan. 

A 2017 study found that 14% of respondents aged 18-29 were acquainted with someone diagnosed by burnout syndrome. - Percentage of adults in the U.S. who personally knew someone who was diagnosed with burnout

To this day the burnout syndrome lacks a proper definition. However, commonly observed symptoms include lack of motivation & energy, a feeling of achieving less (which we discussed above), or a feeling of an unfulfilling workplace. Mounting concern over burnout has alarmed businesses to consider various burnout relief programs, as a means of protecting the mental health of their employees.

As one might expect, sabbaticals fall within the burnout relief programs. Amanda Pressner Kreuser in her article for Inc. gives a few great examples of companies using sabbatical leave to promote a work culture that is positive and productive.

Greater flexibility attracts greater talent

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In today's competitive marketplace, businesses are continuously seeking top talent, while top talent is continuously on the lookout for higher-levels of satisfaction. As such, to attract the best of the best, many small and large businesses have developed various policies that aim to increase workplace flexibility, autonomy, and overall work-life balance - all of which are positively related to satisfaction. 

A great example of a company offering extended workplace flexibility, including a program similar to sabbaticals is Kronos Incorporated. Aron J. Ain, CEO of Kronos has an entire book written on ways that businesses can attract and retain ‘great people’. In Work Inspired, Aron talks about his experience with sabbaticals, and how he managed to utilize such a program to recruit highly skilled employees across industries.

But simply implementing a program won’t cut it because everyone else is trying to do the same. Therefore, businesses have to be creative and think of introducing sabbatical programs in an unorthodox fashion.

Mitigating the Risks of Sabbaticals

The reason why businesses are hesitant to implement a sabbatical leave program is due to uncertainty.

  • What if the employee decides to leave permanently? 
  • What if the employee suddenly returns less productive? How can I determine that?

The risks and challenges of implementing Sabbatical are evident. And it is a valid reason for businesses to be concerned. However, there are a number of steps that businesses can take to mitigate the risk of losing an employee or their adeptness during a sabbatical leave.

Manage expectations contractually

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An employee can’t quit while on a sabbatical if the contract states there is a contractual obligation to return. A common way of mitigating this risk is by adding a section within the employee’s general contract highlighting the rules of the sabbatical leave program.

Alternatively, the employer could draft a new contract dedicated to sabbaticals that employees would have to sign prior to taking the ‘vacation’

This raises the question of why force an employee to return to the workplace? 

If an employee doesn’t want to return to the company then they were not the right fit. For this reason, we see many businesses developing sabbatical programs that are not contractually enforced.

Track productivity before and after the sabbatical

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The easiest way to measure productivity is by looking at the number of tasks an employee completes within a certain period of time. Of course, quality metrics are also important but to keep things simple we are only considering quantity and time.

In the past, employers would measure the work hours of employees through written timesheets - a process that was not efficient at all. As a result, technological advancements introduced digital solutions that automated the entire tracking process - accounting for both quantity and time. In 2019, digital time tracking has become the most common tool businesses use to asses the productivity of their employees.

Similarly, a digital time clock could be used to asses the productivity of an employee before and after their 1-6 week sabbatical leave. As we have previously stated, however, studies suggest that sabbatical programs lead to higher levels of engagement and businesses with higher levels of engagement do report 22% higher productivity.

A sabbatical program is more than just a reward system, it is a capacity-building tool that incorporates a burnout relief program. Therefore, it addresses three major concerns that businesses face today. 

Regardless of the duration of the leave, sabbaticals are one way to make sure employees are getting the break they need, while at the same time ensuring that companies are prepared for the unexpected.

If this program is not adequate for you then we suggest looking into alternatives solutions like the open-vacation policy, or even adjusted work schedules like the 9/80 work schedule. They are all designed to promote satisfaction, raise morale and boost productivity.


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