As workplace stresses and strains continue to impact UK businesses, increasing numbers of burnt-out employees are looking for a way to destress, switch off and reconnect with friends, family and nature. In response, and perhaps recognising the wider business benefits of retaining a motivated and productive workforce, many larger companies have begun to offer both paid and unpaid sabbaticals to their employees.
Whilst establishing sabbaticals as a routine workplace benefit is still relatively rare in the UK, the sabbatical has been reasonably well-established within the US for several decades. Many sources state that McDonald’s implemented the first corporate sabbatical program in 1977, and forty years later, a survey conducted for the Society for Human Resource Management stated that the percentage of companies offering sabbaticals; both paid and unpaid; rose to nearly 17% of employers in 2017
In the UK, a survey conducted by holiday booking company Opodo showed that 50% of respondents who have taken, or are considering taking, a sabbatical, would do so in order to get away from the stress of working life. With 73% of respondents stating that they do not think they have a generous holiday allowance, and a further 43% indicating that they would primarily take a sabbatical to help to improve their physical and mental health, it is apparent that UK businesses would be wise to educate themselves on the business and employee benefits of taking a workplace sabbatical.
What is a Sabbatical?
In a nutshell, a sabbatical is taken by an employee as an approved break from the workplace. These can vary in length, and are dependent on wider company policies, and the personal agreement made between an individual employee and their employer. A sabbatical is normally over and above an employee’s normal annual leave entitlement.
Are there different types of Sabbatical?
Sabbaticals typically comprise a single period of extended leave, but can also comprise short, frequent periods of absence – for example, a regular day each month on which employees can spend time supporting a charity. If an employee wishes to take longer than a year away from the workplace, this is usually classed as a career break rather than a sabbatical. Neither of these terms is defined by UK law, so this can sometimes be confusing in terms of knowing how to refer to different periods of leave.
Who is eligible to take a Sabbatical?
Eligibility requirements for sabbaticals depend entirely on individual company policies. It is good practice to ensure that different groups of staff are not discriminated against when considering all requests for sabbaticals – e.g. part-time employees must be given the same consideration as their full-time counterparts. All applications must be considered fairly and equally.
With no official legislation covering the topic of sabbaticals, most employers instead tend to require employees to accrue a minimum period of service before allowing them to apply for a career break. For example, long periods of leave tend to be made available to senior employees, or those with over five or ten years of continual service. Ensure that you are mindful of discrimination considerations, such as age and disability, before setting up any criteria.
Why do people take Sabbaticals?
As discussed previously, many employees are increasingly looking to sabbaticals in order to unplug and de-stress for a set period of time away from the workplace. However, other reasons for taking workplace sabbaticals include undertaking family or caring commitments, travelling, long-term volunteering or further studying.
What is the average length of time taken on Sabbatical?
Sabbaticals can span from a couple of months to up to around a year away from the workplace. Every company that offers a workplace sabbatical will have their own criteria set out within their employment terms & conditions as to the length of time an employee can take.
If you decide to offer company sabbaticals, it is good practice to discuss with employees that longer lengths of time away from the workplace could result in it being more difficult to reintegrate back into their previous role, and to the workplace as a whole. You should also inform them that it may be harder for you to commit to re-employing them in the same role upon their return.
Can I refuse a sabbatical request?
As sabbaticals are not covered by any UK legislation, it is perfectly feasible to refuse a request if you should need to. However, it would be good business practice to ensure that you can provide solid, business-related reasons for refusing a sabbatical request, in order to avoid future conflict. These could include:
- Poor performance and/or attendance
- Being unable to provide good-quality cover for the role in question
- A high demand for customer service requiring the employee in question to be present
- The employee is subject to disciplinary procedures
What are the benefits to offering company sabbaticals?
Increasing numbers of companies now provide sabbaticals and career breaks to long-serving employees. Sabbaticals can bring benefits to employees and employers alike, including the increased retention of employees, the option of using the time off as a reward or prize for outstanding performance or sales, and allowing for new skills and motivations to be brought back by employees returning from time off.
Sabbaticals can also encourage employees to make a difference, via volunteering and charity programmes, and many firms have now integrated sabbaticals within their own workplace CSR policies.
Alternatively, if you are experiencing temporary business problems or looking for a fair way to reduce staff for a set period, offering an unpaid sabbatical could be a good way to reduce your staff costs for a set period of time.
Sabbaticals are also likely to result in increased employee gratitude towards your business, as well as a renewed sense of motivation and enthusiasm upon their return.