Getting away from it all

Studies have shown that the number of employers offering some form of extended leave has increased significantly in recent years. Almost two-thirds of employers now offer career breaks, which are increasingly seen as part of a package of measures to make work more flexible and improve work-life balance.

Why extended leave?

The possibility of taking extended leave is attractive to employees of all ages. Younger members of staff may want to take that last chance to travel before settling down those with young families may want to take time out to spend with their children and some may simply need a break.

Having extended leave policies can be an inexpensive way of rewarding employees for their service. And while the advantages to employees are obvious, career breaks are also beneficial for employers.

The most important benefit to employers is improved retention. Allowing employees time out where they may otherwise have handed in their notice saves your business money. An employer retains the investment in the employee and avoids the need to recruit and train a replacement. Enabling employees to take career breaks may rejuvenate them and increase motivation and morale. After all, a happy employee is a productive employee.

And the hidden benefits? Your employees may return from their extended leave with new skills, new ideas and increased confidence, all of which will be of benefit to your business.

Policy considerations

Extended leave schemes vary greatly in terms of length of leave, qualifying period and payment. It is common to operate a qualifying period before employees can apply for extended leave.

Because secondments involve different considerations – ie employment continues – but the identity of the day-to-day employer changes, many employers choose to have a separate secondment policy that is distinct from career breaks and sabbaticals.

Apart from parental leave (up to 13 weeks) that parents of children under five can receive if they are eligible, there is no specific legislation governing career breaks, sabbaticals and secondments. As a result, it is particularly important that employers have a policy to clarify how their scheme will work.

It is necessary to consider whether you want your employees to remain employed during their career break. Although it is standard to maintain continuity of employment during a secondment or short-term sabbatical, where there is a longer career break the employee is often asked to resign with a statement that, where possible, the employer will re-engage them in a similar position when they return to the company. The policy should expressly state that following the resignation, continuity of employment does not continue during the career break. Unusually, the Employment Rights Act 1996 states that continuity can be preserved without a contract of employment if there is an ‘arrangement’ or ‘custom’ that both parties have agreed to preserve continuity.

A clear policy setting out the terms and conditions of the ability to participate in such a scheme will help prevent any misunderstandings arising at a later date.

Avoid misunderstandings

Juggling business needs when one or more key employees opt to take extended leave can be problematic, particularly for smaller employers. Such difficulties can be avoided by explaining there is no automatic right to take the leave the right is discretionary and subject to business needs. Specifying that the employee must give the employer a lengthy period of notice and regulating the maximum period of leave permitted can also minimise disruption.

Another issue raised by employers is what they should do when employees do not return or stay away longer than expected. Provided the policy states that the employee has resigned before the career break and there is no obligation to re-engage, then an employer should write and confirm that it will not make any further contact.

Employers should also avoid guaranteeing that employees on long-term career breaks will have a role to return to after they have resigned. Difficulties can arise if badly-drafted policies promise re-engagement but there is no suitable job available for the employee on their return.

Returning ex-employees may raise a grievance or argue that the employer was in breach of a promise or even in breach of contract if they fail to provide the new role. As long as continuity is broken, and the returner was not an employee during their absence, their remedies would be limited to an arguable case of breach of contract, depending on the wording of the policy.

Many employers now believe that the benefits of allowing employees to take extended periods of leave outweigh the possible disadvantages, although it is crucial to implement an effective policy to minimise any potential misunder­standings.

Mandy Laurie is a partner in the employment team at law firm Dundas & Wilson

Employees get chance to take extended leave

Most UK workers feel their employer stopped them taking extended leave or sabbaticals

Legal Q&A: Career breaks

Sabbaticals – good for staff and business


Popular career break options

  • Family time – time out to raise a family or care for a relative
  • Volunteer work – teaching English abroad or taking part in a conservation project
  • Self-improvement – writing that first novel or learning a new language
  • Business placement – often organised in conjunction with the employer
  • Around the world trip – self-organised travel to see the world.


Policy guidelines

An extended leave policy should state:

  • The qualifying period of employment before the employee can request extended leave
  • The maximum length of extended leave that can be requested
  • The frequency of extended leave – a one-off option?
  • Any restrictions on how leave can be spent – for example, details of any specific secondment or sabbatical opportunities recommended or offered by the employer
  • Whether the leave will be paid or unpaid
  • The length of notice and the procedure for requesting a period of extended leave
  • Any criteria on which an extended leave request is considered/approved
  • Whether continuity of employment is maintained during the extended leave
  • Whether there is any guarantee of work at the end of the period
  • The effect of leave on benefits and statutory rights.

What does it all mean?

  • Career break: time out from an employee’s career, commonly involving resigning with possibility of re-engagement in future. This would usually be unpaid, with no restriction on what the employee does during their leave.
  • Sabbatical: a more organised break, where the duration of or reason for the break is agreed between the employer and employee. They tend to be shorter and are more likely to be paid.
  • Secondment: organised through the employer, this may involve working for another company or a charitable organisation while remaining in the full employment/pay of the employer.

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