Career breaks and sabbaticals: six points for employers to consider

Many employees take career breaks for an extended holiday. Photo: Galyna Andrushko
Many employees take career breaks for an extended holiday. Photo: Galyna Andrushko

Career breaks can be a useful tool in employee retention. However, there are areas of uncertainty associated with their use, so employers offering them need to have a clear policy. Clio Springer provides a six-point checklist of issues that employers should bear in mind.

Career breaks policy

Employers can set out the terms on which they will offer breaks in their career breaks policy.

A career break agreement should clearly set out the arrangements for the employee’s return, along with the terms and conditions and obligations that will apply during it.

Many employees take advantage of a career break to study, travel, carry out voluntary work or pursue their interests, among other things. Employers can also benefit from the experience and skills that employees gain while away.


1. What is a career break?

“Career break” is typically used to describe an extended period of agreed absence from work, possibly spanning several years. The term is often used interchangeably with “sabbatical”, which is generally taken to mean a shorter period of leave of several weeks or months. Neither term is defined by law.

Career breaks are normally unpaid, although some employers pay employees on a much reduced rate compared to normal pay, or pay a retainer to try to secure an employee’s return to work.

More on key elements of a career break…


2. How long should a career break be?

Some breaks are for a few months, while others span several years. The longer the break, the more difficult it will be for the employee to reintegrate into the workplace and for the employer to commit to re-employing him or her at the end of the break.

More on length of career breaks…


3. Who will be eligible to take a career break?

Eligibility requirements for being able to take a career break should not discriminate against certain groups of staff, for example part-time employees. Requests should be considered fairly and consistently.

It is common for employers to require employees to accrue a minimum period of service before they can apply for a career break. Employers need to be mindful of age discrimination law, though, when setting any such criteria.

More on eligibility requirements and length of service criteria…


4. Should the contract continue during the career break?

Some employers offer career breaks as a period of unpaid leave, while others require an employee who wants to take a career break to resign, on the basis that he or she will be offered re-employment at the end of the break.

There are pros and cons with either approach for employees and employers. However, employers that require employees to resign may experience limited take-up.

More on continuation of contract of employment during a career break…


5. How will benefits be dealt with during the career break?

Will the employee continue to be entitled to benefits during a career break and will bonuses be due? Will time spent on a career break count towards qualification for service-related benefits? These are issues that employers need to resolve before agreeing to an employee’s request for a career break.

More on treatment of benefits during a career break…


6. What are the employee’s rights when returning from a career break?

Unlike employees on maternity or other family-related leave, employees on a career break have no statutory right to return to work. The arrangements for return are down to the agreement between the employer and employee.

Therefore, to reduce liability for potential future claims, employers need to be clear about the terms of an employee’s return.

Is a return to the previous role guaranteed and what pay and conditions will apply? What happens if the job no longer exists?

More on employee’s rights on return from a career break…

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