The Covid pandemic has prompted conversations about work-life balance and, consequently, employers may see an increase in requests for sabbaticals. It is a good idea to have a formal policy for career breaks in place, writes Rhoda Darbyshire.
It has recently been reported that the chief-executive of Co-op, Jo Whitfield, is taking a four month sabbatical to help her sons prepare for their GCSE and A-level exams. Although employees are not legally entitled to career breaks in the UK, this report has sparked a debate as to whether sabbaticals should be championed by employers and become more commonplace.
Sabbaticals have often been viewed as a privilege for the well paid. However, with employers feeling the pressure of the ‘Great Resignation’, new creative solutions are required to retain and recruit staff.
Offering sabbaticals can be beneficial for both the business and the employee, as they can:
- be used as a reward
- help bring new skills into the business and motivate employees
- provide opportunities for more junior members of a team to step up and gain experience
- allow employees to reset and recoup. This is particularly relevant with increased reports of post-pandemic burnout.
Forming a policy
There are no particular employment laws governing sabbaticals in the UK, although the right to request flexible working can be a way for employees to seek an employer’s agreement to a career break.
Provided a sabbatical request is not being made under the flexible working legislation, such an arrangement will come down to what is agreed between the parties in line with any express contractual provisions.
Employers should therefore consider introducing a sabbatical policy to manage career break requests, as having a written explanation of the company’s approach can minimise the chance of disputes. The policy can be a stand alone policy or part of a staff handbook. However, employers should ideally make this a non-contractual policy, so it can be changed without requiring the agreement of the entire workforce.
Legally, employees can take sabbaticals in two ways:
- as a form of paid or unpaid leave where the employment contract continues to exist, or
- as a temporary break from employment, where the employment contract is terminated and the employee resigns with the expectation of recommencing employment on similar terms.
The contents of a sabbatical policy is dictated by the legal format of a career break. It is therefore crucial for businesses to determine at the outset whether an employee needs to resign to take a career break, or whether they can continue to be in employment.
There are various legal advantages for the employer if the employee is asked to resign:
- the employee will not accrue statutory annual leave during the sabbatical
- continuity of service will likely be broken; and
- the employee will have no right to make a claim for unfair dismissal or redundancy pay if a job is not available to them when they return.
However, practically speaking, the risks associated with taking a career break by resignation is not attractive for employees and this is unlikely to encourage sabbatical take-up. Consequently, in most cases, career breaks are taken as a form of paid or unpaid leave where the employment contract is still in place.
Employers can minimise the legal disadvantages of this arrangement by using sabbatical agreements to suspend or vary the terms and conditions of an employment contract whilst an employee is on sabbatical. It is usual for salary and pension contributions to be waived during this period but this could be extended to bonuses and other benefits. In addition, an employer can determine when holiday should be taken and can provide that any annual leave over and above statutory leave does not accrue during a career break.
Managing requests for unpaid sabbaticals
In order to manage requests for unpaid sabbaticals, a sabbatical policy should set out an eligibility criteria that staff need to meet before applying for a career break. This could include a minimum service requirement and a time limit for the length of the sabbatical.
If resourcing is a concern, the sabbatical policy could also set out a limitation on the number of employees that can go on sabbatical at any one time. This could be company-wide or team-specific. The number of sabbaticals any one employee can take could also be limited by the number of occasions or the number of days in a company year.
It may also be prudent to request employees to initially submit an informal request, if employers are conscious of the management time taken up to review formal applications.”
The policy should also set out the steps staff need to follow if they are to request a career break. In particular, the policy should indicate how far in advance an application needs to be submitted, and what information should accompany a request. It may also be prudent to request employees to initially submit an informal request, if employers are conscious of the management time taken up to review formal applications. The policy should also set out how the employer will respond to an application, the timeframe for a response and the factors that will be considered.
When can you say no?
When an employer can reject an application for a sabbatical is largely dependent on the terms in the sabbatical policy. It is best practice to make application decisions at the employer’s discretion. However, it will also be crucial to set out a fair and consistent process as to how applications are considered by the employer, in order to avoid potential disputes.
It is also good practice to detail in a letter the reasons for rejecting an application. The following examples may apply:
- poor performance
- poor attendance
- the employee is subject to disciplinary proceedings
- the number of employees permitted to be on sabbatical at any one time has been satisfied
While the topic of sabbaticals is by no means new, there is no doubt that the use of career breaks and the benefits that come with that should not be overlooked.