I’ll see you in six months…

Sabbaticals are a win-win situation. Employees reap the benefits of rest or a change, and the business gains greater staff retention.

Tim Martin, former chairman of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, did something a bit eye-catching last September – he announced he was taking a six month sabbatical. Martin plunged into the privacy of his Devon home and took up French. In April, he was back at Wetherspoon, but in a new two-day-a-week role as non-executive chairman.

A sabbatical means, literally, ‘of the Sabbath’, or a rest. It is a voluntary agreement whereby a member of staff takes fully-paid, part-paid or unpaid leave above their holiday allowance. Today it is a chance to travel, work with a charity or simply recharge the batteries.

Sabbaticals can play a part in promoting work-life balance, especially in the context of the Government’s flexible working legislation. They can also help keep employees motivated.

“It’s a good way of retaining senior executives. After working at the same place for 10 years, most people get ground down and many just leave, but if they took a six-month break, they might stay,” says Frances Wilson, policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Andrew Bedell, a founder of the Pitcher and Piano pub group, who now owns the Tootsies hamburger chain, has just given one of his restaurant managers, who has been with the company 25 years, six months’ paid leave: “I was inspired by John Lewis, which does the same thing. I was once a trainee there.”

“It’s a celebration, a reward for their commitment, “ explains Andy Street, head of HR at high street retailer, John Lewis. “Some 500 of our staff have taken these sabbaticals to do all sorts of interesting things. One man took the time to be with his young, second family.”

But isn’t 25 years a long time to wait for a sabbatical? “About 20 [of our] staff a year each work for a charity for six months on full pay, which doesn’t require working for that long. Also, lots of staff take unpaid leave to study or travel and their jobs are held open for them,” says Street.

Humphrey Walters, a leadership and team building consultant, could be described as having the ultimate sabbatical – he sailed round the world in l996/97, taking 11 months with a crew of 14.

He was chief executive of training provider Mast Training at the time and felt he had to go and experience leadership. “My trip certainly did a lot for me. The most important thing was getting the personal relationships right,” he says.

“Re-entry is always the problem. I tell companies it is essential that the person does a new job or project, so long as it is different from the one before.

He adds: “Unless you’ve taken a life changing break, you can’t realise how different the returnee feels. If their drive isn’t harnessed, they will leave. I left within two years to set up a new kind of team and leadership consultancy.”

Accountancy firm Ernst & Young prides itself on its staff benefits and it makes no bones about the fact that its liberal sabbatical policy is all about enlightened self-interest – in other words, staff retention.

Accountants are expensive to train too, so provided someone has been with the firm at least a year, Ernst & Young gives unpaid leave for up to 13 weeks, shortly to be upped to six months.

Richard Gartside, director of reward and employee relations at Ernst & Young, says: “Traditions are changing. The ‘Y’ generation, whom we want to attract, are keen to take time out to travel and aren’t bothered about getting into the resultant debt for a while. They are used to it.”

A second scheme at Ernst & Young is designed for those with families and can be taken for up to three years with continuity of employment, plus benefits maintained before and after the break.

Street says that sabbaticals are an important part of succession planning. “Apart from anything, the job vacancy a sabbatical creates for six months is a very useful way of trying out staff on a job they haven’t done before. It contributes to succession planning generally,” he says.

The benefits of sabbaticals 

  • A cheap form of benefit, being mostly unpaid
  • Relatively simple to implement
  • Aid staff retention
  • Create goodwill among staff
  • Encourage career development
  • Rejuvenate jaded employees
  • Reward senior management with paid leave
  • Help with career planning for the one taking the sabbatical and for the one filling the job he vacates
  • Can be used to reduce staff during a recession, rather than resorting to redundancy

Case study: The Health & Safety Executive (HSE)

Margaret Pretty, senior inspector of factories

“I find the executive’s benefits quite outstanding. We can take a break for a few weeks, or up to five years for family reasons. I took my break from 1997 to 2003. I have three children. I worked throughout their first years and I wanted to be a full-time mother.

“I took one year out first and I found it such a pleasure that I upped the leave to the maximum.

“I didn’t want to return initially but I was given a cracking good job – overseeing an impressive range of service industries, including Heathrow Airport. I went on courses to catch up and got lots of support from my colleagues.

“I learnt that I had been credited for the years I had been away for seniority, which was excellent. “

Sabbaticals and the role of HR

With a sabbatical, no-one is indispensable. An employee’s post will be filled by others, but at least they know they can return to do something similar. They need to know what sort of continuity their bonuses, pension payments, seniority increments and pay increases will have while they are away. Companies vary in generosity; some require longer qualification periods than others. Others let the sabbatical be taken in chunks or in one go.

Margaret Pretty benefited from a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) unpaid ‘career break’, taken for six months up to five years. Any member of staff can apply after just one year of employment. There are currently 64 HSE staff on career breaks out of a total of 4,095 employees.

Paul Willgoss, reward and employment policy manager at the HSE, says: “We offer breaks mainly to retain staff. It takes two years to train inspectors and that is a considerable expense. We don’t want people to leave once trained. The employee’s line manager will consider each application on its merits. Leave is designed for the family, looking after the young and the old, but we also allow VSO and Operation Raleigh.”

“We have medium salaries but our terms and conditions are generous. We had an eye to work-life balance for a time as we have a large female work force. The ethos works through and people are attracted to what we offer.’

Willgoss agrees that the debriefing has to be thought out and a task arranged that will match the skills of the person returning. “If it’s a long break there may be several items, such as IT, that the returner has to catch up with. On the whole, the process seems fairly smooth.”

There have been 10 sabbaticals taken at Microsoft in the last five years but the company is currently reviewing its sabbaticals policy and so is unable to comment extensively.

The HR team spokesperson says: “The most common reason for people wanting sabbaticals is the opportunity to travel. The main benefit for the company is that sabbaticals encourage employees to take some time for themselves and come back revitalised. Indeed, staff have often taken on new challenges upon return with fresh enthusiasm.

“Steve Harvey’s sabbatical was negotiated with his then boss, managing director Neil Holloway, as part of his ‘development discussion’. Steve and Neil then agreed how it would work and made practical plans for covering Steve’s role.”

 Case study: Microsoft UK

Steve Harvey, director of people and culture

Accountant Steve Harvey (pictured above) joined Microsoft in 1990. He’d spent seven years running finance and administration and, by September 2002, he was in charge of people and culture.

He was able to take advantage of paid time off awarded to top executives.

“I had been working non-stop for 14 years, and our baby was due that month.

“I had a very good time away, seeing my family and getting into my hobby – which is also a business – of breeding gun dogs. From the firm’s point of view, the break gave me new insights, and my own business gave me new skills too.

“After the initial excitement of not going to work every day, I did miss the quality of the people and all the challenges that work brings,” he admits.

When Harvey returned to work, he had de-briefing sessions with HR colleagues and his coach. He worked on a specific project for six months but he still kept his old job.


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