Taking a few months off work to pursue a professional or personal development goal may seem counterintuitive in these straitened times, but taking a sabbatical could have a long-term positive effect on your career. As an HR professional, you may be more used to administering these schemes, but that does not mean you should not reap the rewards yourself.
Although sabbaticals were once considered the preserve of academics, they have been growing in popularity as a commercial employee benefit. Almost a quarter of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For include fully paid sabbaticals on their list of perks for staff.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s definition, sabbaticals usually involve the employee taking a period of time – over and above their normal paid annual leave – away from the workplace. They 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. Long periods of leave tend to be made available to senior employees or those with a certain length of service; leave to do voluntary work is often available to most staff as part of the organisation’s wider corporate social responsibility remit.
Sabbaticals: the practicalities
Source: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
Some employers offer sabbaticals that allow employees to spend a number of months working for a related supplier or customer; others allow them to take time out to pursue a professional development course. A few offer the chance to simply take time out to step back from the business after a nominated period of time as an employee.
Value for employee and employer
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, believes that sabbaticals work best when both parties – the employer and the employee – are able to extract value from the time away.
“The best way to approach a sabbatical is to engage in it from both sides, rather than the organisation presenting you with something. If they can discuss your options with you, it shows you are valued,” he says. He advocates having a clear idea of what you want to get out of the break, and how it will help you develop both professionally and personally.
He adds: “You need to think about what would give you added value. Is it for corporate benefit or something you think would be worthwhile for personal benefit, or both?”
Department store chain John Lewis Partnership offers one of the most generous sabbatical schemes – or “long leave” as it is known in the partnership – among UK employers. The scheme has been running for more than 30 years, and rewards partners who have more than 25 years’ service the opportunity to take up to 26 weeks’ fully paid leave. While some employers stipulate that a sabbatical should incorporate some form of professional development, at John Lewis employees are able to use this time as they wish.
Kevin Rogers, personnel projects manager (new branches) at John Lewis, took his long leave in April 2011, after two years in which his professional life had been particularly intense. “My immediate plan for my leave was to re-work my garden. But I also had the chance to do some manual work, play some more golf, go cycling and do an off-road driving course,” he says. He also enjoyed trips to Rome, Marrakech and Delhi. “I had time to get out in the open air and reflect, and spend more time with my family.”
He believes that he returned to John Lewis in November last year with “a more open mind and a different perspective on things”. Prior to going on his break, he had discussed it with his manager, and there was an understanding that his role would be slightly different when he came back. This meant his return to work felt natural, rather than daunting. “My new team and immediate colleagues were very good at providing me with information on what I’d missed while I was away, without overloading me,” he says.
While Rogers’ experience of taking a sabbatical was extremely positive, Professor Cooper warns that both parties need to be pursuing the opportunity for the right reasons. “The worst reason to do it is because the person is not performing well, so you take them out of their role and send them somewhere,” he says.
Returning to the role
Similarly, the length of the sabbatical can have a real influence on how easy it is to fit back into the role when you return. “Go for too long and you will worry about the politics back in the organisation when you come back,” warns Professor Cooper. It is also important to clarify any practical aspects regarding your employment contract before you go – for example, will you continue to pay into the company pension while you are away? Ensure your return is well-managed, with a clear date and clarification around any changes to your role or the business. Some companies may offer a return-to-work meeting to settle any concerns you may have.
But the potential for development a sabbatical can offer, and the increased engagement you will have with your job as a result, far outweigh any risks. By keeping lines of communication open, and being honest about what you plan to get out of your time away, it can give you an entirely new perspective on your work, which can have a positive effect on your team’s performance.
Rogers would certainly recommend a sabbatical to other HR professionals: “Have an open mind and try out new things, but be clear about the value you want to get out of it,” he advises. “I wanted to spend more time with my family and get more time to myself than I had previously been able to due to work commitments. I came back re-energised and re-focused.”
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