Sabbatical Leave: Should Your Company Offer A Program?

sabbatical leave
Image Credit: New York Magazine

Since May 2021, there have been twice as many job openings as there are unemployed people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Two jobs vying for one candidate means that companies need to innovate to attract and retain talent.

Alongside the competition for talent, the concept of “burnout” at work has gained increasing traction, with employees and employers alike recognizing the need for meaningful breaks to sustain high-level performance.

One strategy that’s emerging as a powerful tool in addressing both these trends is the introduction of paid sabbatical leave programs. Is this the right move for your company?

In this article, we explore the intricacies of sabbatical leaves, their benefits and challenges, and how to implement a program.


Research About Paid Sabbaticals

Studies have shown a compelling narrative about the potential benefits of offering these programs. Employees benefit from a work sabbatical, and in turn, the company benefits.

Here are a few intriguing findings to understand why a growing number of companies are incorporating sabbatical leaves into their employee benefits strategies:

In the 2023 Employee Benefits Survey from SHRM, the results showed that sabbaticals remain rare in the corporate world.

Just 7% of employers offer paid sabbatical leave.

Just 8% of employers offer unpaid sabbatical leave.

In our own research, we found even fewer companies with sabbaticals.

In our database of 3,920 companies at Buildremote, we found an even small portion offering sabbaticals:

Just 6% of employers offer sabbatical leave of any kind.

Yet a 2010 experiment by Journal of Applied Psychology proved the benefits of a sabbatical.

The study compared 129 faculty members on sabbatical versus 129 matched controls. The research discovered many benefits for those who took a sabbatical:

  • Mean resource loss decreased during the sabbatical
  • Mean resource gain increased during the sabbatical
  • Stress declined during the sabbatical
  • Stress stayed significantly lower after the sabbatical as compared to before the sabbatical

See Also: What Is A Sabbatical Leave From Work? | How To Propose & Take A Sabbatical From Work


Benefits of Offering A Work Sabbatical Program (Employer Side)

Here’s a breakdown of the compelling benefits that can result from implementing a sabbatical program:

Recruitment Advantage

In a highly competitive job market, offering work sabbaticals can differentiate your company, attracting top talent who value work-life balance and personal development opportunities.

Retention Tool

Employees tend to stay with great companies to work for and ones that care about their well-being. Sabbaticals can enhance employee loyalty and contribute to longer tenures.

Reduced Employee Turnover

The cost of replacing a good employee can be significant. With research revealing that 52% of employees leave within their first year, it’s more cost-effective to retain an experienced employee through perks like sabbaticals, rather than continually hiring and training new recruits.

Refreshed and Revitalized Employees

Sabbaticals provide a genuine break from the workplace, allowing employees to relax, pursue personal interests, and return to work reinvigorated and ready to contribute.

Employees with New Perspectives

Stepping away from the daily grind can offer employees a fresh viewpoint on their roles and the organization, sparking innovation and fresh ideas.

Opportunities for Skill Development

Sabbaticals aren’t just beneficial for those taking the leave. They can create opportunities for other team members to step up and take on new responsibilities, promoting growth and aiding in succession planning.

Positive Impact on Company Culture

When employees take sabbaticals and return more satisfied and refreshed, it can positively influence the overall company culture, promoting a healthier, happier work environment.

Greater Employee Loyalty and Commitment

Sabbaticals can foster a stronger sense of loyalty and commitment among employees, as they feel valued and cared for by their employers.

These are just some of the tangible benefits that a well-crafted sabbatical program can bring to your organization. To truly leverage the power of sabbaticals, it’s essential to design a program that aligns with your company’s culture and goals, and to communicate the value of these leaves to your employees effectively.


Sabbatical Benefits For Employees

Sabbatical leaves, while undeniably beneficial for organizations, offer profound advantages for the employees as well. Here, we explore some of the prominent benefits of taking a sabbatical from work.

Reduced Burnout and Stress

Sabbaticals provide employees with an extended break from their daily work tasks, which can significantly reduce job-related stress and prevent burnout, enhancing their overall well-being.

Improved Work-Life Balance

Through sabbaticals, employees can pursue personal interests, spend quality time with family, or simply relax, which contributes to a healthier work-life balance.

Enhanced Creativity and Innovation

Away from the regular confines of work, employees can explore new ideas, fostering their creativity and innovative thinking, which they bring back to their roles.

Opportunity for New Experiences and Perspectives

Sabbatical leaves can be used to travel, volunteer, or learn something new, providing employees with fresh experiences and perspectives.

Personal and Professional Development

Whether used for further education or self-improvement, sabbaticals afford an opportunity for employees to invest in their personal and professional growth.

Growth and Learning

The freedom to explore new interests and pursuits during a sabbatical can lead to unexpected learning and growth opportunities.

Strengthened Skills and Knowledge

Sabbaticals, particularly those used for educational purposes, can lead to the enhancement of skills and knowledge, benefiting both the employee and the organization.

In sum, sabbatical leaves are not just a benefit; they’re an investment in employee well-being and growth, promising significant returns for both the employee and the company.


Challenges With Sabbatical Leave Policies

While sabbatical leave programs offer numerous benefits, they are not without their challenges. It’s essential for organizations to acknowledge and plan for these potential obstacles in order to ensure the successful implementation of a sabbatical policy.

Here are some of the key challenges that organizations may face when implementing sabbatical leaves:

Coverage For Workload And Knowledge

The most immediate challenge is finding suitable coverage for the workload and responsibilities of employees while they’re on sabbatical. This might involve redistributing tasks amongst existing employees or hiring temporary replacements.

Temporary Loss In Productivity

As work shifts from an experienced employee to a temporary replacement or other team members, there can be a temporary dip in productivity until the new arrangement stabilizes.

Potential Resentment Among Employees

Sabbatical policies can inadvertently lead to feelings of resentment among employees who do not yet qualify for them. For example, an employee who’s been with the company for seven years might feel overlooked if sabbaticals are only offered after ten years of service.

Reintegrating Employees After Sabbaticals

Sometimes, employees might feel disconnected from their work or the organization and could need time to catch up on changes that occurred during their absence.

Payroll/HR Complexities

Managing payroll and benefits for employees on sabbatical leave can add an extra layer of complexity for HR and payroll teams, requiring careful planning and coordination.

Despite these challenges, with thoughtful planning, open communication, and a well-structured program, it is entirely possible for organizations to successfully incorporate sabbatical leaves into their employee benefits strategy, thereby reaping the manifold benefits they offer.


How to Set Up a Sabbatical Leave Program

Before you implement a paid sabbatical leave program, answer the important questions we outline below with your leadership team. These will help outline your sabbatical leave rules so there is no confusion or room for interpretation.

Should you do paid or unpaid sabbaticals?

Whether a sabbatical is paid or unpaid can depend on the company’s financial resources, the length of the sabbatical, and the perceived benefits. Paid sabbaticals are obviously more attractive to employees but can be cost-prohibitive for some companies. Unpaid sabbaticals still provide the benefits of time off without the financial commitment.

There are also HR consideration to handle within this question:

  • How will we handle payroll and employee benefits if it’s unpaid?
  • How do we handle payroll if it’s paid?
  • Will employees accrue vacation time during the sabbatical?
  • Will earnings during sabbatical be eligible for 401K match contributions?

Company examples:

  • Unpaid: Whole Foods offers a six-week unpaid sabbatical after three years of employment
  • Paid: Nike offers five weeks after 10 years
  • Both: Zillow offers three weeks of paid and three weeks unpaid after six years

How long should your sabbaticals last?

The length of a sabbatical leave policy mostly depends on the company’s ability to handle the absence of the employee (and the systems they have in place to cover the break).

Common durations range from a few weeks to a full year. Many companies offer sabbaticals after a specific period of employment, such as every five or seven years.

Company examples:

  • Short sabbaticals: Men’s Warehouse offers three weeks after five years
  • Long sabbaticals: VMware offers three months after five years
Buildremote Research

The most common length of time is one month, which makes up about 50% of the list of companies that offer paid sabbaticals in our research.

Companies may state this differently like “four weeks” or “30 days.”

How and when should employees become eligible?

The most common practice is to offer sabbatical leaves to employees after a particular length of service. This period often ranges from five to seven years, reflecting the organization’s desire to reward loyalty and longevity. Some companies, however, may opt for shorter intervals, perhaps tied to specific milestones or achievements, to encourage employee retention and motivation.

In terms of how employees become eligible, companies typically establish clear guidelines outlining the process. This can involve an application or proposal system, where employees present their plans for how they intend to use their sabbatical time. Such a system can help ensure the leave aligns with both the employee’s personal goals and the company’s broader mission and values.

Considerations such as the employee’s role, their performance, and the potential impact of their absence on the team or the company as a whole may also factor into the decision-making process.

In all cases, establishing clear, fair, and transparent eligibility criteria is key to ensuring the success of a sabbatical program and fostering a culture of trust and mutual respect within the organization.

Company examples:

  • Earliest milestone: General Mills offers six weeks after four years
  • Latest milestone: Quiktrip offers four weeks after 25 years
Buildremote Research

Sabbaticals are most commonly offered to employees after five years with the company. The earliest sabbatical in our research is offered after four years with the company. The latest sabbatical is offered after 15 years with the company.

Are sabbaticals a one-time benefit or recurring?

Decide if your sabbaticals are offered once when a milestone is reached, or each time a milestone is reached. In other words, can an employee take a sabbatical after five years of service or after every five years of service?

Company examples:

  • One-time: AARP offers a four-week sabbatical after seven years of employment
  • Recurring: Adobe offers four weeks after five years, five weeks after 10 years, etc.

Do sabbaticals expire, and if so, when?

Let’s say the policy states that an employee is eligible for a four-week sabbatical after five years of employment. Can the employee take the sabbatical at any point after their five-year anniversary? Or, do they need to take the sabbatical within three, six, or twelve months?

Company example:

Can sabbaticals be combined with other types of time off?

Some employees might want to combine their sabbaticals with vacation time, personal leave, or even maternity/paternity leave, resulting in a longer break. Will you allow this in your policy? Or, do you want a gap between sabbatical leave and other types of time off:

  • Parental leave (maternity, paternity)
  • Leave of absence
  • Week of rest
  • Paid time off (vacation days)

Set clear rules in the policy, then verbally reiterate the policy to eligible employees.

What kind of sabbaticals can employees take?

Most companies offer open-ended sabbaticals – do with the time what you please; you deserve the break. But some companies offer sabbaticals for specific reasons. Here are a few examples:

  • Educational Sabbatical: Employees can use this time to further their education, gain new skills, or pursue a certification that may not be feasible while working full-time.
  • Volunteer Sabbatical: Some employees choose to spend their sabbatical contributing to a cause they care about, either locally or in a different part of the world.
  • Creative Sabbatical: This type of leave is often chosen by employees looking to pursue a creative project, such as writing a book, creating a piece of art, or starting a blog or podcast.

Those are just a few examples. Learn more about the types of sabbaticals in this article.

Company example:

  • Volunteer: Timberland offers a community service sabbatical between 12 and 24 weeks

Do employees need to apply and be approved for a sabbatical?

In most companies, employees must apply and gain approval for a sabbatical leave. Here are some questions to consider when building your application process:

  • Is the application simply to prepare for the time off (a formality)?
  • Or, is there a specific purpose for the sabbatical that needs approval?
  • Does the application process trigger managers to check eligibility or the other way around?

How will work be covered while the employee is out?

In most cases, the employee taking the leave must determine how to cover their responsibilities during the sabbatical – a crucial part of the preparation process.

To ensure work continues smoothly during this period, you can redistribute tasks among existing team members, bring in a temporary hire or contractor, or even pause certain types of work if the situation allows.

How are employees reintegrated upon return?

Upon returning from a sabbatical, especially if it had a specific purpose, employees might be expected to share their experiences. They may be asked to share insights gained or new skills learned during their time off. This sharing process can take various forms – from a simple report to a full-on presentation or knowledge sharing session.

Other things to consider for re-entry:

  • How is the employee brought up to speed on what’s changed?
  • How is work handed back over to the employee?


Companies That Offer Sabbaticals & Why

The number of companies that offer sabbaticals is growing as employers compete for talent and attempt to reduce burnout.

Here are some real company sabbatical policies to learn from:


Policy: Six weeks (three weeks paid, three weeks unpaid) after six years

Zillow’s Head of People & Culture, Dan Spaulding, noted how sabbaticals are a “tool for companies to retain top talent and also a rare window for mid-career employees to take an extended breather from corporate culture,” according to an interview with Forbes.


Policy: Four weeks after 25 years

QuikTrip requires all full-time employees with 25 years of service to take a four-week sabbatical. At 30 years, 35 years and 40 years, employees must take additional sabbaticals. “The purpose is to rejuvenate and reduce burnout of tenured employees,” says Kim Owen, vice president of HR.”

The Cheesecake Factory

Policy: Three weeks after five years

The Cheesecake Factory offers sabbaticals to “pursue educational, charitable, artistic and intellectual interests.”


Policy: Three months after five years

VMware offers three-month sabbaticals to participate in projects within the company or with the company’s nonprofit partners that are outside the scope of their regular job.

Implementing a sabbatical leave program is a significant decision that comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. It requires thoughtful planning and resources but can yield substantial benefits in terms of employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity.

But if you choose to join the 6-8% of companies that offer sabbaticals as a benefit, you’ll likely see the benefits roll in.


We’ve covered work sabbaticals in depth. Want to learn more about sabbatical leave from a different angle?

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