Steal This One Idea from College Campuses to Improve Employee Retention — and Rejuvenate Your Workforce

April 16, 2019

One of the best ideas to migrate from college campuses to the workplace in recent years did not arise from cutting-edge research or brilliant lab work. This innovation, now being embraced by a growing number of highly regarded companies and organizations, is the sabbatical, a long-lived college practice that allows faculty members to take paid time off to reenergize and pursue research or writing.

With more than half of employees saying work-life balance is a “very important” factor for them in deciding whether to take a new job, it’s no surprise companies are beginning to adopt the sabbatical in order to attract and retain talent. In fact, 25% of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2019 offer a paid sabbatical program.

Here’s what a sabbatical program can look like and why it may be time to explore introducing one at your company:

Sabbaticals come in many forms but most are for longer periods than a vacation and take more time to earn

The word sabbatical traces its origin to the Hebrew shabbāth, meaning “rest.” The sabbath is, of course, the day of rest every seven days. It also appears as part of an Old Testament injunction that calls on farmers to rest their fields every seventh year. When Harvard introduced the academic sabbatical in 1880, the school offered a year of leave at half pay — every seven years.

There are still companies that adhere to the magic of seven: General Mills offers employees two kinds of sabbaticals — one paid and one unpaid — at the end of seven years. The sabbaticals at AARP, Intel, Kimpton Hotels and Resorts, and Clif Bars are also triggered every seven years.

But this is a malleable concept that companies have shaped to their particular needs. Autodesk requires only four years of service before tendering a six-week sabbatical. QuikTrip, a chain of U.S. convenience stores, on the other hand, requires 25 years of employment to get a four-week sabbatical.

The Society of Human Resource Management’s 2018 Employee Benefits Report said 15% of U.S. companies grant sabbaticals, with 10% offering unpaid leave and 5% offering paid leave. Some of the companies that offer sabbaticals don’t allow them to take place during the busy season. And many companies require employees to submit a request for their break many months in advance, giving the business a better chance to ensure it has adequate work coverage. Some companies put other kinds of restrictions on their programs. For example, Patagonia grants sabbaticals to employees who use the time off volunteering with the environmental group of their choice.

How sabbaticals can benefit employees and companies alike

Professionals have used sabbaticals to travel, volunteer, learn, pursue a new interest, or test the grounds of a new place to live. Most use it as a chance to relax and recharge. One long-time REI employee leveraged his sabbaticals to kayak the coast of British Columbia. Someone at Intel built his house while on sabbatical. Marc Benioff, on sabbatical from Oracle in the 1990s, dreamed up a business idea that became Salesforce.

The benefits for employees are pretty easy to see. The advantages for companies may be slightly less obvious but are every bit as real.

A sabbatical program can improve a company’s employer brand and boost retention. Employees at Clif Bars, the California-based energy bar company, always rank the sabbatical among their most important perks. Which helps explain why turnover at the company is less than 3%.

But there’s more. “In addition to helping brands attract and retain top talent,” writes Amanda Pressner Kreuser, cofounder of Masthead Media, “encouraging employees to schedule a much-needed break help workers avoid productivity burnout.”

This is particularly important when two-thirds of the U.S. workplace reports being unengaged or actively disengaged with work. Employees generally feel rejuvenated after a sabbatical and often find that when they return to work their job feels brand new. Marco Scherer, the general manager of Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar in Los Angeles, took a leave in which he visited 10 countries and circled the globe. “I feel like I am now Marco 2.0 after this trip,” he said.

And a sabbatical can not only elevate productivity, it can rekindle creativity. Stefan Sagmeister is the cofounder of Sagmeister & Walsh, a creative agency based in New York City, and he has designed record covers for the Rolling Stones, the Talking Heads, and Lou Reed. He closes his shop for a year every seven years.

“Our work started to look the same,” he said during a TED talk called The Power of Time Off. So he shut down his agency for a year, and he found the time off quite enjoyable. “But probably more important,” Stefan says, “is that the work that comes out of this year flows back into the company and into society at large.” He says the creative fruits of a yearlong sabbatical drive and shape the work of the company until it’s time for the next break.

And there’s one other less obvious benefit to a sabbatical — it serves as a kind of stress test. David Burkus, an associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, says a sabbatical “allows an organization to see if it could survive a more unexpected employee departure.”

Final thoughts

Sabbaticals are no longer the exclusive domain of academics. Increasingly, they are available to designers and hoteliers, software engineers and cereal makers. Think what they could do for overworked recruiters and HR professionals in danger of burning out while wrestling daily with a shrinking talent market and a growing skills gap.

Sabbaticals may strike some as a luxury for corporate giants with huge workforces that can easily pick up the slack of a coworker out on leave. Yet the website YourSabbaticals.com said it found companies with as few as 14 employees with a sabbatical program. And maybe a sabbatical benefit can help your company become — or remain — a corporate giant.

Photo by Tai Jyun Chang on Unsplash

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