Go Ahead, Take a Break

A large US bank offers a sabbatical program to tenured workers. Will the benefit gain new momentum as a way to retain talent?

Call it the Great Pause. After momentum toward granting sabbaticals stalled during the pandemic, experts say it may be resuming as companies, including one of the biggest banks in the US, announce paid-leave offerings for longtime employees. These sabbaticals represent more than a vacation, but not such a lengthy absence that, say, employees have forgotten their passwords by the time they return.

Sabbaticals have long been perks of an academic career, but interest in them has picked up recently in the corporate world as firms, facing steep labor shortages, look to retain their most valued and skilled workers. In most cases, the perk is aimed at a very specific kind of employee, one with significant tenure who needs a four- to six-week break from work duties. The sabbaticals have come in various forms, but one announced recently by a major bank allows workers to take four paid weeks away from work beginning with 15 years of service. About 5% of organizations offer a paid sabbatical program and another 11% offer an unpaid option, according to a 2019 benefits report by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Research by the Sabbatical Project, an organization that supports extended-leave policies, shows that time away from a job often results in "life-changing, identity-changing experiences." If more people take sabbaticals, the research says, company leadership and policymakers are more likely to create leave policies that give people time to do what matters to them. The project has found that it can be difficult to persuade some employees that taking a sabbatical won't hurt their career. And some employees may also fear that they are shifting their workload onto their coworkers while they're absent. 

But time away from the grind also gives employees space to consider how much they've taken on in their own role, and what responsibilities they might be able to share with others on their team when they return, said Victoria Baxter, a senior partner in the ESG and Sustainability Solutions practice at Korn Ferry. A sabbatical can be especially vital for someone facing burnout, Baxter said. She recalls a job where she needed to take a monthlong medical leave. She feared everything would fall apart while she was gone—but it didn't, she says. "Everything was exactly where it was the month before. It does kind of make you rethink your role and what other people's roles are."

A few companies require that sabbaticals be reserved for volunteer work or philanthropy, but most allow people to use their paid time away from the office however they choose. Many people use the time to travel or to spend time with family. Some use sabbaticals to tackle creative projects or pursue educational opportunities. And others use them as a mental or physical reset, to redefine career priorities, or learn new skills. When a sabbatical is done well, employees return from it recharged, and more committed to staying with their employer.

Of course, some employees might be so burned out that when they pause for a sabbatical, they realize it's time for a new job, said Brad Frank, a senior client partner who focuses on human resources and marketing in Korn Ferry's Global Technology practice. And the business rhythm of some fast-paced industries doesn't allow room for sabbaticals, said John Long, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Retail and Consumer practices. "No one in retail's getting a sabbatical," Long said. "Because when they come back, they'll be completely irrelevant to the business."