Burnout is becoming increasingly prevalent among employees. One solution? Sabbaticals to fight burnout. Here are some of the key advantages and disadvantages to allowing workers to take sabbaticals.
Burnout is becoming an epidemic among today’s workforce. After years of working long hours without really and truly disconnecting, workers are feeling more burned out than ever before, research shows. Part of the problem? Blurred lines between work and family have led to a growing number of workers experiencing burnout during the pandemic. Employees have quit their jobs resulting in a shortage of workers and low employee retention rates. As a way to combat burnout, some employers are turning to a new strategy, borrowing from academia: sabbaticals, i.e. periods of time off from work. Can sabbaticals help fight burnout?
The Great Resignation is an ongoing trend. Workers are hungry for change, swapping their existing jobs for better ones. But what do they value the most? Well, it’s not the money. Besides salary, work atmosphere, and career development, workers value more things when choosing to stay or join an organisation. In one of our whitepapers, Exploring Workers’ Professional Aspirations, researchers found that flexibility, health and safety, and wellbeing are key factors in employee satisfaction.
According to our own research, four in 10 people have suffered from overwork and burnout over the course of 2021. 34% of women said mental wellbeing has worsened over the past month. It’s even worse for younger leaders: 54% of young leaders report that they have experienced burnout.
“There is a tendency for people to view burnout as a personal mental health issue, so it’s their problem, not anybody else’s. And if it’s your problem, then you’re the one that’s going to have to fix it. But there’s a whole other part of this, which is the workplace and the chronic job stressors that are the sources of burnout,” Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley told the Wall Street Journal.
Although sabbaticals are still not a common benefit, companies of all sizes and types are experimenting with the idea of paid time-off. Some companies agree that a long break may be the best way to recharge, increase productivity, and prevent burnout.
Catherine Merritt, CEO of Spool Marketing in Chicago recently began offering sabbaticals to her employees after noticing burnout among her team as a result of pandemic-induced stress. In addition to their vacation time, employees who have worked for the company for three years can take three paid weeks off. As another way to attract and retain top talent, Ms Merritt recommends offering longer breaks as a perk.
The history of Sabbaticals
Long-term leave for career and personal development is a concept borrowed from academia, where sabbatical leaves are still highly popular.
The entry for the word “sabbatical,” in the Cambridge Dictionary, reads “a period of time when college or university teachers are allowed to stop their usual work in order to study or travel, usually while continuing to be paid.” Although the first known use of the term was in 1599, sabbatical leave programmes began at Harvard University in 1880, followed by Columbia University in 1890 and Brown University in 1891. The word derives from the Greek word sabbaton. Sabbaton itself can be traced to the Hebrew word shabbāth, meaning “rest.”
The sabbatical is deeply ingrained in academia. Looking back at the history of sabbatical leave, it has been viewed as an investment in the future of an institution. Granting leaves of absence to professors was established not in the interests of the professors but for the good of university education.
Harvard University introduced sabbatical leave programs, with professors granted a year of half-pay every seventh year and by the early 1930s it was a common practice in 178 institutions.
Early US colleges used them to recruit faculty members in the 1800s, says Michael Miller, a professor of higher education: academic staff were entitled to go on leave every seven years as part of their benefits. During the early 20th century, public institutions in the US began offering sabbaticals focusing on research. By the 1960s, career development became an important part of the process and scholars applied for sabbaticals with specific objectives in mind, such as improving teaching.
To put it in perspective: less than a third of US employers allow sabbaticals to some of their employees, according to the National Study of Employers by the Families and Work Institute.
In Europe, for example, regulations may allow for unpaid leave for employees while still protecting their jobs – or at least promising a job. But the sabbatical may happen once or twice during an employees’ career.
On the other side of the globe, for example, Australian workers take sabbaticals much more often. The time may be spent working overseas, or simply living a totally different way of life for a little bit, Brett Evans, executive director of Atlas Wealth Management in Southport, Australia, told the BBC.
In India, for example, sabbaticals have only recently become an accepted part of business practice, according to Lovaii Navlakhi, founder and chief executive officer of financial planning firm International Money Matters in Bangalore.
Companies Offering Sabbaticals
The type of sabbaticals differs per company. A long-term employee or an employee who has been with the organisation for at least five years is usually eligible. These are some of the companies that offer sabbaticals as part of their talent retention or employee benefits programs.
Employees at HSBC, headquartered in London, have the opportunity to take a sabbatical as part of the company's commitment to a healthy work-life balance. A communications manager at HSBC in London, Andy Russell, took six months off to see the world, which offered him a new outlook on his career.
You get a four-week paid sabbatical after five years with HubSpot, plus a bonus of $5K.
Adobe offers sabbatical programs for employees to recharge and reenergize.
Paid time off, paid holidays, flexible work options, and leaves of absence are some of the ways that Hallmark offers flexibility to their employees.
After every four years of service, Autodesk’s US employees are entitled to paid time off. During a six-week uninterrupted leave period, they receive 100% of their current salary and benefits though the time must be taken all at once.
Buffer, a global social media company with employees based around the globe, is now testing sabbaticals as a way to combat burnout. For every five years of work, at Buffer, the company is offering a fully paid 6-week break.
Advantages and disadvantages to offering sabbaticals
Research shows that academic sabbaticals are effective at boosting morale, allowing for study, research, and travel, having a positive effect on the institution and making a difference in advancing a faculty career.
In business, sabbaticals are periods of paid or unpaid time away from work agreed upon between the employer and employee. Some studies indicate that a prolonged break can help fight burnout. The number of companies allowing employees to take several months off to recover from work-related stress is on the rise. Our own data shows that burnout may just be the next worker pandemic, with 4 in 10 workers reporting that burnout is a significant cause of concern for them. More than half of young leaders are suffering from burnout, the same group that shoulders significant responsibility for future progress. In fact 32% of workers say their mental wellbeing got worse over the past 12 months.
Besides burnout, there are many premature deaths associated with overworking. The World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization described long working hours as “a serious health hazard” for people working at least or over 55 hours per week.
However, there are pros and cons to offering sabbaticals both for employers and employees. Those who oppose sabbaticals as a means of preventing or dealing with burnout suggest sabbaticals could help with retaining and attracting talent but they can’t be effective at managing burnout.
Advantages to sabbaticals for companies
Mental and physical health boost: The Adecco group research reveals that employees call for greater long-term flexibility with their jobs. Taking a sabbatical may help offer workers the possibility to balance work and life and ease work stress and career anxiety.
Longer breaks can help fight burnout: Accomplishing a good work-life balance is key to preventing burnout and as studies have shown one way to fix burnout is with a prolonged break.
Increased employee retention rates: Top talent may feel more loyal to an organisation with better benefits, such as a sabbatical programme for its employees. Also, it may be that long-term employees feel appreciated and cared for by the company.
Time off work policy as a perk to recruit talent: Workers confirm they value additional benefits to join a company. In recent job postings, employers have begun to highlight benefits such as remote work, flexibility and four-day workweeks as strategies to stand out during the "Great Resignation.”
New skills and abilities: It is possible that employees may return to work not just with new ideas, but also with new skills. A sabbatical leave, if taken with a well-defined goal in mind, may be an excellent opportunity for employees to develop their skills. Many employees have doubts about their future careers and skills. A sabbatical with a goal to expand experience, skills, learn new things or advance academic qualifications will help employees boost their confidence in their careers.
High employee morale and productivity: When an employee returns from a sabbatical, they may be excited to dive back into their job with fresh ideas and well-rested.
Disadvantages to sabbaticals
Cost in time and money: Sabbaticals can be costly both for employers and for employees. On the employee side, workers should start planning a sabbatical at least two years in advance to review career goals and how they will finance this break from work. For companies, sabbaticals may accrue additional administrative challenges.
Business disruption challenges and financial strain for the company: Besides costs and to avoid any disruption to their business, employers should also plan carefully. Hiring interim employees or consultants to cover the sabbatical vacancy could create additional administrative challenges, including efforts to bring the new hire up to speed to avoid business disruption. The extra workload can put an added burden on the team. As a result, companies should consider having an approval process that coordinates time off to ensure business needs are continually met.
Emotional disconnect: On the employee side, workers could feel disconnected with their previous life or workplace after returning to the office and after the experiences they gained. Consider adding in team building events to help workers feel connected with their colleagues.
Transition back to work might be difficult: While many companies promise their workers a job upon their return, it might be difficult to find the same exact role when the employee returns due to reorganization or other changes within the company.
Sabbaticals may be an effective way to boost employee wellbeing, prevent burnout, and improve dropout and retention rates. Employers can develop well-organised sabbatical programmes with clearly defined goals to ensure return on investment both for the business and the employees.
Further, the sabbaticals should be organised in a way that makes it easier for employees to ease back to work. Besides improving their mental and physical condition when taking a long break from work, employees may learn new skills and come up with new ideas that are of great value to their careers and the workplace once they return to work.