BY RITA FOLEY co-author, Enhance Your Career and Life by Taking a Break, corporate director, retired Fortune 500 Global president and a founding partner of Reboot Partners LLC.
Corporations that offer sabbaticals don’t do it as a nicety. They do it because it’s downright good for bottom-line business results, employees, the company and customers.
I’ve been on all three sides. I’ve taken four sabbaticals, and each time I came back to work as a better contributor, employee and leader. I have granted sabbaticals to my employees, and I have seen the rise in creativity and benefits for customers and the corporation. Most of us have worked since we were in our late teens or early 20s, so, of course, it’s natural to crave some time off.
Gary had been contemplating quitting and trying something new. After talking it over with his wife, he decided that since he was only one year away from his sabbatical, which his company grants after seven years, he should wait. Gary’s wife shared that Gary used to moan about work, but since returning from his sabbatical, God forbid anyone say anything negative about Intel now. He realized his itching wasn’t the company or the work. He simply needed a reboot break.
What happens on the other side to the person who has to step in for the sabbatical-taker? I spoke with Tami Graham, director of Global Benefits Design. When her peer for HR delivery took a sabbatical, Tami stepped out of her job completely to run the delivery group. She explained that she can create the most wonderful programs in the world, but if they can’t be rolled out in the field or easily implemented, they are for naught. Doing the delivery job gave Tami first-hand experience of what it was like to receive programs from her team and the challenges of implementing them. It made her a better leader, as it did the person who stepped in to do her job during those three months.
Why are more companies implementing formal sabbatical programs?
Employees return rejuvenated: More than 100 companies that offer formal sabbatical programs have close to 100 percent of the sabbatical-takers returning to the company with a higher level of engagement, loyalty, motivation and appreciation for their employer. Follow-up research shows a high percentage of promotion and improved performance levels of those sabbatical-takers. Companies that provided sabbaticals on an informal or exception basis had more sabbatical takers who did not return to work or remain employed with the company.
Clients will allow it: Some companies, especially from law firms, say, “You don’t understand; we’re different. We have a very intense one-on-one relationship with our clients.” The reality is many law firms — small to ones with more than 900 partners — offer sabbaticals.
It can be cost-efficient: This is another one that is especially hard for lawyers or firms who share their profits. But, if everyone takes a sabbatical, then at one time or another you will each be covering for another, and the profit washes out. Some companies offer only partial pay for sabbatical leavers, but for even those who offer full pay, a sabbatical program shouldn’t cost you. Maybe at a clerical level you might have to hire a temp once in a while, but with some careful preparation and juggling, work can be covered by existing employees.
Implementation is essential: It’s all in the preparation. The companies I spoke to have a very simple and effective system. Upon approaching the sabbatical year, an employee writes a memo to their boss requesting the specific time off. They then meet and outline coverage.
The bottom line: Our nation will lose its innovation and creativity if we don’t invest in our most important asset: our employees. We tune up our PCs, cars and home heaters. Why not encourage our people to give their minds and spirits a tuneup? Time and time again, sabbatical-takers return as more interested and engaged employees, more loyal and more creative. Sabbaticals broaden a company by bringing in new ideas.
Loyalty alone should be enough to justify implementing a program. The cost of hiring and training a new employee can be 1.5 times a departing worker’s salary. Sharon Allen, Deloitte’s chairwoman, said her firm’s sabbaticals and flexibility policies had saved more than $45 million a year by reducing turnover. Companies gain because offering a sabbatical program is a wonderful tool for checking and building an organization’s depth and breadth.
Sabbatical programs force managers to proactively focus on developing their staff, complete succession planning and provide training and exposure to teams, thus encouraging “readiness” in terms of bench strength. It is a chance to evaluate the potential of employees who stand in for others in a real, not hypothetical, situation. Sabbaticals promote teamwork and better decision-making. Twenty percent of the “Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For” offer fully paid sabbaticals. Since the inception of its program in 1979, Intel has granted more than 64,000 sabbaticals. Intel had $661 million in revenue in 1979. Last time I checked, this $43 billion company wasn’t doing too badly.