Writer Specializing in Workplace and Health Issues

Sabbaticals benefit companies as well as employees

By: Stephenie Overman

Done right, sabbatical programs have positive effects on companies as well as their employees.

Sabbaticals can help prevent costly employee burn out and attract the best workers, say Andrew E. Carr and Thomas Li-Ping Tang, professors at Middle Tennessee State University, whose study, “Sabbaticals and Employee Motivation: Benefits, Concerns and Implications” was published last year in the Journal of Education for Business.

“Sabbaticals are proving to be a strong incentive for many top performers looking for workplace flexibility,” Carr and Tang maintain. “For these top performers, sabbaticals can create a sense of company loyalty and commitment.”

This message is echoed by companies that have extensive experience with such programs.

There aren’t many. Only 5% percent of U.S. companies offer paid sabbaticals, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey. Another 18% offer unpaid sabbaticals.

Some companies, like Charles Schwab, have had paid sabbaticals in place for only a few years and are beginning to examine the results. Others, such as Eileen Fisher, are just looking into a formalized sabbatical program.

And then there’s McDonald’s Corp., probably the grandfather of them all.

“Sabbaticals go back 40 years” at McDonald’s, says Richard Floersch, executive vice president of worldwide human resources. The program is so popular that the company is adding another between-sabbaticals break.

“I love the fact that we’re one of the few” to offer sabbaticals, Floersch says. “It’s easy to say we’re going to be in 50th percentile in everything.’ But to find high-value items and really deliver, to be at the front-end of the trend, gives people the opportunity to brag about who they work for.”

Those bragging rights drive high levels of engagement and help with recruitment and retention, he says. “This is all part of the total employment value position.”

The company gets good retention, “particularly as people get up to six, seven, eight years of service,” according to Floersch. McDonald’s offers eight weeks off for every 10 years of service to “a fairly deep group of employees” in the United States and in some other countries. Vacation can be added to the paid sabbatical so that an employee may take nearly 12 weeks paid leave.

Employees have plenty of leeway. “If you want to, you can take on a lot of adventure, learn another language, do volunteer work, recharge your batteries, learn another skill, reconnect with your family,” he says. Employees return “re-energized, and revitalized.”

The program is so popular that this year McDonald’s has added “Splash,” an extra week of paid time off for every anniversary on the fives.

Time off varies

Hewitt Associates also has what it calls a “Splash” program. At Hewitt, that means one week off after five years of employment, two weeks off after 10 years, three weeks after 15 years and three weeks every five years after that. Part-time workers qualify for time off on a pro-rated basis.

“Associates use it to run and hide, to focus on things outside of work. It’s valued,” says Scott Gifford, director of benefits. “It’s part of the fabric of our culture. Everybody does it. It’s easier to break away for a five-day Splash’ than to take longer breaks.

It’s hard for companies that don’t offer sabbaticals to believe that it’s not a costly benefit, Gifford says, but “once it’s there, it’s there. The time can be made up, it can be planned for.”

“We’re in the business of benefits. We’re constantly comparing other benefits,” he continues, and “the value of time off is highly regarded … When I talk about benefits, this gets more play, it creates more excitement. It does a lot for retention and for our recruiting effort.”

It takes only four years for all employees to be eligible for six weeks of sabbatical at Morningstar. This year about 30 of Morningstar’s 750 U.S. employees are taking sabbaticals, according to Cathi Rezy, director of HR. The company has versions of its sabbatical program in Canada and Australia and is looking into extending the program to Europe.

The sabbatical program is played up in Morningstar’s recruiting brochures and in job interviews, Rezy says. “You mention it to people outside the company and they ask how do I get a job like that?'”

It’s also a key retention tool. Asked if employees might take their sabbatical and then leave the company, she says, “I can’t remember the last time I saw that. If anything, it creates loyalty. People are grateful for the work their co-workers did, and they have another one to look forward to” in four years.

Natasa Gligaric, an associate product manager at Morningstar, used her sabbatical to travel to Europe, including her native Serbia. “It’s something that you look forward to,” she says. Returning to work, “it was hard to get back into everything, but I definitely had more energy.”

Mike Porter, director of equity operations, took his second sabbatical last fall. For more than five weeks he traveled throughout southern Africa and returned “with a different perspective on my work. You look at it fresh. When you’ve been out for a while, you see things you haven’t seen before. Certain things stand out. That’s how it’s worked for me both times.”

Porter can see how sabbaticals play a role in recruiting and retaining good employees. He says discussion of the company’s sabbatical program leads to a larger discussion of Morningstar’s overall commitment to work-life balance.

“It’s all part of the culture here. When you talk with somebody they start to understand that it’s part of the larger picture of keeping people engaged and keeping them here. [They see that] there’s an enlightened way of doing things.”


Employees planning to take sabbaticals must work out the scheduling with their managers, according to the company representatives who were interviewed.

Hewitt has offered sabbaticals for at least 15 years, “so it’s easy to manage at this point,” says Gifford. To make sure clients’ needs are met, Hewitt is cautious not to have too many employees off at one time, he adds. “It does require manager involvement but because we’ve been doing it for so long it’s customary to have people out of the office splashing. We cover for each other, knowing that there will be a time when we’ll be doing the exact same thing.”

Intel has offered eight-week paid sabbaticals after each seven years of full-time employment since 1981, so the company has long experience in managing the logistics.

“The employee has to work closely with the manager and together they work out when the best time is” for the sabbatical, says Gail Dundas, a spokeswoman for Intel. “We have an electronic tool, so the business unit can keep track. We have a tool that shows people where to find more information about sabbaticals and a checklist for things like how to be sure your check is deposited electronically, how to arrange for your e-mail to be handled. You completely break from Intel for that two-month period. You close down your e-mail account, you do not check voice mail.”

“The spirit of the sabbatical is to recharge. It’s common to hear the message, I’m out of the office on sabbatical, here is who you contact,'” Dundas says.

Of her own sabbatical, Rezy says, “I was incredibly appreciative of my staff. They took over my responsibilities. And I felt great about Morningstar. People asked me: You’re taking six weeks off? Paid?’ I was able to let go and really enjoy myself. After six weeks, I was pretty much ready to get back to work. You come back so refreshed, ready to jump.”

When Dundas took her sabbatical, “The person who covered for me had a new respect for what I did. It’s like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

A coworker can use an employee’s sabbatical as a professional development opportunity, she adds. “If a manager goes on sabbatical, another worker has the chance to learn and show her peers what she can do.”

Floersch agrees. By having other employees fill in for those on sabbatical, “we get to watch people operate in a capacity they’re not performing in today. We see whether they are capable of getting to the next level. We can get a little surprised at their ability. And they can gain confidence” in new jobs at McDonald’s.

Stephenie Overman is an Arlington, Va.-based freelance writer specializing in HR issues and a frequent contributor to EBN. – E.B.N.
Copyright 2006 Thomson Financial, All Rights Reserved