How valuable are sabbaticals?

The current talent shortage means boards, management and HR departments need to come up with new policies, benefits and employment packages that are relevant for the post-COVID era – particularly for executives. While much of the focus is of course on implications of what a return to office will look like (and when it will happen), a company sabbatical policy is worth considering.

The pandemic led many people, from students to senior managers, to question their values and how they use their time and energy – professionally and personally. Time off, or spent working from home, became an enforced sabbatical for some, instigating a new view on work/life balance, but a more structured approach will be beneficial going forward. 

While sabbaticals are commonplace in academia, how valuable are they in the professional world?

Sabbaticals as part of the world of work:

UK accountancy firms avoid furlough by offering sabbaticals

Five companies going the extra mile for employees during COVID

Increasing number of companies recognise the benefits of offering sabbaticals


The benefits

We all know that we need rest to function at our best. The concept of a sabbatical dates back to the ancient practice of giving fields a year-long rest every seven years. This break kept the soil fertile and improved yield during productive years. The same concept applies to employees. Rest and time away from routine allows for rejuvenation and new perspectives that can be applied when the sabbatical comes to an end. 

A proactive approach to sabbaticals, particularly for executives, also promotes retention and fosters loyalty, especially given that most companies do not have sabbatical policies. Moreover, it helps attract new staff as well. 


A sabbatical success story

Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer and film-maker, has been diligent about taking a year-long sabbatical every seven years throughout his professional life, which he describes in his 2009 TED talk.

During his first sabbatical, he spent a year in Bali focusing on new ideas outside his normal routine.

The new ideas gained meant the sabbatical was financially successful for his firm in the long run. Sagmeister noted: “Everything we’ve done in the seven years following the first sabbatical came out of thinking of that one single year,” a clear nod to the business value of a well-executed sabbatical.


The business case 

Quantifying the financial return on a sabbatical can be difficult, but ultimately, if it results in retaining a key leader who would otherwise have moved on, the payback is quite easy to compute.

With the full cost of replacing an executive, in normal circumstances, running up to twice their annual cost, even if the executive is fully paid, the cost of a sabbatical will be recovered within a year or two. A well-crafted, win-win agreement with the executive can mitigate risks that might negatively impact the business case. 


Sabbatical support 

Garnering support from multiple parts of the organisation is crucial. The board must, of course, see the sabbatical’s value and ensure leadership gaps are filled in the interim.

Equally important, is support from the management team and fellow employees, who should understand why the sabbatical is granted.

Clear communication is key. HR departments can consider creative ways to mark the beginning and end of the sabbatical, while offering employees their own opportunity for 'mini-sabbaticals' (paid or unpaid) and underlining the company’s commitment to the concept.  

Assigning a coach prior to embarking on the sabbatical is also an effective tool to make sure the time away is impactful. Setting objectives and developing a meaningful plan which ideally includes productive, non-routine 'work' or activity. Regular check-ins provide accountability and increase long-term impact. 

If planned well, sabbaticals improve employee wellbeing and positively affect the bottom line. 

Christopher Saye is financial advisor, coach and author of Fly: An Empty Nester’s Quest for the Holy Grail of Life, Love and Longevity