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Annie Hayes

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Sabbaticals: Rewarding employees with the gift of time

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Sabbaticals Taking time out is no longer an impossible quest, with more and more employers beginning to realise the benefits. Annie Hayes talks to retail giant John Lewis Partnership about the secrets of sabbatical success.


Why offer a sabbatical?

Paul Backhouse, head of employment strategy for the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), prefers to use the term ‘long leave’ over ‘sabbatical’ but terminology aside, he’s very clear about what role it plays in the benefits package and why the company is putting its full force behind it.

The company operates 26 department stores across the UK, as well as John Lewis Direct – a website and catalogue business, plus 187 Waitrose supermarkets, and Greenbee.com, a direct services company. The business has an annual turnover of over £6.8bn and is the UK’s largest example of worker co-ownership where all 69,000 staff are partners in the business.

“Long leave is a reward for loyalty and commitment. When a partner has served for 25 years, it is seen as a real achievement – long leave recognises that.”

Paul Backhouse, JLP

Backhouse says it’s this very ethos of employees being partners that has brought long leave to the forefront and made it into one of the most distinct components of the JLP benefits package.

“John Lewis and Waitrose partners, who have served for 25 years, qualify for six months of leave, during which they receive full pay, and all benefits – such as final salary non contributory pension, discounts, and access to subsidised hotels – continue to accrue,” explains Backhouse.

“As such, long leave is a reward for loyalty and commitment. When a partner has served for 25 years, it is seen as a real achievement – long leave recognises that. The long leave scheme also sets the partnership apart from other employers and forms the pinnacle of our approach to work-life balance.”

Over the past few years, Backhouse says that the business has introduced a number of other policies in this area including a formal flexible working policy (any partner, regardless of whether they have school age children, can request flexible working arrangements), carer’s leave, and a career break policy (partners with at least five years’ service can request up to six months of unpaid leave).

What are the benefits?

Thousands of partners have benefited from long leave over the years. Each year, around 500 partners across John Lewis and Waitrose take a paid six-month long leave sabbatical.

“For those who have already served for a significant period, it’s a powerful retention tool.”

Some take it as a mid-career break and return to work, either recharged to continue in their previous role or else are motivated to seek a new challenge within the business. Others prefer to defer long leave and use it as a prelude to their retirement.

Retention also plays its part, admits Backhouse: “For those who have already served for a significant period, it’s a powerful retention tool. Many partners also benefit from the experiences they have during their time off, and bring these back to the business.”

Most partners choose to return to the business after they have completed their long leave sabbatical. However, there is no requirement to do so, and some partners decide not to return and pursue other interests after they have completed their sabbatical, comments Backhouse.

Is it costly?

The package is generous. During long leave, partners receive their contractual pay and remain entitled to all partnership benefits.

“We do not always recruit cover for partners on long leave, so the actual cost is hard to quantify,” remarks Backhouse. “But in total, the scheme has an annual cost of over £5 million.”

Putting the guidelines in place

Backhouse is very clear that the rules that govern long leave have to be clear: “Any partner who has 25 years’ continuous service and is not drawing a partnership pension qualifies for 26 weeks’ paid leave. Because of the overriding commercial interests of our business, final discretion on timing must be in the hands of management.”

Notification is another crucial element in ensuring the business is as prepared as possible for the absence of leave: “Partners are informed two years prior to becoming eligible in order that they can plan for this break. They are then expected to give their manager six or 12 months’ notice of their intention to take leave, dependant on status,” he says.

JLP continues to outstrip its competitors and has recently enjoyed its best Christmas on record. Its chairman puts its success down to its people, saying that its partnership programme makes it a different place to work, adding that it puts its money where its mouth is by way of the long leave scheme, which is a shining example of how to show staff just how much they are valued.

The success of its sabbatical scheme shows that it isn’t just a jolly for the employee with a holiday ticket – it can also bring real business benefits too.

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Annie Hayes

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