No Image Available

Sabbaticals to combat workplace stress


Karen Charlesworth from the Chartered Management Institute argues that sabbaticals can reduce job stress, rejuvenate employees, and protect an organisation’s long-term investment in its people.

Time out?

Once the perogative of teachers and professors, the recent announcement that Tim Martin, chairman of the JD Wetherspoon pub chain is taking an unpaid sabbatical, may encourage others to follow suit.

But sabbaticals aren’t only for big corporations. According to Institute research, one in six organisations are seeing the benefits they provide to hard-working employees – and the bottom line.

One glove fits all?

Ranging in time from a few months to a year, organisations introduce sabbaticals for a variety of reasons. They might want to encourage future high performance or to reward valued service in the past. Or they might have some specific social or economic objective.

Sabbaticals to combat workplace stress

Because few companies are immune to stress – 13 million working days a year are lost to work-related stress, according to the Health and Safety Executive – many now look to sabbaticals as an answer. A quick scan around your office will reveal many of the classic signs of stress: a loss of interest in one’s work, irritability and more frequent absenteeism. While some might view these symptoms as the “corporate facts of life”, a growing number of companies do recognise that the stress placed on employees can affect performance and productivity. Sabbaticals are a way of giving employees a break from job stress, rejuvenating them, and protecting an organisation’s long-term investment in its people.

Sabbaticals for personal pursuits and philanthropic projects

In addition to relieving stress, sabbaticals can help address employees’ personal needs. One person may feel a pressing need to write a book, while another may wish to explore the world! Either reason is important to the individual and should be regarded as so. That said, the expectation is that the company benefits from this enrichment when the employee returns. And at a time when employee commitment is at an all-time low – Institute research showed that 18% of young managers do not expect to stay with their current organisation for more than a year – many also consider it an incentive for long-term loyalty to the organisation.

Sabbaticals to meet business needs

In recent times, some organisations have introduced unpaid sabbaticals as an alternative to redundancy. As the economy slowed, they needed to reduce headcount and expenditure. Yet, many realised the commercial necessity of maintaining some sort of readiness for when the economy picked up. Leaves of absence seemed like an ideal way to achieve this. However, as the “temporary” downturn has become more entrenched, what at first seemed like an attractive benefit, has become a less palatable option for employees.

Steps to take

Organisations wishing to implement a sabbatical programme need to plan carefully to ensure that it meets the needs of business as well as those of employees. A well-run programme will benefit both, helping organisations compete in the marketplace for people with skills they want and need.

  • Be clear about the objectives of the sabbatical and make sure they’re stated in a policy. Is the aim to encourage future high performance or is it a reward for valued service in the past?
  • Target the right people. Are minimum service requirements appropriate or do conditions of leave unintentionally favour certain employees even though broad-based participation is desired?
  • Plan for the absence. Be sure that you have adequate backup personnel who can handle the work of the person on leave, without burning themselves out.
  • Consider the amount of time available. You should provide the employee on leave sufficient time to gain whatever benefit is desired without overextending your generosity.
  • Be prepared to adapt the policy to changes in business and workforce conditions.

6 Responses

  1. Who can afford to take a sabbatical?
    Reading the article it sounds like a fantastic idea, however, employees that are under stress don’t necessary have to be high earners. I wonder how many people could actually afford to take advantage of a scheme that is unpaid? Money worries is a high stress factor in itself!

  2. Long Service Leave Similar to Sabbatical
    Reading some of the comments about firms providing sabbaticals after seven years etc is interesting.

    Do you have long service leave in the UK? In Australia most organisations provide for LSL which accrues at the rate of three months leave after 10 years service. In some cases it can be accessed after 7 or 8 years (pro-rata), but not beforehand.

    Most people use it to take an overseas holiday or extended holiday adding it to their annual leave. Others retain it as a safeguard just in case they are made redundant or resign etc.

  3. Sabbaticals
    It is very disappointing to read of organisations only offering unpaid sabbaticals. I know of one major publishing that offers a seven week paid sabbatical after seven years of service. There is an encouragement to go abroad, but the only real proviso is that the employee uses the time off to do something they wouldn’t normally do. This seems to me very equitable and of benefit to the individual and the organisation. Effectively the organisation is investing one week’s pay per year over the seven years, that seems to me achievable by many companies providing they have the imagination.

  4. Thanks for the info on sabbaticals.
    Dear Editor

    Thanks for the info on sabbaticals. We already have a policy on sabbaticals and can take these unpaid after a period of 10 years service (although we will always consider a request for leave of absence, unpaid before this) however I find that many staff are unable to take advantage of this as they just cannot afford to. It would take as many years to save the value of their pay to cover their salary for 3 months or more, just for general living expenses never mind to travel etc. Also, it is rare these days to find that many staff are loyal to one company for 10 years therefore it is not seen as a benefit.

  5. Sabbaticals an Excellent Idea
    Our organisation, a 1200 person Australian Government agency, doesn’t have a sabbatical program. However, we have a generous attitude towards people taking leave without pay to work for client and other organisations.

    The benefit of our staff working in client organisations is immeasurable because they learn what happens at the other (user) end of our programs. Additionally, our staff can train clients about how to deal with our organisation and the plethora of policies and procedures we impose on them. It’s a win – win situation.

    Several years ago while training manager for our six offices in the Northern Territory I decided to take a break and work for 12 months with one of Australia’s ‘Big Four’ financial institutions. As part of the deal, I was to research the bank’s mortgage processing methods and submit a report about whether we could learn anything from the bank for use in our organisation. Ultimately, I submitted a report comparing the bank’s centralised processing system and the parallels with our decentralised grant processing systems.

    The break helped me renew my energy and much of the content of my report helped management make a decision that decentralisation was more appropriate for the type of processing we do.

    The report is a few years old now, but if anyone would like an Adobe PDF copy, please email me.

  6. Wonderful idea — but….
    Sabbaticals are (or can be) all the things that are mentioned in the article. In an ideal company, employees would enjoy sabbaticals on a regular basis. In fact, they might even be mandatory to stop people from becoming stale.

    However, I wonder how many people would dare take advantage of them, especially when the economy is bad. It’s exactly when people are most stressed that they are afraid that their job won’t really be there when they return; or they will no longer be considered essential to the business; or that their skills will become outdated; or they daren’t spend the money to pursue the activity.

    Any sabbatical programme would have to come with iron-clad guarantees to the employee. And would companies be prepared to do that, not knowing what the circumstances might be a year from now?

No Image Available

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.