There is always the risk that workers taking sabbaticals may not want to come back to the fold. But, as Louise Druce finds out, if firms learn how to use time out from the office to their advantage, it can boost employee productivity and reinvigorate the team staying put.
We could all do with a break from work sometimes and sabbaticals can be just the thing to recharge the batteries or take time out to gain some extra qualifications to reach the next career level.
Naturally, bosses might be reluctant to offer the option, fearing employees might not come back. It is a risk but there is evidence that the opposite is true. Being given the freedom to take a few weeks off to go on an extended holiday, spend some time with the family or explore new avenues can give staff a new perspective on the work they do. They often come back with fresh ideas and renewed vigour for the challenge, as well as appreciating that the company trusts and respects the need for a better work-life balance.
Chloe Watts, account manager HR practice, Boyden
"Sabbaticals can be used for retention," says Chloe Watts, account director, HR Practice at Boyden Interim Management. "People will come back to their employer because they are given the opportunity to take a break. From an occupational health viewpoint, employees who are run ragged come back refreshed rather than burning out.
"If you take a side step away from something and come back, you have new energy and an element of innovation as well."
She admits the flip side is you cannot guarantee that while employees are away they won’t suddenly decide the job is not on the career path they want. To pre-empt this, HR needs to talk to staff to understand what their career aspirations and ambitions are and why they want to take time off in the first place to try to get to grips with what they want from the organisation. "Employers need to look after the organisation’s needs but it is also up to them to make the role more attractive to the person according to what they are requesting," Watts adds.
Recruitment consultancy Badenoch & Clark is one such company who gives staff who have been with the firm for three years the option of a two-month sabbatical. "We haven’t had a situation where a member of staff hasn’t returned," says HR director Keith Nash. "We find an awful lot of thinking goes on in the time the person taking the sabbatical is away and, in most cases, it is healthy. It gives them more time and space to explore the things they want to do or even decide what they don’t want to do. They look at things in a new way and approach the job from a new angle."
He believes the key is to make sure the period the person is away on sabbatical can be covered by the rest of the team without becoming too much of a burden. Nash emphasises there is a good team ethos in his company and other employees are keen to support colleagues on leave as they would expect the same when they choose to take a sabbatical – another element that makes the transition easier. However, the give and take also means bosses have the right to delay time off if it has an adverse impact on the business. "Staff are entitled to sabbatical but considerable notice must be given to make sure the work can be covered," he explains.
Start with the stopgap
- Define and communicate the length of sabbatical to all affected
- Set criteria for sabbatical qualification
- Make sure workload is covered without over-burdening the remaining employees
- Plan handover procedures for when employees leave and come back to work
If the team simply cannot cope with the workload, interim management can be one solution to make sure the employees left behind don’t feel swamped – something that can have a detrimental affect on the whole team, including the person on leave.
It’s not as simple as plugging a gap. Watts says while most interims enjoy the initial buzz of stepping into a different role, if the permanent staff feel threatened it will prove difficult to establish what might need to be quick but solid team relationships and open communications. If interims are taking on a senior role and need to make decisions on behalf of the business, trust and confidence from those around them is a must.
To avoid confrontation, whoever is filling in for the person on sabbatical (whether internal or external workers) changes need to be communicated as far in advance as possible to the people affected. With interims, the handover at the beginning and the end of the break is just as important. "Interim managers shouldn’t upstage the permanent incumbent and as qualified professionals they should be sensitive to that," says Watts. "Project plans should be put in place so the work is ongoing, alongside knowledge transfer and a good audited account of what the interim has been doing, so there is a legacy left behind.
"An interim recognises there is an exit they are working towards but I would recommend a brief handover so that when the individual on sabbatical comes back they are updated rather than the interim leaving on a Friday and the employee coming back in the following Monday with no handover," she points out. "It is difficult to come back to that situation and you shouldn’t underestimate the mental shift for the person returning to work."
Keith Nash, HR director, Badenoch & Clark
An opportunity not to be missed by the employer is the chance to take stock of the role when someone else is in its shoes, in a positive way. Whoever takes it on will be bringing skills into the job from a slightly different standpoint. Whilst avoiding using this to change approaches to the workload so radically that the person returning from sabbatical will feel out of their depth, it can create a good opportunity to look at how the role could be shaped differently or recognise how brilliantly the employee has been handling it.
"When the person on sabbatical returns, HR needs to be very aware of their new view on life. There may be opportunities for career discussions or the need for further education," says Nash. "People may be more alert to these discussions in the first few weeks back as they might have thought about things they might want to do differently or how they can enhance the role and progress their careers.
"When the employee first gets back, it may take a while to get back into the role but they might also see fresh challenges and that will be the time when they are keener to make changes," he adds. "The company needs to listen."