Sabbatical Programs Aid Work-Life Balance

By Sally Roberts

Jan. 27, 2009

In addition to family and medical leave programs, some employers offer their employees extended leaves of absence to pursue personal endeavors or just rejuvenate.

The purpose of such leaves or sabbaticals is simple: Give valued employees the time off they want and avoid the costs associated with turnover by keeping them tethered to the company.

Given today’s turbulent economic times, such leave programs offer employers an alternative to layoffs, experts say.

Sabbaticals are a response in part to today’s 24/7 work world, says Kathie Lingle, director of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alliance for Work-Life Progress, a global human resources association.

“We’re just burning people out right and left,” Lingle says. “Smart organizations are looking at how to keep people whole and sane with them.”

Despite this, the number of employers offering such leaves and sabbaticals remains low, experts say. According to Hewitt Associates’ latest figures, only 4 percent of employers offer unpaid sabbaticals.

“Many employers still have a hard time offering a big chunk of time off, whether it’s paid or unpaid, to employees just because it’s difficult in terms of operations,” says Carol Sladek, head of Hewitt Associates’ work/life consulting practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

Additionally, “when you have an employee out for a long period of time, there’s always a concern that the employee might not return,” she says.

However, Sladek says that “we have seen a significant increase in the number of employers looking at these kinds of programs as a way to attract, engage and retain talent” in the past five to 10 years. “Employers realize that one of the key work/life needs we all have is time.”

New York-based consulting firm Accenture is one of those employers.

Although the firm offers a variety of work/life programs, an employee survey revealed that the most requested work/life program the company lacked was a sabbatical, says Sharon Klun, Accenture’s Phoenix-based director of work/life initiatives.

“It was not necessarily about the pay,” Klun says. “It was about having time in their lives to do what was really important to them.”

In response, Accenture launched a self-funded sabbatical program in 2007 called Future Leave for all U.S.-based employees, under which workers can take up to three months’ time off every three years to do whatever they want.

Although the program is unpaid, employees can set money aside each paycheck or each month, “so when the leave does come, they are not necessarily as strapped” for money, Klun says.

“The beauty of it is it’s not so static or confined,” she says, noting that each quarter the company has between 100 and 200 employees taking leave under the program. The idea is that an employee can figure out what they need or want to do in life—whether it’s taking care of an elderly parent or climbing the Himalayas—and plan for it by putting money away, she says.

For Accenture, the return on investment is “huge because you’re keeping people you would normally lose,” Klun says.

Sabbaticals are embedded into the culture of Intel Corp., says Dana Vandecoevering, work/life program manager in Hillsboro, Oregon.

For more than 20 years, the Santa Clara, California-based technology giant has been offering two-month fully paid sabbaticals to all full-time employees after every seven years of service, she says

“The goal is to return to Intel revitalized, with new ideas and a fresh perspective,” says Vandecoevering, who has taken two sabbaticals herself.

At the same time, sabbaticals open opportunities for other employees to cross-train and assume greater responsibilities, she says. “So when people are out, depending on the job and the work involved, it represents an opportunity for someone to come in and cover for that person,” Vandecoevering says.

Since 2006, eligible employees at Deloitte can take up to five years of unpaid leave under its Personal Pursuits program.

While employees are technically severed from the company and receive no health benefits while on the program, they are given a host of resources to keep them connected to the company, including mentors, short-term work assignments and subsidized training to keep their skills and professional licenses up to date, says Rebecca Amoroso, vice chair and U.S. insurance leader for Deloitte, a Parsippany, New Jersey-based financial advisory firm.

“There are situations where people leave the workforce for a period of time to deal with something personal,” she says. “If these are highly valued individuals, we wanted to find a way to make it easy for them to re-enter the workforce and we would be at the top of their list to get them back, rather than leave the firm, get disconnected and not come back,” Amoroso says.

Not only does Personal Pursuits differentiate Deloitte as it competes for talent, it also allows the company to retain proven, experienced employees, she says. On average, the cost of replacing an employee is twice the employee’s salary, which “is significantly higher than the $2,500 a year” per person that the Personal Pursuits program costs Deloitte, Amoroso says.

Currently, about 72 people are taking advantage of the program.

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