What Is Sabbatical Leave?

Everything you need to know about the ancient practice that became a modern workplace perk.
Hal Koss
Staff Reporter
January 25, 2022
Updated: May 18, 2022
Hal Koss
Staff Reporter
January 25, 2022
Updated: May 18, 2022

For six weeks last summer, Juliet Chen did whatever she wanted. Some days she practiced yoga and read a novel. On others, she took long walks or cycled along the coast of England, where she lives. With the demands of her job out of sight — Chen had deleted email and Slack from her phone — she was able to take each day as it came, unstructured and unhurried. And she did it all while still being paid a full salary.

Chen was on a sabbatical. It’s a perk her employer, the social-media-tool maker Buffer, offers employees of five or more years, as both a reward and a way to avoid burnout.

What Is a Sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an extended break from work that some companies offer to employees as a perk. Depending on the company, sabbaticals may be paid or unpaid, and typically last anywhere from one month to one year. They provide time to rest, travel and learn new things.

“Before my sabbatical, I reached a point [where] work was very dominating in my life,” Chen, who serves as a senior customer advocate at Buffer, said. “Doing things that ... I enjoy and are relaxing, that was exactly what I needed.”

In addition to Buffer, several other companies offer their employees sabbaticals. Banks like Citi and Goldman Sachs recently rolled out sabbatical programs. And some tech companies, including Adobe and Intel, have had policies in place for years. Even so, sabbaticals are still a relatively niche perk.

But it may just be a matter of time before they become mainstream.

 

Sabbatical Leave symbolized by a do not disturb sign.
Image: Shutterstock

What Is a Sabbatical?

In the corporate context, a sabbatical is a period of leave someone takes from their job while still remaining employed by the organization. But the concept’s roots are much older.

The sabbatical’s origin stems from ancient Jewish culture. According to the tradition, people were to work continuously in the fields for six years. In the seventh year, they were to take a break and let the land rest, while they assembled to study their scriptures. This sabbath year, as it was called, was considered a time of both renewal and reflection.

The practice evolved in the 19th century, when, in 1880, Harvard University established the first sabbatical leave policy for faculty members. Harvard granted paid leaves to professors after their sixth year of employment, and it came with the understanding that they would return feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, having spent their allotted time away from campus studying and researching. The idea caught on, and by 1900, another nine colleges and universities across the United States had implemented sabbatical policies.

Today, sabbatical programs are ubiquitous in higher education. According to a 2016 report by Sibson Consulting, 85 percent of the 450 colleges and universities surveyed offer their faculty fully paid sabbaticals. The median sabbatical leave was 20 weeks.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly sabbaticals made the leap from college campuses to corporate HR policy handbooks. Some trace the first corporate sabbatical back to McDonald’s. The fast food giant’s sabbatical program began in the 1960s and is still going strong, with eight weeks of paid sabbatical leave offered to full-time salaried employees who put in 10 years of continuous service.

No matter the context, it seems the defining features of any sabbatical are that it’s longer than a typical vacation, with a special emphasis on rest and rejuvenation — and, in some cases, study.

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How Common Are Sabbaticals?

Today, the number of companies with sabbatical programs remains relatively low. About 5 percent of organizations offer their employees paid sabbaticals (and 11 percent offer unpaid ones), according to a 2019 report published by the Society for Human Resource Management.

And yet, sabbaticals have earned a place in larger conversations happening lately among HR and people management circles. Companies big and small are trying to formulate the right benefits package that appeals to employees, many of whom have felt burnout during the pandemic and come to increasingly value employers that prioritize the mental health of their workers.

“The pandemic has shown that companies and individuals can change faster than we ever thought possible, and this opens the door to exploring and experimenting with all kinds of new ways of working.”

Many industry leaders believe that, in a time when fatigued workers are turning in their two-week notices, the sabbatical is a perk worth serious consideration.

“Everything is up for grabs in the way that we work,” said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, founder of workplace consultancy Strategy + Rest and author of several books on work-life balance. “The pandemic has shown that companies and individuals can change faster than we ever thought possible, and this opens the door to exploring and experimenting with all kinds of new ways of working.”

Carol Sladek, an Aon consultant specializing in time-off and work-life practices for Fortune 500 companies, said sabbaticals are “on the upswing in terms of interest.”

“Now, not all of them put one in place,” Sladek added, referring to the companies she consults. “But we did talk to a number of organizations in the last couple of years about this kind of program.”

She said Aon’s database of roughly 1,000 employers shows that less than 10 percent offer sabbaticals. So it’s a rare-enough perk that companies offering them stand out in the eyes of prospective employees.

 

How Long Are Sabbaticals?

Sabbaticals in the corporate world usually clock in at four to six weeks. But some experts believe they should be longer.

“Ideally, sabbaticals are measured in months, not weeks,” said DJ DiDonna, an entrepreneur and founder of the Sabbatical Project, an initiative designed to spread awareness about the positive effects of sabbaticals.

While a month-long sabbatical is better than nothing, DiDonna said, it takes most people at least a month, if not two, to fully unplug and recover from their work routines and tap into the larger positive effects sabbaticals have to offer. For him, three to six months is the ideal length. Anything less than that is too short to unlock the benefits unique to sabbaticals.

“What a few months allows you to do is to step back from your normal, routine life and step into a different flow of life.”

In contrast to vacations, the average amount of which an American employee takes each year hovers around two weeks, sabbaticals are lengthy enough to provide the necessary distance from work for people to reflect on their identity and discover (or rediscover) their core values.

“What a few months allows you to do is to step back from your normal, routine life and step into a different flow of life,” said Lyndall Farley, who runs the sabbatical consultancy Beyond a Break. “And [that allows you to] shed the roles you have to play in your ordinary life ... and really get back to the essence of who you are.”

 

Corporate Sabbatical Examples

The precise duration and parameters around sabbatical policies vary across companies and industries. Here’s a non-exhaustive smattering of various companies’ sabbatical policies. For good measure, it includes legacy corporations and young startups alike.

  • Adobe offers four weeks of paid sabbatical leave to employees who have been at the company for at least five years (employees with more tenure are eligible for longer sabbaticals).

  • Buffer offers six weeks of paid sabbatical leave to employees who have been at the company for at least five years (employees with more tenure are eligible for longer sabbaticals).

  • Citi offers up to 12 weeks of sabbatical leave, at 25 percent base pay, to employees who have been with the company for at least five years.

  • ConvertKit offers four weeks of paid sabbatical leave to employees who work for the company for at least five years.

  • Deloitte offers three to six months of sabbatical leave, at 40 percent of their base salary, for eligible employees (as well as one-month-long unpaid sabbaticals).

  • Drift offers four weeks of paid sabbatical leave to employees who have been with the company for at least three years.

  • Goldman Sachs offers six weeks of unpaid sabbatical leave to employees with at least 15 years of tenure at the company.

  • HubSpot offers four weeks of paid sabbatical leave for employees who have been with the company for at least five years.

  • Intel offers four weeks of paid sabbatical leave to employees after four years of employment with the company, and eight weeks to employees who choose to take their sabbatical after seven years with the company.

  • McDonald’s offers eight weeks of paid sabbatical leave to employees who work for the company for at least 10 years.

  • ProfitWell offers one month of paid sabbatical leave to employees who work there for three or more years.

  • Webflow offers five weeks of paid sabbatical leave to employees with five or more years at the company.

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A person entering a sabbatical like a maze.
Image: Shutterstock

What Do People Do on Sabbaticals?

Sabbaticals look different for everyone. Some resemble stretched-out vacations, with plenty of rest and relaxation. Others are more structured and intentional, with volunteer or upskilling components laced throughout.

Barrett Brooks served as the chief operating officer of ConvertKit, an email marketing platform, for five years before he went on sabbatical last year.

“I was weirdly intentional about it,” Brooks said. He designed his time to focus on the sorts of activities he enjoyed as a child, before the pressures of careerism crept in. So he built wooden models and LEGO sets and went on plenty of hikes, in addition to cooking a new meal recipe every week and spending quality time with his family.

Susie Chau, who now runs her own sabbatical program consultancy called Carpe Diem Traveler, negotiated a year-long unpaid sabbatical with her management consulting employer about a decade ago. The sabbatical allowed Chau and her husband to visit 22 countries and the space “to reflect on what’s important to me, how I want to live my life,” Chau said.

While working on the Sabbatical Project, DiDonna, along with University of Notre Dame research professor Matt Bloom, conducted a qualitative study of 51 people who took three-month-or-longer sabbaticals and reported their times away were life-changing. They noticed several overlapping ways people spent their time, including:

  • Separation from work, both geographic and psychological, which often included travel.

  • Participation in restorative activities, ranging from rest to exercise to play, where people intentionally rested and recovered from overwork.

  • Enjoyment of adventuresome or novel experiences, like completing bucket-list goals.

  • Reflection on identity and work, gaining perspective and asking questions about what they want out of life.

Ultimately, the itinerary of sabbaticals comes down to the length of the sabbatical and the season of life in which the sabbatical taker finds themselves.

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A rainbow of creativity exerting a person's head during a sabbatical leave.
Image: Shutterstock

How Do Employees Benefit From Sabbaticals?

However employees choose to spend their sabbaticals, the extended time away from work tends to offer two main benefits.

 

Sabbaticals Offer Healthy Breaks From Stressful Work

In an article for The Atlantic, journalist Derek Thompson observed that “workism” is the religion of college-educated Americans.

“The problem with this gospel — ‘Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling’ — is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion,” Thompson wrote.

Stressful work situations are associated with poor individual well-being and increased health risks. Long working hours lead to more deaths from heart disease and stroke, according to a joint World Health Organization and International Labor Organization study.

And vacations aren’t always enough to stave it off. Researchers found that, while burnout is reduced while people go on vacation, these feelings creep back up to high levels shortly after they return to work. Vacations may improve mood in the short term — but have no effect on long-term life satisfaction.

Sabbaticals, on the other hand, have been found to reduce stress and burnout and lead to higher levels of positive well-being.

 

Sabbaticals Boost Creative Thinking

Something about extended time away from normal workday routines helps people think outside the box.

In his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, workplace consultant Pang observed that many important thinkers and innovators of the past century, ranging from designers to scientists, developed their seminal intellectual and creative ideas while away on trips and sabbaticals.

Pang noticed that the shared theme between these revelatory experiences is that they featured a mix of “alien and familiar elements” — people were in new environments, exposed to new ideas and brushed shoulders with new people, but their energy wasn’t totally absorbed by culture shock and language barriers.

And while people often say they work best under pressure, that usually isn’t the case.

For a study whose results were published in a 2002 Harvard Business Review article, researchers collected thousands of diary entries from hundreds of employees across seven U.S. companies. They examined how people “experienced time pressure day to day as they worked on projects that required high levels of inventiveness, while also measuring their ability to think creatively under such pressure.” They concluded that, the more time pressure people feel, the less likely they will be to think creatively.

“When creativity is under the gun,” they wrote, “it usually ends up getting killed.”

And with creativity often comes fresh ideas for the direction of one’s company. A 2009 report, for which 61 nonprofit leaders who took a sabbatical were surveyed, said sabbaticals gave many people a new vision for their work. Three-quarters of the leaders in the study found that the time away helped them “crystallize an existing vision for their organizations or frame a new one.” Nearly half of them later reported they had success in implementing their vision.

 

How Do Companies Benefit From Offering Sabbaticals?

Organizations want employees who are healthy, energetic, productive and creative. So all the reasons above apply to companies as well, not just individuals. After all, companies are made up of people who can get burned out and stuck in creative ruts.

In addition to keeping their workforce sharp and motivated, companies often implement sabbatical programs for two main purposes: recruiting new employees and retaining existing ones.

 

Sabbaticals Help With Employee Recruitment

As a general rule of thumb, companies offering sabbatical leave to employees after only three to five years of continuous service do so as a recruitment tactic. It’s meant to attract potential job candidates who may be entertaining multiple offers. And especially right now, with a hot job market in which (as the Los Angeles Times put it) “employers bow” to workers who are seeking maximum flexibility in the workplace, a sabbatical is a flashy, differentiating perk.

“Recruitment of the best employees has become increasingly important in every field,” noted researchers at Middle Tennessee State University. “Sabbaticals are proving to be a strong incentive for many top performers looking for workplace flexibility.”

 

Sabbaticals Help With Employee Retention

Some companies use sabbaticals primarily as a way to retain employees, rather than to recruit them. This is most evident in programs offering sabbaticals only to employees who put in six to 10 (or more) years of service. The idea here is that sabbaticals function as a reward for many years of hard work.

They’re also a way to boost the morale of employees who take them, which often causes them to stick around longer.

“Folks are really just blown away that you can provide a benefit like this.”

Dale Furbish, a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, found that companies that offer employee-leave programs “gain the goodwill and revitalization of their workforce,” and “are viewed as employers of choice.”

Human resources leaders have also noticed that sabbaticals strengthen the bond between employees and their employers.

“It creates a beautiful loyalty within the team,” said Courtney Seiter, vice president of people at Hologram, Inc. “Folks are really just blown away that you can provide a benefit like this.”

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Should Companies Dictate How Employees Spend Sabbaticals?

A frequently asked question among HR leaders is, to what extent should the company suggest to people how they spend their sabbatical time?

More often than not, it’s a hands-off policy, with the company leaving the answer at the sabbatical taker’s discretion.

Seiter thinks employers shouldn’t dictate how workers spend their sabbatical time.

In 2019, Seiter helped establish Buffer’s sabbatical program. The team discussed what level of involvement the company should have in suggesting how employees spend their sabbatical time. Ideas like mandating a volunteer component, or tying the sabbatical back to company values were considered, but ultimately, the sabbatical policy was implemented with no strings attached. Seiter believes they made the right call.

“If you’re deep in the throes of burnout, maybe all you can do is watch Netflix all day for a couple of weeks. Maybe that is your coping strategy and the best you can do right then.”

“I don’t think it’s the company’s business to tell someone what to do with the time off that they have been given,” Seiter said. “If you’re deep in the throes of burnout, maybe all you can do is watch Netflix all day for a couple of weeks. Maybe that is your coping strategy and the best you can do right then.”

On the other hand, Farley, the sabbatical consultant, says it’s a mistake when companies neglect to help workers with how they might structure their sabbaticals. Several months without a plan can be daunting for many people, and most could use some sort of guidance on how to approach their time away.

That’s why Farley recommends organizations use a sabbatical matrix (pictured below) when working with employees who take a sabbatical. Depending on the person’s level of career satisfaction and overall energy levels as they head into sabbatical, they may want to focus their time on certain activities.

A 4 quadrant matrix. Top left: Recharge, Top Right: Reach, Bottom Left: Reboot, Bottom Right: Refocuse.
Image: Lyndall Farley from Beyond a Break

For instance, if they love their job but are feeling burned out, they may want to concentrate on getting good rest and practicing restorative activities, such as exercising, working with their hands and reading by the beach. For someone who loves their career and is full of energy, the sabbatical might be a good time to climb Mount Everest.

Companies that present employees with this framework may spare them from the pressure-filled experience of staring down a blank canvas when their sabbatical begins.

 

A person imagining the backlash of taking a sabbatical.
Image: Shutterstock

Why Aren’t Sabbaticals More Common?

Sabbaticals may be earning buzz amid the so-called Great Resignation, which is forcing companies to reevaluate their employee benefits packages to appeal to job prospects who have raised their expectations. But even so, for all their supposed benefits, their implementation — for paid sabbaticals, at least — remains in the single digits. Why?

 

Companies Fear the Costs and Risks

The question is understandable: If sabbaticals are so good, why do only so few companies offer them?

“Because it’s very costly to do so,” Thomas Li-Ping Tang, professor of management at Middle Tennessee State University, said. “You have one person on the payroll but they’re not doing exactly what the company wants them to do.”

These are short-term costs, not only in terms of dollars and cents, but in terms of applied operational stress. When someone takes a sabbatical, workflows get interrupted.

“If I’m out for six or eight weeks, something’s going to be missing,” Sladek said. “Either my work has to get shuffled to other people or I need to be replaced in some way.” This scenario is enough to spook some employers and send them searching for alternative perks their company can offer.

Companies may be comforted to learn there is a hidden benefit for organizations that the stress test of one employee’s sabbatical leave may uncover. The 2009 report that surveyed dozens of nonprofit leaders found that sabbaticals offered opportunities to “increase organizational capacity.” In other words, they presented a chance for staff members to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities. While top executives are away, the lower rung of leaders gain valuable experience, and the organization as a whole gets to see what it’s like to experience succession planning.

Some employers fear implementing sabbatical programs for fear of a nightmare scenario: What if someone spends their sabbatical looking for a new job, and they quit when they return?

It’s a legitimate concern. But one that rarely happens in practice.

“There certainly is a risk, but what we generally find in practice is that’s a very small percentage of employees,” Sladek said.

“They take time off. And they’re like: ‘You know what? That was great, but I’m not going to be a ski bum my entire life, and I actually like my job. I just needed a little bit of break and space from it.’”

In the same 2009 nonprofit report, only 13 percent of organization leaders who returned said the sabbatical made them want to change jobs.

DiDonna, who’s interviewed dozens of sabbatical takers for his research on the Sabbatical Project, talked to people who began their sabbatical thinking about quitting from their companies.

“They take time off. And they’re like: ‘You know what? That was great, but I’m not going to be a ski bum my entire life, and I actually like my job. I just needed a little bit of break and space from it,’” DiDonna said.

“I find it’s not necessarily that people want to do these wholesale life changes,” Farley added. “It’s quite often that ... when they come back, they’re more focused in their career ... and have greater clarity on where they’re going and what they’re doing. And as a boss, I never want to see my employees just staying stagnant.”

That’s not to say there’s no risk involved for organizations that offer sabbaticals to some of their employees. But in the aggregate, experts believe, the benefits outweigh the costs.

When you put sabbaticals in the context of how much it costs to recruit, hire and onboard new employees, “it becomes a no-brainer” for companies to offer sabbaticals to their employees, Farley said.

Tang thinks organizations should think of sabbaticals as investments.

“In some cases, you will win really big. In some cases, you may not gain a lot of benefits out of it,” he said. “It’s a good investment, I would say.”

 

Employees Don’t Feel Safe Taking Them

Another, perhaps more overlooked reason sabbaticals aren’t mainstream is because, even when organizations permit employees to take them, the organizational culture is such that employees don’t feel psychologically safe to do so.

“The reluctance [to take sabbaticals is] based on the risk that employees have, the fear of being stigmatized, not just only by their supervisor, but also by their colleagues,” said Sarah Altmann, an academic teacher and researcher at Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf whose research focuses on temporary leaves of absence and flexible working time practices. “There’s also the fear of having negative career consequences.”

And the concern is warranted. Researchers have found that people who take leave make less money, earn fewer promotions and receive lower performance reviews than colleagues who don’t take advantage of flexible work practices.

“The reluctance [to take sabbaticals is] based on the risk that employees have, the fear of being stigmatized, not just only by their supervisor, but also by their colleagues.”

The source of these feelings probably lives upstream from the individual companies. In U.S. work culture especially, there is a pervasive idea that time away from work — even to take care of newborn, disabled or aging family members — is damaging to one’s future job prospects. It’s a gap in the resume that threatens to derail or suppress one’s career. So, in the eyes of many, the idea of taking a sabbatical feels foolish.

Not only that, but workers are well aware that time off from work for them means heavier workloads for their colleagues. That work has to go somewhere, and it will likely be dispersed to other team members. Many workers in this situation can’t help but anticipate feelings of guilt. For some, it’s easier not to take too much time off than face the idea that coworkers feel extra stress from work because of their decision to take a sabbatical.

 

How to Create a Sabbatical-Friendly Culture

Sabbaticals offer many benefits to both organizations and employees alike, but those benefits are only accessible when employees actually take them. So how can workplaces make sure that happens?

Organizations can combat the pervasive, fear-based thinking around taking extended time away from work by not only implementing a formal sabbatical policy and program, but also by establishing and maintaining a culture that actively and consistently celebrates when people take sabbaticals.

It’s easier said than done. But Farley suggests having the company’s CEO take a sabbatical first. That often catches people’s attention and helps to take some of the stigma out of the practice.

Next, Altmann said, organizations should encourage managers to take the initiative and suggest the idea of taking a sabbatical to their direct reports. Whether a coworker is burning out or pining to realize a personal dream, when the manager floats to them the idea of taking a sabbatical, it often feels like they’re receiving permission that wasn’t totally there before. And it makes them feel safer about taking one.

Overall, the internal communication around sabbaticals is important. Leaders have to market the perk within the company, and acknowledge that employees not only need to be rewarded for their hard work, but require ongoing breaks.

“It’s generally rolled out as a big bonus,” Sladek said. “It’s intended to budge that culture a little bit in the direction of recognizing that people do need time off.”

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