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What’s So Radical About Sabbatical?
Don’t Hate Us When We’re on Hiatus
I was at an awards reception, seated at a table with a bunch of employee benefits leaders, where I couldn’t even pretend to fit in. [Note to self: Write Heigh Ho post about imposter syndrome and belonging.]
To my relief, Natalie, a Silicon Valley benefits bigwig seated beside me, struck up a conversation with me just as I convinced myself everyone at our table was staring because I used the wrong fork for my salad.
Natalie and I were each there to accept awards for our groundbreaking achievements. She had reduced her company’s healthcare costs 400%1 by rolling out a reference-based pricing tool. (Don’t ask me what that is; I have no idea.) My award was for producing a pretty sticker that promoted healthy vending machine snacks.
Natalie wasn’t shy about describing the “wins” she’d racked up for her employer. I zoned out for most of it, but was all ears when she got to talking about her company’s sabbatical policy. They offered 6 consecutive weeks off, paid, for every 5 years worked at the company.
I Can’t Get No Sabbatifaction
Natalie’s sabbatical policy sounded too good to be true. As I reflected on jobs in my own employer’s organization, one-tenth the size of Natalie’s, sabbaticals seemed like a pipedream.
I expressed my doubt. “Some people in my company,” I said, “are the only ones with the skill set and knowledge to do their job. They couldn’t just drop out for 6 weeks without major disruption — not the least of which would be extra stress for customers and co-workers.”
She curtly replied, “Well! That’s not a very good business model, is it?” and turned away dismissively.
The rest of the evening, she kept the back of her head to me as she conversed with an actual grown-up on the other side of her, probably snickering with him about their table’s business loser who used the wrong fork for salad.
I ultimately was persuaded by Natalie’s point (if not the way she made it). A solid organization shouldn’t be dependent on one person.
About 5% of employers, according to a 2019 survey, offer paid sabbaticals, in which extended time off is taken consecutively and in addition to regular paid-time-off. Sometimes, sabbaticals are designated as time for the employee to explore developmental opportunities (professionally or personally).
Mind the Gap
If only one person in an organization can perform a job — Natalie’s criterion for poorly executed capitalism — training others to do it in their absence can:
Reduce disruption when the time comes for the sabbatical-taker (or sabbatee) to leave the organization permanently.
Create job crafting opportunities for cross-trained co-workers, who discover and build new skills, knowledge, and peer connections.
Reduce stress for employees overwhelmed by the weight of a process, service, or product resting entirely on their shoulders.
Some advocates hail sabbatical as a solution for burnout. But time off, in the absence of a broader strategy, is just an anti-burnout placebo employers dole out to placate chronically stressed employees, unlikely to deliver lasting results when employees return to the same job conditions they left. That’s probably why Kira Schabram, Matt Bloom, and DJ DiDonna, writing in Research: The Transformative Power of Sabbaticals, advise employers:
If you facilitate sabbaticals before employees are pushed to the brink, most will return with renewed energy and greater clarity… Listen to and work with returnees pitching you new projects, requesting transfers, or embracing leadership opportunities.
Companies that offer paid sabbatical, according to The Sabbatical Project’s database, include:
Adobe — 4 weeks after 5 years; 6 weeks after 10 years
Intel — 4 weeks after 4 years; or 8 weeks after 7 years
Shopify — 4 weeks after 5 years
Spotify — 6 weeks after 5 years
Autodesk — 6 weeks after 4 years
The Sabbatical Project’s founder, DJ DiDonna, advises companies to build sabbatical policy based on three pillars that support employee wellbeing:
Provide compensation during the sabbatical
Measure duration in months, not weeks
Promote disconnection — discourage use of work email and have co-workers assume the sabbatee’s responsibilities.
Sabbatees Aren’t Saboteurs
When Natalie first awakened me to the sabbatical idea, I reacted skeptically, secretly entrenched in a delusion that my workplace would go to hell in a handbasket if I was MIA for 6 weeks (someone’s gotta make pretty stickers!). I’ve since come around to see that most medium and large companies can offer sabbaticals — longer, paid sabbaticals. Intel’s 4 weeks after 4 years or 8 weeks after 7 years is a start.
Two points sealed the deal in my mind:
I believe employers should offer paid family leave — to allow parents bonding time with a new baby or adopted child, for example — and this should be at least three months. If you think workplaces of a certain size can’t afford an employee’s extended absence, then you couldn’t possibly support paid family leave. (Surveys, however, consistently show that anywhere from 66%-82% of Americans do support paid family leave). In fact, family leave policies at forward-looking companies across the US have shown that extended paid leave is manageable.
Most employers’ break rooms are adorned with posters exhorting, “Anything Is Possible!” “Believe and Succeed,” and “Teams Find a Way!” These are almost true. When companies need to rush a product to market, close a deal with a new client, or maintain business continuity during trying times, they find ways to get it done. When you and I are out-of-pocket for a few months, the organization can apply its can-do attitude to get by (and welcome us back when we return).
In a survey, business school graduates’ sabbatical-hesitancy was not always tied to productivity. They expressed anxiety about how their time off would be perceived by others.
Stigma, in other words, is an obstacle, as it is with most time-away-from-work in the US. Normalizing restorativeness, including sabbatical, is a vital element to the work at hand.
[After drafting this post, I ran a poll on LinkedIn and Mastodon and learned from 1000+ respondents that there was little interest in sabbaticals. Some people resented the idea. Share your take in the Comments.]
🎉 Thank You, Wellbeing Think Tank
Heigh Ho is proud to be named Resource of the Month in the September issue of Wellbeing Think Tank’s newsletter.
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