Should companies offer sabbaticals?

January 3, 2011: 1:31 PM ET

Academic sabbaticals have been shown to improve well-being and reduce stress among faculty members. Do these benefits also apply to the corporate world?

By Alexandra Levit, contributor

Sabbaticals, or paid leaves for personal and professional development, have long been a staple of the academic life. They usually comprise of several months off campus and provide a break from teaching and administrative tasks. But while it's reasonable to assume that employees may benefit from sabbaticals, do companies and institutions benefit as well?

A research team from Israel, New Zealand, and the United States recently published a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology that found that people who take sabbaticals not only experience a decline in stress during their sabbatical, but experience an overall stress decline after returning to work as well (compared to their stress levels before they went on leave).

James Campbell Quick, one of the authors of the study and an organizational psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, grew interested in sabbaticals after spending nine months at the university and three months serving in the U.S. Air Force.

"I found that my time in the Air Force provided much-needed rejuvenation as well as complimentary real-world experience to bring back to the classroom," he says.

After returning from his own sabbatical, Quick decided to investigate the effect of sabbaticals on well-being and development.

"We discovered that a sabbatical affords the opportunity to acquire interpersonal and professional skills that you wouldn't have a chance to build otherwise," Quick says.

Not all sabbaticals, however, are equal. Faculty members who detached from their regular workplaces -- those who didn't go into the home office, attend meetings, or serve on academic committees -- were much better equipped to reap the benefits of the sabbatical.

Sabbatical location is also important. Adjusting to a new routine can be difficult, so sabbatical-takers would do well spending their time in an area or country where it's easy for them to adjust and focus on learning and exploration.

Taking a cue from academia, many companies, including FedEx (FDX), Genentech (DNA), and General Mills (GIS) are now offering sabbaticals as a means of motivating (and retaining) their best performers -- despite the recent recession.

"The rate of sabbaticals in the business world has remained relatively steady in the last few years. Companies that have implemented sabbaticals are often very stable, so even a tough economy wouldn't necessarily impact an existing program or discourage employees from taking advantage of it," says Lance Haun, a former HR manager and now a writer at TLNT.com. "However, the recession has limited the number of new companies implementing sabbatical programs."

This is somewhat understandable, for, as Quick puts it, sabbaticals don't result in a concrete cash flow exchange or an immediate return on investment. They require an investment in the employee's long-term contribution, which may have unintended beneficial consequences for the organization.

"Sabbaticals are in no way a waste of time. They often result in new relationships or partnerships that are good for the home office, and open up opportunities to explore new markets," says Quick.

They also aid retention.

"Many sabbatical programs allow one every three to seven years, so you're ensuring that employee will be with the company for a while, and [will not be] as likely to get burned out," says Haun.

For companies interested in starting a sabbatical program, there are a few items to consider before taking the plunge. One significant concern is staffing.

"A person on sabbatical can be hard to replace, so you'll have to find workarounds that will prevent an employee from working too hard in the months leading up to the sabbatical and their co-workers from doing much more work to compensate for the loss," says Haun.

Another issue is accountability. Ideally, someone who takes a sabbatical will be responsible to produce a product such as a report or a white paper.

Managers also have to be willing to cut the cord, physically and electronically. As the study in the Journal of Applied Psychology puts it, if you care about the well-being of your employees when they go away for a respite, leave them alone.

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