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Sabbatical Leave: Policies, Benefits, and Best Practices

An employee sabbatical is a break from work for an extended period of time, usually for personal reasons such as professional development or travel. A sabbatical tends to be longer than a standard leave of absence, but shorter than a career break.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 16% of companies offer sabbatical leave as an employee benefit, and it’s becoming an increasingly desirable perk.

Here’s what employees need to know about sabbatical leave, including what it is, how it works, and the benefits of offering your own sabbatical leave policy.

What Is Sabbatical Leave?

Sabbatical leave is an extended break from work for a specific period of time, anywhere from a few weeks to a full year. Although most common in higher education, sabbaticals are becoming more common in the private sector too, with new hires becoming eligible for an extended leave of absence after a certain number of years of service.

Sabbatical leave differs from other types of leave, such as sick leave and paid time off (PTO), in that it’s usually for a longer amount of time and for more flexible reasons.

An employee might request a sabbatical to:

  • Volunteer
  • Write a book
  • Take a course
  • Go on vacation
  • Spend time with family and friends

There’s no legal requirement to offer sabbatical leave, so how much leave you offer is up to you. If you’re going to offer sabbatical leave, it’s important to have a clear leave policy and track it the same way you would any other type of employee leave.

During a sabbatical, the employee is still officially employed, and can expect to resume their job afterwards. However, they may not have the same legal right to return to work as they would if they qualified for a job-protected leave of absence.

What Are the Benefits of Sabbatical Leave?

Offering sabbatical leave might seem like a great perk for employees, but it has several benefits for employers too. These are just a few key benefits of sabbatical leave:

Reduce Employee Burnout

After enough time on the job, even high-performing employees can experience stress and overwhelm, leading to burnout if they don’t take some time to themselves. While employee counseling can help, sometimes the best remedy is an extended break.

Offering a sabbatical year to long-tenured employees — or even just a short sabbatical for new hires — shows that you value their well-being and don’t take them for granted. This can lead to an increase in motivation and employee engagement, as employees return from their sabbatical well-rested and with renewed focus on their work.

Support Professional Growth

Sometimes, employees request a sabbatical leave to pursue professional development opportunities, such as volunteering or studying for an advanced degree. Taking time off to focus on professional growth benefits both the employer and the employee, since they’ll return with a new skill set that may be an asset to your organization.

Even if the sabbatical isn’t directly related to their career path, giving employees the chance to pursue an outside interest can lead to a more well-rounded team.

Improve Employee Retention

A generous sabbatical leave program can benefit your recruiting process by attracting top talent to work at your organization. Knowing that they’ll get extended time off after putting in several years of work can make a job offer more appealing to prospective employees and boost your reputation as an employer.

Alongside other voluntary leave programs, like paid parental leave or personal leave, sabbatical leave can help you reduce turnover and improve employee retention.

Is Sabbatical Leave Paid or Unpaid?

Sabbatical leave: stack of books on a desk

Since there aren’t any employment laws mandating sabbatical leave, whether or not it’s paid or unpaid is up to your organization. According to the Chamber of Commerce, only 5% of companies offering sabbaticals provide paid sabbatical leave.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. On the one hand, a paid sabbatical can be expensive for employers, especially if it lasts for a full year. On the other hand, an unpaid sabbatical leave can be financially unfeasible for many employees.

One option is to pay a full salary to employees who take a sabbatical for professional reasons, and a partial salary to those who take it for personal reasons. The important thing is to apply your policies consistently and base the decision on eligibility criteria rather than on vague guidelines or employee performance metrics.

Sabbatical Leave Best Practices for Employers

Once you’ve decided to offer sabbatical leave to your employees, you’ll need to create a clear sabbatical leave policy and put a system in place for them to request leave. Follow these four steps to streamline the sabbatical leave management process:

1. Create a Sabbatical Leave Policy

First, set out your sabbatical leave guidelines in your employee handbook or company policy. You’ll want to establish eligibility criteria, such as whether part-time employees can take a sabbatical, or if it’s only available to full-time employees.

Determine the amount of time an employee can take off work based on the number of years of employment or other relevant factors. If you offer paid leave, decide whether you’ll offer full pay or partial pay, and if it depends on the purpose of the sabbatical.

Provide a leave of absence request template that employees can use to describe their reason for taking a sabbatical and how long they plan to be away from work.

2. Know Which Leave Laws Apply

Since there aren’t state or federal laws concerning sabbatical leave, you might think you don’t have to worry about HR compliance when it comes to sabbaticals. But it’s possible that an employee’s reason for taking leave could trigger other employment laws.

For example, if an employee needs to take time off to avoid burnout, they may qualify for mental health leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Likewise, an employee who wants to take a sabbatical to spend more time with their family could qualify for FMLA leave if they or their immediate family member is sick.

Be sure to categorize leave appropriately, and don’t treat another type of leave as a sabbatical if it’s more accurate to count it as personal leave or vacation.

3. Track Leave of Absences

When an employee submits a new sabbatical request, your human resources team can either approve or deny it. If they approve it, you’ll want to track the amount of time the employee is out of work using a leave management system.

Unlike FMLA leave and PTO, which can be taken intermittently, sabbatical leave tends to be taken all at once. Be sure to track employee leave accurately so you know when an employee has used up their sabbatical leave balance.

When you use Pulpstream to manage leave, employees can submit leave requests and view their remaining leave balance using a self-service portal. Plus, you’ll get automatic notifications whenever you need to take action on an employee’s account.

4. Streamline the Return to Work Process

Sabbatical leave isn’t job-protected, which means that an employer isn’t legally required to hold a job open for the employee. Still, most sabbatical agreements will stipulate that the employee intends to return to work after a specific period of time and that their job will be available for them when they return.

If the employee is taking an extended leave of absence, check in with them to ensure that they’re still intending to return as planned. Remember, they’re still your employee, and bound by your company policies. They’re free to look for a different job, but they aren’t allowed to work for a new employer while they’re still on sabbatical.

Consider creating a personal return to work plan to ease the employee back into their job or to ready them for a new role if they’re returning with a new skill set.

Make Sabbatical Leave a Breeze with Pulpstream

Employee wearing a pair of glasses

Sabbatical leave is an employee benefit that’s usually earned after putting in a certain number of years of service with an employer. Employees can request a sabbatical for any number of reasons, from professional development to volunteering or travel.

It’s up to the employer whether sabbatical leave is paid or unpaid, who’s eligible for it, and how long it lasts, based on the criteria in your company’s leave policies.

Pulpstream’s leave management platform makes it easy to manage leave requests and track multiple types of leave and facilitate the return-to-work process. Our custom rules engine lets you set criteria for different types of leave, while our self-service portal lets employees track their own leave balances and determine leave eligibility.

Request a free demo and streamline your LoA processes today!