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Sabbatical vs. Leave of Absence: How to Create HR Policies

Chances are the word “sabbatical” brings to mind a tenured professor taking a year off work to focus on personal projects. But sabbaticals aren’t just for academics, and more and more companies are offering sabbatical leave as an employee benefit. But what’s the difference between a sabbatical vs. a leave of absence?

Although sabbatical leave is a type of leave, it differs from other leaves of absence in terms of its length, purpose, and eligibility requirements.

Here’s what you need to know about a sabbatical vs. leave of absence and how to offer sabbatical leave as an employee perk.

What Is a Sabbatical?

A sabbatical refers to an absence from work for an extended amount of time, usually for professional development or personal growth. A sabbatical could last anywhere from a few months to an entire year. Common reasons for taking a sabbatical include:

  • Volunteering
  • Writing a book
  • Taking a course
  • Traveling abroad
  • Attending a retreat

Taking a family vacation wouldn’t count as a sabbatical, but traveling overseas to learn a new language or do research for a novel might.

A sabbatical doesn’t have to be specifically focused on career development, and that shouldn’t be a requirement for submitting a sabbatical leave request.

But a sabbatical isn’t meant to be a career break either, which usually involves a more complete separation from an employee’s current position.

At the end of a sabbatical, the employee intends to return to work, hopefully with some new skills and improved sense of well-being.

Sabbatical vs. Leave of Absence

If an employee sabbatical is just an extended leave of absence, can you implement the same company policies that apply to other types of leave? No: If you're going to have a sabbatical program, it’s important to have a distinct sabbatical leave policy.

Here are a few key differences between a sabbatical vs. leave of absence:

Sabbaticals are for an extended period of time. Most types of leave have a specific time constraint. Employees may only have a few weeks of sick leave or vacation time, and even parental leave only lasts for a maximum of 12 weeks in most states.

Sabbaticals allow employees to take extended time off work. A sabbatical leave period could last for six weeks, two months, or even a full year.

There are no laws mandating sabbatical leave. Some types of leave are governed by state and federal laws. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain personal and medical conditions.

Offering sabbatical leave isn’t a legal requirement, so it’s up to your human resources department to create a sabbatical leave policy.

Sabbaticals can be either paid or unpaid. Some states have laws requiring paid time off or paid parental leave. But whether or not to offer paid or unpaid sabbaticals is up to the employer. If you choose to offer paid sabbaticals, you’ll want to be clear about the number of years an employee needs to work to be eligible for it.

For example, maybe an employee is only eligible to take a sabbatical after putting in five years of service. Or, perhaps the length of their employment determines whether or not they receive full pay while they’re away.

Benefits of a Sabbatical vs. Leave of Absence

Sabbatical vs leave of absence: manager happily planning his vacation

Allowing employees to take an extended sabbatical may seem like a recipe for disaster. Won’t employees take advantage of it or request leave for frivolous reasons? The truth is, having a sabbatical leave policy can benefit both employers and employees.

Here are three ways that offering sabbatical leave can benefit your company:

Improves employee well-being. Having time to relax and recharge outside of work is important, especially after working full-time for many years.

Although stressed or anxious employees may be eligible for mental health leave under FMLA, the criteria may not apply to more general cases of burnout.

By giving employees the option to take a lengthy break when they need it, you’ll allow them to prioritize their well-being and return to work with a new sense of focus.

Increases employee retention. If you’re having trouble attracting talent, you may be looking at your employee benefits program as a way to attract and retain employees. The option to take a sabbatical may be a highly desirable perk.

Although parental leave benefits are increasingly common, some employees may not intend to have kids or may have already had them. An employee sabbatical program extends the opportunity to take time off for a wider variety of reasons.

Supports professional growth. While a sabbatical doesn’t have to be strictly related to work, an employee’s reason for taking a sabbatical often aligns with their career goals. Maybe they’re taking a course that will provide them with new skills or credentials, or writing a book that will raise their profile in your industry.

Even sabbaticals that aren’t directly related to work, such as a volunteer trip overseas, can lead to personal growth and a broader perspective.

How to Create a Sabbatical Leave Policy

Despite these benefits, offering sabbatical leave can present some challenges to your organization. Aside from the direct cost of paid sabbatical leave, you may experience indirect costs, such as disruptions to your workflow or a loss of expertise.

Follow these steps to ensure your sabbatical leave program runs smoothly:

1. Set clear leave guidelines.

A sabbatical isn’t meant to be a blank check for an employee to take a vacation while still receiving their full salary. It’s reasonable to request some information about the purpose of the sabbatical, and to assess them on a case-by-case basis.

By setting clear guidelines around pay, eligibility, and length of absence, you’ll reduce the time it takes to approve leave requests and avoid pay disparities.

2. Schedule sabbaticals in advance.

Because a sabbatical is often longer than a typical leave of absence, it’s important to plan ahead and be prepared for your employee’s departure. It’s reasonable to expect employees to provide advance notice of their plans — as far as six months ahead — and to work with you to minimize the impact of their absence.

The absence of a key employee may be disruptive, but it also presents an opportunity for other team members to take on new responsibilities and learn new skills.

3. Automate the leave request process.

Since employees can request a sabbatical for a wide range of situations, your human resources team will need to review each request individually. Still, you can simplify the approval process by providing employees with a standard leave request template and an online portal they can use to submit leave requests.

Once a sabbatical is approved, you can use leave tracking tools to calculate how much leave an employee has taken and how much additional leave they’re entitled to.

Simplify Sabbatical Leave With HR Automation

Entrepreneur writing something in her notebook

Sabbaticals aren’t just an extended leave of absence. They’re an opportunity to address burnout, learn new skills, or spend some time on personal or professional growth. Since a sabbatical can last anywhere from a few weeks to a year, it’s important for companies to set out clear guidelines and track the amount of leave an employee takes.

Pulpstream is an HR automation platform that allows you to digitize complex processes like employee leave requests. Whether an employee wants to request parental leave, a paid sabbatical, or a few days off for their mental health, Pulpstream makes it easy for them to upload their own leave requests with a self-service portal.

Plus, your human resources team can track leave balances to ensure you comply with FMLA and other leave laws. Request a demo today to learn more!