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Sabbaticals: Are they the cure for “burnout-itis”?

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Job burnout is a very real condition, as evidenced by both workplace and medical research:

  • A 2019 Comparably study shows that nearly half of all workers feel burned out at work.
  • The World Health Organization recently listed burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases.
  • Mayo Clinic lists it as a condition within its section on adult health, complete with a list of symptoms, causes, risk factors, and consequences, along with tips on handling it—similar to how it discusses all other health conditions.

Even Urban Dictionary has an entry for it, defining it as a “state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by a prolonged period of stress and frustration; an inevitable corporate condition characterized by frequent displays of unprofessional behavior, a blithe refusal to do any work, and most important, a distinct aura of “not [caring].”

Clearly, such a condition, and its resulting symptoms and consequences, is not something any employer wants impacting its workforce.

Could offering your employees a sabbatical leave help reduce burnout, support their emotional and physical wellbeing, and serve as a reward for long tenure? Maybe…

The current sabbatical landscape

A recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey shows that sabbaticals are on the rise, with 17% of employers offering sabbatical leave to their employees: either paid, unpaid or a combination of both, and with durations ranging from four weeks up to a full year in some industries. The number of employers offering this “perk” has increased by as much as an additional 10% in the past year, according to various industry sources.

Types of sabbatical programs 

Travel Travel the world, learn about other cultures and experience life outside of our typical perspective.
Green Support initiatives that impact the Earth, such as conducting research on the impact of ocean plastic waste on marine biology, join an environmental clean-up group or find ways to reduce carbon emissions.
Volunteer Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, provide support to those affected by a hurricane or flooding, teach children English in Honduras.
Research and Innovation Gain insight, overcome mental blocks, and refresh ways of thinking by working outside the company or at a non-profit organization. Bring those innovative ideas back to the organization for: product, operations, sales, talent management, and more.
Family Spend much-needed time with family. Take a trip with a spouse and children, visit with an elderly family member in order to bond and rebalance work-life priorities.
Learning Earn a software certification, complete an MBA program, study tribal life in the Amazon, or finish a college degree.
Growth and Goals Complete a life-long dream such as sail across the Atlantic, restore a vintage car, perform in a show off Broadway, or go on a meditative retreat to find peace of mind or soul search.
Hybrid A program that allows employees to combine reasons for sabbatical leave.

The right program, or combination of program choices—and overall program success—depends on a host of indicators, such as corporate culture, employee tenure, population demographics, staff workload and productivity goals, and strategic corporate goals, as a start.

The benefits

There are myriad ways a sabbatical leave is good for your people, your business, and the community. The following are just some examples:

  • Provides much-needed rest—longer than a week or two of vacation—for employees who have been in the workforce for a long period of time without a break: As long as employees truly “disconnect” from their work (let’s face it, few “knowledge workers” and sales executives completely disconnect during a vacation), sabbaticals are proven to relieve “burnout” and stress, which positively impacts workforce health.
  • Increases engagement and productivity: Boosted by a renewed perspective and revived energy on returning to work, managers are better able to address the needs of their direct reports rather than coping with personal fatigue and their own needs.
  • Serves as a retention tool: By providing an incentive for (high-performing) employees to stay with the company for more than five or ten years, sabbaticals address the issue of employees changing jobs (and taking time off in between) simply because they “need a break.”
  • Contributes to your EVP (Employee Value Proposition): Sabbaticals convey to employees that the organization supports their personal goals and overall wellbeing.
  • Supports communities: Purpose-driven sabbaticals (as noted above) provide a source of much-needed volunteers.

Additionally, a 2017 article by the Harvard Business Review highlighted the performance-based benefits organizations realize when offering sabbaticals:

  • Leader-subordinate relationships were more collaborative upon the leader’s return.
  • Interim leaders proved to be both more productive and responsible after their time stepping into the higher position temporarily vacated by the individual taking the sabbatical.
  • Organizations were able to identify development opportunities for their future leaders before these aspiring leaders took on more permanent leadership roles.

Avoid these pitfalls for program success

While the benefits of offering a sabbatical leave appear obvious, there are potential challenges that need to be considered and addressed proactively, in order for your sabbatical program to be successful. 

Paid or unpaid? That is the question.

To illustrate this challenge, let’s look at Chris: Chris wants to take four weeks of travel sabbatical leave. A trip to Munich and Berlin will allow Chris to explore his heritage and brush up on his German, which will also help his professional development as he seeks to advance in his German-based company. But because the travel sabbatical is unpaid, Chris is unable to afford the time off or the boost it might give his career.

Even if the leave were paid, the cost of traveling might not be budgeted or is earmarked for other expenses. Likewise, personal obligations Chris has could be challenging for him to leave behind.

Staffing issues

Let’s say Emily wants to stay home to finish her professional certification program or conduct that long-delayed research project. Cost and family obligations are not an issue. But Emily’s manager is unable to reallocate Emily’s workload due to tight staffing margins. If Emily goes on sabbatical, production quotas won’t be met. Emily’s manager has no choice but to deny her request.

Purpose-driven becoming purpose-less

A sabbatical seems to be the perfect solution in the cases of Chris and Emily. But without a structured plan (or a plan that isn’t executed), the employee is out on an unstructured “staycation.” These breaks are not typically a sabbatical leave type: it certainly defeats the purpose of personal and professional growth. An unstructured staycation is more in line with an unpaid personal leave of absence.

And then there’s the “FOMO” effect….

Lastly, some employees simply will not feel comfortable taking a long-period of leave from work for Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) on critical projects or events, or even simply fearing not being missed, which can increase anxiety and stress. Again, definitely not the purpose of a sabbatical.

How to rest easy when introducing a sabbatical program 

It starts by doing your homework. Knowing your corporate culture, finding the right balance of time and pay, communicating the program clearly to managers and employees, obtaining leadership sponsorship, and providing the necessary tools to support your employees before, during, and returned from their sabbatical adventure. This informed and structured approach could provide a real boost to your workers and your corporate initiatives… and maybe even the world.

 

 

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