An employer’s guide to Sabbaticals

By Anthony Wolny | 5th September 2018 | 13 min read

As workplace stresses and strains continue to impact UK businesses, increasing numbers of burnt-out employees are looking for a way to destress, switch off and reconnect with friends, family and nature. In response, and perhaps recognising the wider business benefits of retaining a motivated and productive workforce, many larger companies have begun to offer both paid and unpaid sabbaticals to their employees.

Whilst establishing sabbaticals as a routine workplace benefit is still relatively rare in the UK, the sabbatical has been reasonably well-established within the US for several decades. Many sources state that McDonald’s implemented the first corporate sabbatical program in 1977, and forty years later, a survey conducted for the Society for Human Resource Management stated that the percentage of companies offering sabbaticals; both paid and unpaid; rose to nearly 17% of employers in 2017

In the UK, a survey conducted by holiday booking company Opodo showed that 50% of respondents who have taken, or are considering taking, a sabbatical, would do so in order to get away from the stress of working life. With 73% of respondents stating that they do not think they have a generous holiday allowance, and a further 43% indicating that they would primarily take a sabbatical to help to improve their physical and mental health, it is apparent that UK businesses would be wise to educate themselves on the business and employee benefits of taking a workplace sabbatical.

What is a Sabbatical?

In a nutshell, a sabbatical is taken by an employee as an approved break from the workplace. These can vary in length, and are dependent on wider company policies, and the personal agreement made between an individual employee and their employer. A sabbatical is normally over and above an employee’s normal annual leave entitlement.

Are there different types of Sabbatical?

Sabbaticals typically comprise a single period of extended leave, but can also comprise short, frequent periods of absence – for example, a regular day each month on which employees can spend time supporting a charity. If an employee wishes to take longer than a year away from the workplace, this is usually classed as a career break rather than a sabbatical. Neither of these terms is defined by UK law, so this can sometimes be confusing in terms of knowing how to refer to different periods of leave.

Who is eligible to take a Sabbatical?

Eligibility requirements for sabbaticals depend entirely on individual company policies. It is good practice to ensure that different groups of staff are not discriminated against when considering all requests for sabbaticals – e.g. part-time employees must be given the same consideration as their full-time counterparts. All applications must be considered fairly and equally.

With no official legislation covering the topic of sabbaticals, most employers instead tend to require employees to accrue a minimum period of service before allowing them to apply for a career break. For example, long periods of leave tend to be made available to senior employees, or those with over five or ten years of continual service. Ensure that you are mindful of discrimination considerations, such as age and disability, before setting up any criteria.

Why do people take Sabbaticals?

As discussed previously, many employees are increasingly looking to sabbaticals in order to unplug and de-stress for a set period of time away from the workplace. However, other reasons for taking workplace sabbaticals include undertaking family or caring commitments, travelling, long-term volunteering or further studying.

What is the average length of time taken on Sabbatical?

Sabbaticals can span from a couple of months to up to around a year away from the workplace. Every company that offers a workplace sabbatical will have their own criteria set out within their employment terms & conditions as to the length of time an employee can take.

If you decide to offer company sabbaticals, it is good practice to discuss with employees that longer lengths of time away from the workplace could result in it being more difficult to reintegrate back into their previous role, and to the workplace as a whole. You should also inform them that it may be harder for you to commit to re-employing them in the same role upon their return.

Can I refuse a sabbatical request?

As sabbaticals are not covered by any UK legislation, it is perfectly feasible to refuse a request if you should need to. However, it would be good business practice to ensure that you can provide solid, business-related reasons for refusing a sabbatical request, in order to avoid future conflict. These could include:

  • Poor performance and/or attendance
  • Being unable to provide good-quality cover for the role in question
  • A high demand for customer service requiring the employee in question to be present
  • The employee is subject to disciplinary procedures

What are the benefits to offering company sabbaticals?

Increasing numbers of companies now provide sabbaticals and career breaks to long-serving employees. Sabbaticals can bring benefits to employees and employers alike, including the increased retention of employees, the option of using the time off as a reward or prize for outstanding performance or sales, and allowing for new skills and motivations to be brought back by employees returning from time off. Human resources software can be used to arrange such rewards and sabbaticals to increase employee retention.

Sabbaticals can also encourage employees to make a difference, via volunteering and charity programmes, and many firms have now integrated sabbaticals within their own workplace CSR policies.

Alternatively, if you are experiencing temporary business problems or looking for a fair way to reduce staff for a set period, offering an unpaid sabbatical could be a good way to reduce your staff costs for a set period of time.

Sabbaticals are also likely to result in increased employee gratitude towards your business, as well as a renewed sense of motivation and enthusiasm upon their return.

Are there any legal stipulations around sabbaticals in the workplace?

There are no UK laws that deal specifically with taking either a career break or a sabbatical, as they only form an informal agreement between the employer and employee in question.

However, you should ensure that you are as clear as possible about an employee’s return to work terms in order to avoid any possible liability for potential future claims.

What policies should my business have in place before offering sabbaticals?

Prior to offering sabbaticals, you should ensure that you implement a clear policy regarding career breaks, and that any self-determined regulations are written down. Areas to consider for such a policy could include:

  • Eligibility, and the process to apply
  • The period of notice required
  • The length of time allowed
  • Annual leave and other entitlements to be accrued or otherwise during the period
  • How it will affect any existing terms and conditions of employment, such as continuity and the likelihood of returning to the same position

How should an employee approach an employer with a sabbatical request?

If you offer sabbaticals to employees, they should first check your company policy against the reasons listed above. They should then discuss the subject of a sabbatical with their line manager, including the reasoning behind their desire for time off, and the length of time required. Any agreement should be made in writing, including a plan for the employee to return to work at the end of the period of absence.

As an employer, you should also ensure that you clearly state whether the employee will return to their original job, or if they will instead be required to undertake a different position at the same level.

Do sabbaticals affect any company benefits that are normally offered?

This depends on whether you require employees taking sabbaticals to continue to work for you under an employment contract. If you decide to offer paid, or partly paid sabbatical leave, it is likely that an employee would continue to be employed under contract whilst they are away from the workplace.

However, you may instead require employees taking a sabbatical to resign, on the basis that you will ‘re-employ’ them on their return. There is no right or wrong answer as to how you choose to structure sabbaticals within your business, but requiring employees to resign could result in limited uptake.

If you decide to keep staff employed under an employment contract, then it is at your discretion as to whether you decide to pay bonuses, pension contributions, extra holiday days etc.

Whatever you decide to do, you must ensure that it is set out clearly within your wider employment terms and conditions policy, and that it is also pre-agreed with the employee prior to their departure.

What happens after a sabbatical?

It is good business practice to agree a plan with an employee taking a sabbatical, but you must ensure that they are aware that any agreement made is not legally binding. Agreeing a ‘back to work’ plan could also potentially end their existing contract of employment.

It is also not possible for an employee who has taken a sabbatical to initiate any legal action against you if you cannot allow them to return to their previous position. There is also no legal obligation for you to provide them with an alternative position if there is not one available, and unlike maternity or other family-related leave, there is no statutory right for them to return to work.