Sabbatical leave is defined as a period of time, over and above normal annual leave entitlement, in which an employee does not attend the workplace or undertake any tasks but remains employed by the company.

Sabbatical leave is usually taken by individuals who want to pursue personal interests, such as travelling, studying, or volunteering.

The sabbatical can either be paid or unpaid, although most sabbaticals in the UK are unpaid and are essentially extended periods of leave.

Historically, sabbatical leave was to give professors and university lecturers sufficient time away from teaching or seats of learning to further their own education by means of teaching overseas, performing independent research or academic writing. However, in recent years, companies are increasingly supporting employees in taking sabbatical leave as part of their employee wellbeing and personnel retention efforts.

How does sabbatical leave work?

A qualifying employee will need to ask for sabbatical leave several months in advance. This gives an organisation time to consider their request and approve the leave if it meets the organisation’s criteria. Further consideration needs to be given to arrangements to replace the employee for the duration of the sabbatical, work could be divided amongst two or more employees, for example.

Many companies have specific policies and rules for sabbatical leave. For example, there may be a specified period of time during the year when employees may take their sabbatical leave. This could be during quieter periods. Or the employee may have to take it within a certain time of becoming eligible or lose the chance altogether. Additionally, if an employee chooses to take advantage of sabbatical leave, think about whether you need them to commit to staying with your company for a specific period of time after they return.

Also worthy of consideration is that the individual is still employed by the company and therefore they remain bound by the company’s policies surrounding harassment, confidentiality, data protection, etc.

How much sabbatical leave can employees take?

The length of a sabbatical varies from company to company, and some can offer sabbaticals of up to a year or longer. Realistically, private companies may offer one or more months of sabbatical leave depending on their policies, or the employee’s length of service. For example, one large company offers four weeks of sabbatical leave to those employees who have been employed by them for at least five years, and five weeks to employees who have completed ten years’ service.

Sometimes, sabbatical leave is paid, either with the employee’s full salary or a percentage of it, although some companies may offer unpaid sabbatical leave for more extended periods away.

How often can you take sabbatical leave?

There are differing opinions and it generally depends on the company’s sabbatical leave policy. There is no set or legally defined limit on how often an employee can take a sabbatical.

Sabbatical leave policy

By setting out your company’s sabbatical leave policy and a clear procedure to follow, you will ensure you give your employee’s the best chance to broaden their experience and acquire new skills, which will benefit both your organisation and the employee in question. But what should the policy and procedure include?

Eligibility

Who can take a sabbatical? You will probably only want to offer sabbatical leave to employees who meet certain criteria. This might be:

 

Although every employee will not be eligible for sabbatical leave, it is important that your eligibility criteria are applied similarly for both full and part-time staff to avoid claims of discrimination.

Notice period

How much time you need to prepare for the employee’s absence. The notice period should take into consideration the number of weeks or months you have to plan for the employee’s extended leave. This could be calculated based on the duration of the sabbatical, for example, two weeks’ notice is likely to be fine for a month long sabbatical, however if the employee is going to be away for longer, say a year, you might prefer three or six months’ notice.

Consider that the person going on sabbatical leave will probably not be available to answer questions while they are away. Having a minimum notice period allows you to plan ahead, ensure their work is adequately covered, and means you will not have to reach out in a panicking when you can’t get hold of them after they’ve gone backpacking up Machu Picchu.

Duration

Most sabbaticals are for between three and twelve months. Generally speaking, any longer is considered a career break during which most employment contracts cease. Regardless of the time your company allows, make sure the maximum amount allowed is clearly stated in your policy. This way, your employees will know exactly how long they can take off, and you avoid any awkward questions.

Frequency

It is a good idea to consider the frequency with which you will allow eligible employees to take sabbatical leave. They shouldn’t be an everyday request, so you may want to put a cap on how often they can take sabbatical leave in a given period of time. Some organisations allow one month every five years, but it is completely up to you and what works for your company. Weigh up the costs and work involved in planning and managing the absences. Policies do not have to be set in stone; you can always adapt it further down the line.

Paid vs unpaid sabbatical leave

In the UK most sabbaticals are unpaid, this is because there is no legal requirement for them to be paid. However, you will stand out from the run-of-the-mill employer by offering some paid sabbatical leave. You might consider paid sabbaticals as a reward for long-serving members of staff, part-pay some of the sabbatical, or pay for its duration at a reduced rate. This part of your policy can be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but at the inception of your policy it is probably better to make eligibility for a paid sabbatical very clear.

Handling changes to sabbatical leave

Sometimes people need to change their plans, cut short their sabbatical, or extend it due to unforeseen circumstances. Your policy should clearly set out what happens in cases like these, and how much notice you require. For example, your employee should communicate with their manager one month before the sabbatical is due to end. This way, you can plan for any last-minute changes.

Terms of employment

Will your member of staff continue to be “employed” during their sabbatical leave? If the sabbatical is unpaid, employment is generally considered “suspended”, so no benefits are required to be given. Although, you may still want to continue to offer these, particularly if the sabbatical is a reward for long service.

When someone is on sabbatical leave, it is advisable to keep channels of communication open, this keeps them up to date with any important changes that might affect them, such as changes to your company handbook or other employment policies. Include a section in your sabbatical policy that details how such information will be shared. Again, if your employee is essentially going to be “off-grid” you will need to have some way of getting in touch.

Working limits

Most take time off to get away from work, but are they allowed to reply to emails, or have a call? What if they want to work for a charity? You should plan for the employee not to do any work for you at all during their time away, and, if they do, well, all to the good. Even if you are flexible on this subject, it is wise to include a note that they cannot work for a competitor during their sabbatical.

Returning to work

As a minimum your return to work procedure should:

The job must be open when they return, because if it is not, the employee can take legal action against you if they cannot return to their job (or a similar role) after sabbatical leave.

Managing sabbatical leave

If an employee wishes to make a request for sabbatical leave, you will need a process to handle it. The best process is usually the simplest and most companies tend to follow the same procedure as a request for regular holiday leave. The benefit of following your holiday request process is that your employees will already be familiar with it, although you should bear in mind you will need additional information about the proposed sabbatical if you are to ensure notice periods are adhered to.

Benefits to the employer of taking sabbatical leave

Are there alternatives to sabbaticals?

The alternatives to sabbaticals will depend on the specific circumstances and the reason for the time off work.

For example, looking at annual leave, all employees get a minimum of 5.6 paid weeks off per year (pro rata for part-time employees). Perhaps you could consider giving the employee additional unpaid holiday or lend them holiday from the next holiday period. If the employee is unwell or attending hospital appointments, they can take sick leave as an alternative. If the employee is grieving the loss of a family member or dealing with a family emergency, you may consider offering a short period of compassionate leave. Offering extended maternity and paternity or shared parental leave may help you retain staff.

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