Sabbaticals: The Ultimate Perk?

McDonalds, Charles Schwab, PricewaterhouseCoopers and American Express. Very different organizations, yet there's one thing they all have in common. Yes, they're all high performers and set industry standards for talent management. But think more specifically. Give up? Each of these organizations offers paid time off to their employees in order to achieve, well, something that's hard to pinpoint. The concept of a sabbatical is usually associated with universities, as faculty members typically get one semester every seven years (at full pay) to recharge their batteries, learn something new and return to campus with fresh research ideas. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that 31 of Fortune magazine's "Best 100 Companies to Work For" offer fully paid sabbaticals to employees. reports that 11% of large companies, 21% of midsized companies and 16% of small companies offer paid sabbaticals to employees. Almost thirty percent of all companies offer unpaid sabbatical [article].

Sabbatical protocol differs dramatically from company to company. Some offer six months of paid leave after five years of full-time employment, with very few parameters to guide how that time must be spent and with no work products required upon return. Other paid leave times are much shorter and may involve an extensive application process and documentation of "lessons learned." However, the underlying purpose of most sabbaticals seems to be the same: to get away from the current work environment in order to renew energy, gain new perspectives and return with greater commitment to the organization and fresh insights to tackle thorny problems. Improved recruitment, retention, morale and company reputation are touted as benefits of sabbaticals.

But is this really what happens? Tracking the ROI or productivity of employees who have taken sabbaticals compared with those who haven't is not common practice. Most organizations rely on the personal testimonials of returning employees as the "sabbatical success" metric.

Recently, I traveled with my husband, a university professor, on his sabbatical - "Semester at Sea." Although we made hundreds of mistakes along the way and were often exhausted and sometimes seasick, we agree that this was the experience of a lifetime. Faculty contend that these experiences will both improve their teaching and provide research fodder for years to come. Yet, benefits to the organization are difficult to prove.

How, then, do managers decide which employees should be offered a sabbatical, what qualifies as an acceptable program and how should its success be measured? Currently, no set of industry standards exists to guide the sabbatical process, nor are there generally accepted measures to evaluate success. In the current economy, my impression is that many of these programs are (or soon will be) victims of corporate expense-cutting. Without greater attention to the choice of sabbatical options and more accountability for lessons learned, I'm wondering if more organizations will respond as one manager did, as reported by Catrin Griffiths in When asked whether he offered sabbaticals to his employees, he quipped, "Sure, we just call them weekends."

Have you ever worked for an organization that's allowed sabbaticals? Have you ever gone on sabbatical yourself? Share your or your organization's views on sabbaticals with other members.