A gap year for grown-ups; Sabbaticals can perk up your jaded staff no end, says, David White.

Source: Daily Telegraph (London, England)
Date: 9/13/2001
Author: White, David

Keeping staff productive, motivated and open to new ideas is a challenge for every employer - but offering up to a year's unpaid leave might not seem to be the obvious answer.

"In fact, there is growing recognition that sabbaticals can re-energise key staff by giving them time to enjoy and learn from new experiences," says Nick Page, adviser on reward and employment conditions for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

"Sabbaticals can also be powerful recruitment and retention tools in the present tight labour market. Individuals value the opportunity of extended time to undertake something dear to their heart without having to resign and look for a new job afterwards."

Other reasons for the increasing use of sabbaticals include a new flexibility among employers and changes in the nature of work.

"There is more emphasis on improving performance and winning loyalty by adapting jobs to the needs of people, rather than just regarding staff as cogs and wheels driving some huge machine," Mr Page says. "Building in sabbaticals to a career structure is an example of this approach.

"The growth of project work also makes sabbaticals easier to implement: staff can take extended time off between completing one major assignment and starting another."

He also believes that the strength of the economy will continue to fuel demand for sabbaticals. "Staff will have been able to put aside money to fund unpaid leave and will feel confident enough about the future to trust there will be a job for them to go back to," he says.

"Demand for them appears to be coming from two big groups of employees: those in their twenties who want time to `do their own thing' before starting a family, and older people whose children have left home, freeing them for world travel or whatever.

"No organisation can afford to lose too many key staff at the same time - so there need to be controls over who goes off when," says Mr Page.

"Eligibility should depend on service for a number of years - say five - to encourage loyalty.

"All conditions applying to a scheme should apply to everyone.

"Fairness and equality of treatment are vital to avoid accusations of favouritism, which are always divisive.

"And a clear understanding should be reached that the employee will return to work on an agreed date and that the job will be kept open.

"A risk to the employer is that someone may undergo such a shift in outlook that returning to their job may be too awful to contemplate," he adds.

"Equally, disaster may strike an employer, meaning there is no job to go back to. Trying to find work with savings used up on unpaid leave could be a serious problem.

"Another risk is that a re-invigorated employee may feel that a previous job can no longer contain their ambitions. The challenge here is for the employer to change its scope to enable potential to be fully developed."

Lexis, a London-based public relations consultancy, has offered sabbaticals to its staff of more than 70 for the past three years.

Its managing director, Hugh Birley, says: "Staff can apply for sabbaticals after five years. We've found them excellent for not only retaining and attracting high-quality people but in re-firing creativity.

"A sabbatical allows people to rediscover themselves - to bring back the originality and sparkle present at the start of a career which can be dulled without the chance to take an extended time-out.

"We ensure there is opportunity for returning staff to put new ideas into practice, which is essential if individuals and employers are to derive maximum and mutual benefit from sabbaticals."

Scott Cain, a 29-year-old account director with the company, used a sabbatical to travel the world and write a film script.

"I was away for 363 days on a trip that took in Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Equador," he says.

"It opened up a host of cultures and experiences - every day was different and incredibly stimulating.

"Planning the itinerary on a tight budget and adapting it as I went along was a huge challenge that kept me sharp. I returned to work buzzing with ideas and the energy to see them through."

Mr Cain believes sabbaticals have a ripple effect in boosting morale within the workplace. "Colleagues talk about their plans and their experiences while away," he says, "which makes for a positive, ideas-driven atmosphere."

But what about the film script? "It's about gangsters in west London, how someone working as a dog-walker gets involved with a Mr Big," he says.

"All exciting stuff - and look at the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels."