PERSONAL BUSINESS; Sabbaticals Aren't Just for Academics Anymore

New York Times

Published: April 22, 2006

In an age of job hopping, a perk to reward loyalty -- sabbaticals for those with five years or more on the job -- is taking on increased importance.

Though the academic world initiated sabbatical programs, they have been embraced by the government and the private sector, including companies as varied as McDonald's, Nike, Boston Consulting, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Graphics as well as law and accounting firms. Some companies restrict time off to educational forays and charitable projects, while others encourage everything from beachcombing, family time and travel. Leaves can be paid or unpaid and can last weeks or months.

At Intel, employees are given eight weeks of paid leave, in addition to vacation, after seven years. Catherine Cotier, 49, an administrative assistant, took her first two-month paid sabbatical in 2004. An archaeology buff, she went to the Mediterranean island of Malta to study archaeology and take part in a dig, but she also spent time fixing up her home in Tempe, Ariz., visiting family and beginning the process of returning to school to study anthropology. Ms. Cotier said the respite left her refreshed, centered and ready to start something new at work. She is planning her second sabbatical in four years.

About 23 percent of businesses in this country offer paid or unpaid sabbaticals, according to a 2005 report from the Society for Human Resource Management, with unpaid sabbaticals the more prevalent. As a way to retain employees, induce them to work harder or keep them around in bad times, sabbaticals build good will.

''In my mind, it is the best benefit, rivaled only by health care,'' Ms. Cotier said.

While employees are enjoying me-time, their jobs are covered by employees who may not be at their skill level but can learn on the job. Intel's program started in the early 1990's; last year, about 4,400 of 60,000 full-time Canadian and United States employees went on sabbaticals.

Measuring return on investment is almost impossible, but companies with such plans seem as enthusiastic as any sabbatical taker. They discount fears that those taking leave will use the time to find other employment.

''A lot of times, people think it's just for the employee, but it is a tremendous advantage that we get as a company,'' said Richard Floersch, chief people officer and executive vice president for worldwide human resources at McDonald's. ''It's re-energizing that lasts more than a day. Depending on what they do while they are gone, they come back even more skilled and talented than when they left.''

McDonald's program began in the 1960's and provides eight weeks of paid time off, in addition to vacation, after every decade of work. All full-time employees are eligible as well as some at the restaurant level. A leave taker's job may be filled by someone with lesser experience, so the company can evaluate people in new positions without committing to promotions.

''There are no senior executives who do not appreciate the critical importance of keeping your best people motivated and energized,'' said Hugh Simons, chief financial officer for the Boston Consulting Group, which offers sabbaticals to partners every five years.

Some programs began as a response to the tight job market in the 1990's, though only a handful of companies seem to have pulled back when the economy tightened. Last year, 23 percent of companies offered sabbaticals -- 17 percent unpaid, 6 percent paid -- according to the Society for Human Resource Management. That number has held fairly steady since 1997, when the group started measuring sabbaticals.

A spokesman, Frank Scanlan, predicted that the numbers could gradually increase as companies seek to retain baby boomers who are approaching retirement age and want time off but do not want to sever ties to employers. He said organizations must be cognizant of that, noting it is less expensive to retain an employee than to recruit a new one.

Even so, Carol Evans, president and chief executive of Working Mother Media, said that while the issue seems to be coming up more, sabbatical programs are beyond the reach of most American companies.

In addition to keeping employees productive and preventing burnout, sabbaticals can also help companies keep their most valued employees in slow times. Rather than lay them off, a top performer may receive reduced pay and a sabbatical until business picks up and he or she can resume full salary, said Donna Klein, president of Corporate Voices for Working Families.

''Companies find they have to be more strategic in the way they make decisions about manpower allocation and staff,'' Ms. Klein said.

The printing company Quad/Graphics started its program in 1999. Full-time employees who have been with the company for 25 years are eligible for four weeks with pay. The program was created to help longtime employees re-examine their commitment to the company, decide if they want to do something else or transition into retirement. So far, 60 of 12,000 employees at Quad/Graphics have taken the leave.

John Lill, a 57-year-old manager in Quad's direct marketing group, and his wife traveled to Italy and found relatives in September 2005. He has been with Quad for 26 years and said his adjustment back was easy.

''A week's vacation, you have a pile of messages and e-mail, and you just have to get into it,'' he said. ''With my contacts knowing I'd be gone for a month, it wasn't as hectic as being away for even a week.''

Besides, he added, ''living out of a suitcase for a month is wonderful, but I wanted to get back to a stable routine, and I came back completely energized.''

Some companies require relatively few years of service but are pickier in how they allow employees to spend their time. The outdoor clothing company Timberland, for example, began its program in 2002, allowing employees who had been with the company for three years to apply for a three- to six-month paid sabbatical with a nonprofit group of their choice; the employee must have had a prior relationship with the group. Six employees so far have taken advantage of the program. This year, Timberland will reduce the requirement to just one year of full-time employment.

Rose Stanley, benefits manager at WorldatWork, a professional association for compensation, benefits and work-life practitioners, said that since time had become the new currency, employees value days off as much as or more than dollars.

''Companies are starting to see that there are benefits to offering their employees time,'' Ms. Stanley said. ''As they begin to discover and train employees -- managers, especially -- to value that and to see the benefit to that, then they can see how it comes back to them with creativity, rejuvenation and loyalty.''

Martha Barber, a 52-year-old partner at the law firm of Alston & Bird, took three months and rented a furnished condo on the ocean at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla., in early 2005.

''I lived there with nothing in mind but to shut out the noise, to get away from our crazy multitasking ultra-scheduled lives,'' said Ms. Barber, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. For three months, she did not read a newspaper, watch TV news or check her BlackBerry. ''I essentially shut it all out.''

Since 1986, her law firm has made sabbaticals available to its 300 or so partners who have been with the firm for five years. Not including vacation, those in their 30's get an additional month, with an extra month coming each decade thereafter. Partners in their 60's can earn up to four extra months off, plus vacation, per decade. Ben F. Johnson, managing partner, said the firm, which is based in Atlanta, benefited from sabbaticals because they made executives work together.

''It encourages partners to develop groups of people who can attend to the client's needs when they are not going to be present,'' he said.