Sabbaticals Aren't Just for Professors Anymore

Imagine locking your office and escaping to the French countryside for three months. Or spending six weeks scuba-diving in the Caribbean.

You're probably thinking you couldn't get enough time off from work. But what if your company promised to hold your job while you were away? Even better, what if it was all paid leave?

No, you're not dreaming. More companies than you might expect, from tech firms and retail giants to investment banks and law practices, offer sabbaticals as job perks.

"It's a way to give stressed, burned-out employees time to rest and relax and return to work with a newly charged attitude," said Angela Georgallis, spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

About 19 percent of U.S. companies offer either paid or unpaid leaves of anywhere between three weeks and one year, according to an SHRM 2001 benefits study. That's down from 28 percent of firms that offered the benefit in 1997, but still a significant number.

Proponents of sabbatical programs say the perk is a great way to entice and keep good employees. It also to helps give new inspiration for long-time workers who might otherwise be candidates for employee burnout.

"You come back revitalized, with new ideas and a new perspective," said Tracy Koon, corporate affairs director at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp., whose sabbaticals are mandatory barring special circumstances. "It is a benefit to the individual but also a distinct benefit to the company."

With 57,000 U.S. employees and 88,000 worldwide, the 33-year-old Intel has had the perk since the 1970s, offering paid eight-week sabbaticals after every seven years of employment. Many tack on their four weeks of vacation time for a three-month getaway, said Koon.

Intel management actually wants people to get away and insists staff take the time within a year of eligibility. Koon said it's "frowned upon" if employees try to get out of their sabbaticals or continue working during their time off.

"It's firmly entrenched in the Intel culture," she said. "For 20 years, it's been a way of life here. We did pioneer the sabbatical concept."

Marketing manager Lila Ibrahim, 31, used her sabbatical to build a computer lab in the Lebanese orphanage where her father grew up. With the Intel Foundation, she raised about $25,000 for the project and taught computer skills to those at the orphanage before she left.

"I went with the intention of saying thanks to the orphanage and giving them something back for what my father, my family and I had gotten from them," Ibrahim, of Santa Clara, said. "I got so much more out of it than I could ever give them."

Whole Foods Markets, a grocery retail chain based in Austin, Texas, has a less formal sabbatical plan of six to 12 weeks (depending on length of service), after only three years of employment. The leaves are unpaid.

Cindy Strunk, vice president of Whole Foods Human Resources, said most people are covered financially when they take the time off because they're able to accrue paid hours for unused vacation and sick days. Many use the sabbatical to travel or further their education, she said.

"We want people to feel like they can pursue other interests," she said. "We value our team members so greatly, we'd feel badly to lose them because they just wanted a break."

Execs at companies that offer sabbaticals admit the perk wouldn't fly in every industry, or in small firms with less money and fewer employees. Those that do have the benefit treat it as a chance for others to step into new career roles.

"Sabbaticals really allow other employees to assume different and in some cases greater responsibilities," said Koon. "It's a good development opportunity."

Not everyone is a fan of the benefit, though. Bob Smith, a 30-year Silicon Valley veteran, told HR Magazine that employees might worry about losing their jobs while they are away.

"Give someone five weeks to do your job — probably at a lower salary — while you're gone, and guess what? You've got an unpleasant surprise awaiting your return," he said.

But there is some indication the programs are effective retention and rejuvenation tools — which is key to employers in volatile, stressful industries such as high-tech.

At Morningstar Inc., an online financial investment provider in Chicago, which offers paid sabbaticals of up to six weeks every four years of employment, the average length of service is four to five years, said human resources manager Cathi Rezy. That's on the long side in today's job market. Intel's Koon said there is anecdotal evidence the perk works well there, too.

"This industry is dynamic and fast-moving, and people work hard," Koon. "This is very knowledge-intensive work that is done here, and it’s good to get away from that to some other way of thinking."

One Intel employee went to work for the Alaska Fish and Game Department during his sabbatical, where he tracked ducks in the region. Another, engineer Steve Fintel of Houston, organized a Jerusalem ceremony honoring Piotr Bilewicz, the man who sheltered Fintel's mother and other Jews during the Holocaust.

"It's important to her to pass this heritage along, to let future generations know we are strong and we can survive," Fintel, 43, said of the significance of the 1999 ceremony to his mother. "The sabbatical allowed me to do that. It was very important to me."