The Last, Best Perk?

Only yesterday, bonuses, stock options and casual offices were enough to attract and retain top talent. Now it could be time for a new incentive: the corporate sabbatical.

By Sharyn Salsberg Ezrin

First published in Canadian Business magazine, October 30, 1998, pp 88-92


In an age when some employees measure long-term commitment in months, not years, Brian Bucknall is something of an exception. Last year, this real estate law specialist celebrated 20 years at the same firm, Osler Hoskin & Harcourt in Toronto. He might not have made it that far, however, were it not for a successful campaign he waged about five years earlier to convince his firm to adopt a sabbatical policy and to let him be the first to go.

At the time, Bucknall's wife, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, was preparing for an academic's typical sabbatical involving a trip to Paris. Fifteen years of steady law work had taken its toll on Bucknall and he began to wonder why people in his position -- valued, long-standing corporate and professional personnel -- couldn't also take a few months off and recharge. Fortunately for Bucknall, when he asked Osler's managing partner about just such a leave, that partner agreed. He even went one further -- using Bucknall's leave application as a stimulus to develop and introduce a sabbatical policy for the firm. And so, in 1993, Bucknall spent two-thirds of a three-month sabbatical enrolled in an intensive French course offered in Paris by the Alliance Franaise. "I hadn't realized how comfortable I could become living there," he says, nodding at a photo record of his trip. Taking those photos, he adds, was an essential part of his being recharged. "They helped me to take at what I was seeing."

Outside of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, Bucknall's experience remains rare in corporate Canada. Yet based on what I have seen in my work as a Toronto psychologist and management consultant -- working with individuals seeking help after a personal crisis or burn-out - I believe there is a growing need to provide people with time off to recharge. The three-week holiday no longer brings people the relief and rest they need.

In its place, I propose that any company looking for a new way to renew loyalty and productivity among top performing employees consider the corporate sabbatical. Simply defined, it would mean offering an opportunity for any deserving individual to take up new activities of their own choice, over a predefined time frame, at full pay. Although uncommon today -- two notable exceptions are Sun Media Corp. and McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd. -- there are many reasons to think that sabbaticals may become the newest and most sought-after corporate perk at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Before dismissing this idea as far-fetched or impractical, consider how the traditional glue of salary increases and expanding traditional benefits are already being supplemented -- particularly for Generation Xers -- with lifestyle work solutions, ranging from entertainment and meeting areas, dressing down and warehouse-style offices. The corporate sabbatical merely takes this several important steps further. It could be more appealing to both employers and employees than current perks, for example, because it addresses the problems of burn-out and other mental-health warning signals which are on the increase in the workplace. In addition, this new perk could serve as an incentive in attracting new talent who want concrete evidence of recognition for a longer-term commitment to the corporation.

At least one progressive thinking human resources vice-president I met at a large mutual fund company agrees, and is now "seriously considering" offering sabbaticals for personal development through education upgrading. Says this executive: "There is no question that this experience can only bring value back into the business and enhance the loyalty of the individuals who take advantage of the opportunity."

More and more, employers are going to be faced with individuals who have the ability to negotiate better employment terms because companies do not want to lose them. This trend will continue to challenge employers to up the ante over what an individual's current organization is doing to keep them. In this context, and in light of the positive experiences demonstrated in my study group, corporate sabbaticals have to play a role in those efforts.

To put this view to the test -- and to further develop my own understanding of the potential impact and value of a corporate sabbatical -- I recently decided to seek out a sample of the very limited number of Canadians in private-sector organizations who have tried sabbaticals. In all, I found 14 such people, most of whom had taken their once-in-a-lifetime corporate sabbatical since 1988. All agreed the experience was an essential catalyst to recharging them for the next leg of their careers. If there was one common theme expressed, it was how the experience of change from their work routines -- what I call "sanctioned freedom" -- allowed them to feel renewed and, for some, reinvented. On their return to work, they were able to bring that renewed energy to the tasks at hand.

This reaction is typical of sabbatical takers according to Trudy Eagan, vice-president and chief administrative officer at Sun Media, which has had a sabbatical policy since the early '70s. There, she says, staff view the policy very positively. Eagan says that she is aware of only one eligible individual whose turn had come (it can be taken after 10 and 20 years of service) "who did not take his sabbatical because of personal reasons." At McDonald's, human resources manager Kristine Tait says there is equally great enthusiasm about the policy. It has a high take-up rate and, because it is so popular, everyone is more than willing to provide the necessary back-up to those individuals on sabbatical, knowing that they will have the same support when they take their own.

In my study group, I found every sabbatical-taker found the experience was a great benefit, no matter what circumstances prompted their leave (in most cases, it was simply their turn). These sabbaticals lasted a minimum of eight consecutive weeks and a maximum of one year. My group of sabbatical-takers were in their mid-40s to early 50s. With a few exceptions, they were only eligible after having spent a minimum of 10 years in their organizations.

Everyone I spoke to had a philosophical tone recalling their most cherished memories. They spoke nostalgically about moments of peacefulness, whether on a ski hill, looking out over a California beach, adjusting to life in an isolated French village or in the heart of Paris. They saw their experiences as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for personal fulfillment.

One clear example of this is Ron Atkey, a corporate lawyer and former Conservative parliamentarian who took advantage of his firm's mid-career sabbatical program to write a novel of political intrigue called The Chancellor's Foot . It was during three winter months in 1994 when he got his break from years on the treadmill of high profile cases and nonstop constituency work to write it. His novel, crammed with drug running, political influence peddling and written from a political insider's point view, may not have made the best-seller's list, but the sabbatical experience led to a feeling of accomplishment. It also left him with a sense of renewal, refreshed to go back to his practice.

Atkey was typical of my subjects in that he already had a sense of accomplishment about his career. In every case, this seemed to have a direct bearing on sabbatical-takers seeing the leave as a positive experience. The sabbatical provided a much overdue break from their intensive involvement at work, in order to spend time at activities which they had always wanted to try. Most families were active participants in the experience, or willing supporters, and this served to strengthen and even deepen some family bonds.

The sabbatical experience might not benefit families as a therapeutic solution to disintegration or conflict. However, for an individual who wants to take a large part in family routines, this would certainly be an ideal period for a greater role in home life. Even then, however, it is best to build your sabbatical around a project. As one who did this explained, "I recommend to anyone contemplating a sabbatical to consider the importance of feeling a sense of accomplishment about what you have done for yourself by the end. Don't do it for the sake of time off, only if you have a project. You will learn about yourself, and it will help you put your life in context."

Every sabbatical ends with a return to work, of course. There, sabbatical takers' experiences of returning and reintegrating themselves into similar or adjusted roles were quite varied. Several had difficulty with the fast pace of their workplaces. While Atkey and Bucknall returned refreshed, another felt that "everyone seemed to be in double time, and it took time to get back into the rhythm." Several said they returned feeling less aggressive and less driven. But they concluded that this just made them work smarter and not put in time for its own sake.

Another lawyer who had taken a sabbatical explained that those who carried on his client work for him while he was on leave kept those files on his return. He was delighted they did so well in their new roles. He discovered he had to reinvent himself to reach the level of contribution he had achieved when he left for sabbatical. He described his reinvention experience as very positive. It gave him renewed confidence in himself and in his creativity, self-reliance and resourcefulness. Subsequently his new focus has brought significant value to the firm. Considering the sabbatical experiences of his colleagues more generally, another lawyer explained that a key positive Outcome for his firm was, "Everyone who went on sabbatical renewed their commitment to the firm and the practice of law."

At the other extreme, some clients of law firms who had become comfortable with their replacements did not want the sabbatical takers back. This was a blow to some who returned and felt compelled to reinvent themselves. For one, "this took a tremendous amount of determination to make it work, and also to make yourself relevant again." Whatever you might call the re-entry, most said they were in a catch-up mode for a few weeks. But the renewed level of energy and enthusiasm helped them get back on track quickly and effectively. There were no negative impacts for their organizations.

At least one recruiter, Andrew MacDougall, managing director of Spencer Stuart & Associates (Canada) Ltd., says he has seen it happen and that it works. He cites the example of how one candidate's decision not to leave a current employer, when being actively courted by a competitor, was influenced by a specially designed work arrangement offered by the current employer. The employer was flexible enough to accommodate the individual's unique family problem, and thus retained a valuable resource within the corporation.

Sabbaticals will never be right for every company, MacDougall cautions, but as firms are required to do more to recognize their high-performing executives, they are sure to find a place. "It is likely only the enlightened companies that will see it through." says MacDougall. "It takes conviction and staying power to move ahead of common practice."

Then again, isn't that the kind of place at which we'd all like to work?

Seven steps to a successful sabbatical

There are seven important features that ensured the sabbaticals that I heard about worked well for both the employee and employer. These are not necessarily the only items that could be woven into a sabbatical policy, but they are the minimum requirement. If you are designing your own sabbatical policy, keep these in mind.

  1. Time frame There was a broad range of time periods among the sabbatical takers, the shortest being six weeks and the longest one year. Most interviewed agreed a minimum of three months is needed in order to feel the benefit. Some individuals combined their sabbatical leave with their annual vacation allotment to extend the time frame.
  2. Eligibility In most cases only top performers were eligible. There was no clarification in the policies on what criteria defined top performance. This should be made clear, through the benchmarks on the performance appraisal system or through a special recognition program. In most cases the individual had to have spent at least 10 consecutive years of employment in the organization.
  3. Company expectations upon employee's return The greatest sense of liberation for the sabbatical takers I met came from their knowing that they did not have to report back on how they spent their time. The "sanctioned freedom" to pursue their passion was viewed as a gift. All had to make an adjustment to the busy routines of their workplaces upon returning, so the reintegration was more of a personal "cranking-up," and this was not a significant problem for any.
  4. Arrangements made for backup This requires much planning and coordination, especially in professional service firms and anywhere else clients will be handled for the sabbatical period by replacements.
  5. Penalty for resigning from the organization after return In most cases, companies put stiff penalties on individuals who chose not to return after their sabbatical leave. They have to reimburse their former employer the full amount if they depart immediately. Also, the reimbursement obligation declines on a sliding scale as time passes into the second and third years after the sabbatical.
  6. Limits on number of simultaneous sabbaticals Any manager whose department has several candidates for sabbaticals has the greatest challenge. They have to ensure fairness in terms of who goes when, and how to fill the resource gap with each absence.
  7. Financing the leave period Several approaches have been taken to compensate sabbatical takers. The key is to provide full pay during the sabbatical period to ensure a stable funding source. For the shorter sabbaticals of eight consecutive weeks, companies paid the employee their full salary. In the case of the professional service firms, the partners received their full draws for the sabbatical period. In some cases individual partners who extended the sabbatical beyond the official limit of six months then received one-half of their allocated draw for up to four months. Thus for a 10-month sabbatical the individual received eight months' pay.

Most of those interviewed agreed that the cost and resources needed to finance a sabbatical are among the primary barriers. Individuals who traveled as part of their sabbatical had been saving up for the leave. Some people may be able to take advantage of the salary deferral program in Canadian income tax law that allows you to defer income, tax-free, with the support of your employer, for use during a minimum six-month leave. The savings will only be taxed when they are withdrawn from the designated fund to pay for the leave. Maybe we could call these funds RSSPs-Registered Sabbatical Savings Plans.


Sharyn Salsberg Ezrin is a corporate psychologist and executive coach based in Toronto. Her sabbatical research and the writing of this article were conducted while she was on her own two-month sabbatical.

First published in Canadian Business magazine, October 30, 1998, pp 88-92

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