How (and Why) to Take a Sabbatical

by Mary Jacobs on October 3, 2012
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Did our headline make you laugh? Sabbaticals may be fine for professors in ivory towers, you think, but for small-business owners and their employees, taking extended time off is simply out of the question.

Not so fast, says Elizabeth Pagano (pictured, with her mother), co-founder of YourSabbatical, an Atlanta-based research firm that helps companies plan sabbaticals. Small businesses offer sabbaticals, too, and these “job pauses” — which typically last four weeks or more — can pay off in ways that most business owners don’t expect.

“Sabbaticals aren’t just perks,” Pagano says. “[When] planned well and with a purpose, they can become talent development platforms.”

People who take extended time off return to work energized and with their creative batteries recharged. Sabbaticals also can serve as a loyalty-boosting incentive for top performers. And, when business is slow, a voluntary sabbatical (with reduced or no pay, but retaining benefits) can offer an alternative to downsizing a good employee who will be needed when business picks up again.

Another unexpected bonus: When the boss or another key employee goes on sabbatical, other staffers are forced to cross-train to cover crucial tasks in the person’s absence. That’s good for business.

“I don’t want to be unrealistic and say anybody can take a sabbatical,” Pagano says. “But we hear from leaders all the time who say, ‘I was holding my employees back, and it wasn’t until I left that people were forced to step up to the plate.’”

Pagano notes that a growing number of firms on Fortune’s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” are offering fully paid sabbaticals, and that’s no accident. Good companies see the value of time away, she said, whether it’s for reflection, family time, volunteer work, or learning new skills.

Sabbaticals work for Standing Partnership, a 30-employee public relations firm headquartered in St. Louis. An employee who reaches his or her seventh anniversary with the company is eligible for two months of paid leave. The company maintains some management discretion regarding the timing — so it doesn’t have too many people gone at the same time — but otherwise, employees can use their sabbaticals as they see fit.

“It’s one of the greatest retention tools we have,” says CEO Cathy Dunkin.

Pagano, by the way, doesn’t just promote sabbaticals — she’s taken one herself, along with her mother and company co-founder, Barbara Pagano. In 2001, the two sailed together for six months on a 2,000-mile trip from Florida to the Caribbean.

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