TAWN PARENT Commentary: Take 2 aspirin and a few months off

July 3, 2006

Maybe what you need is a sabbatical. The term comes from ancient Judea, where it described the year of rest given to land every seventh year to keep it from becoming depleted. Today, "sabbatical" conjures up images of ivory towers and a practice out of step with the breakneck pace of modern business. A perk that seems at best a luxury and at worst a waste of time and money for the employer.

Tell that to Intel, Xerox Corp. and McDonald's Corp. They swear by the benefit, one McDonald's has been offering for 40 years.

"What it's all about today is, how do you differentiate yourself as a company?" Richard Floersch, McDonald's chief human resources officer, said in a Jan. 9 article in BusinessWeek. "This gives us bragging rights."

Sabbaticals are a long-standing practice in academia, and they're gaining popularity in the corporate arena as well. Five percent of U.S. companies offer paid sabbaticals, according to a survey this spring by the Society for Human Resource Management. Another 22 percent offer an unpaid option, up from 15 percent in 2001.

If any local companies offer sabbaticals, it's a wellkept secret. The most I was able to dig up were a few companies offering flexible leaves of absence.

Over the past 20 years, Lilly Endowment Inc. has pumped $61 million into programs that fund sabbaticals for clergy, artists, people who work with youth, teachers and other education professionals. Those are fine opportunities for some of society's most important contributors. But what about the rest of us?

I enjoyed a mini-sabbatical of my own this spring. I tagged along with my husband when he spent five weeks in Greece working on a project during his sabbatical from the University of Indianapolis.

Think there's no way your company would go for it? Try these arguments on for size:

Too many scheduling hassles. Maybe not. Employees may be so motivated by the perk that they're willing to go to considerable trouble to get their position covered. This can provide an opportunity for some overdue cross-training, trying an employee out in a management capacity or simply allowing other employees to stretch their wings.

A word of caution: Employees on sabbatical should not be treated as "on call." Sabbaticals are most successful when the employee truly gets away. Exchanging e-mail, attending company meetings and checking in by phone can seriously compromise the experience.

Isn't vacation time enough? Many studies have found that plain old vacations don't provide sufficient time for rest and reflection. As much as a third of employees don't use all their vacation time, and about the same number say they feel chronically overstressed at work, according to a 2004 study by the New York-based Families & Work Institute.

What's in it for the employer? Loyal employees who stay longer, for starters. Some companies report that workers are so pumped up within a few years both before and after a sabbatical that efforts to recruit them away nearly always fail. And it's a hedge against burnout. Employees who take sabbaticals often return energized and primed with new ideas or ready to take a fresh approach to old problems.

Also, it's a heck of a recruiting tool.

"Sabbaticals are proving to be a strong incentive for many top performers looking for workplace flexibility," wrote Andrew E. Carr and Thomas Li-Ping Tang, professors at Middle Tennessee State University in a 2005 study.

Sabbaticals have special appeal for young people, who rank time off as a top priority when looking for a job.

My business is too small. Not necessarily. The IBJ news staff numbers 19, but it found a way to manage without me. Sabbaticals even can work for small-business owners. The trick is having key employees you trust, preparing carefully and being willing to let go enough to benefit from the experience.

My company can't afford it. The savings in hiring and training because of reduced turnover could be considerable. The benefits of sabbaticals outweigh the costs when a sabbatical involves a solid understanding between employer and employee, according to Carr's and Tang's study.

Sabbaticals come in a variety of flavors. The traditional frequency is every seven years, but some companies offer them every five. The duration usually ranges from two months to a year. Sabbaticals can be offered to all employees, or just to managers and other key people. Some employers stipulate that the time off be used for a work-related project, while others invite employees to spend their sabbaticals doing volunteer work or simply using the time as they wish.

Lilly Endowment's Web site describes its sabbatical program for clergy this way: "Renewal periods are not vacations, but time for intentional exploration and reflection, for regaining enthusiasm and creativity for ministry, for dreaming about 'what will make your heart sing.'"

Couldn't we all use some of that?

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.
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