Workers Take Leave of Job Stress

January 1, 1995
Mention the word sabbatical and most people think of teachers. Hailed as an opportunity for faculty members to renew their classroom-worn vigor, these leaves of absence were often used to attract people to a profession known for dubious financial rewards.

Today, what was once considered useful for teachers is reaping benefits for lawyers, consultants and techies alike as a growing number of companies experiment with workplace sabbatical programs—lengthy leaves of absence that often include full pay and benefits. Companies employ these programs as a way to deal with employee burnout and morale problems. Some even use them to ease the pain of downsizing, or to enable employees to participate in community service projects. Most often overseen by human resources departments, sabbaticals benefit both employees and employers. Workers get a break from job stress; their employers get rejuvenated employees.

"Companies are beginning to view sabbaticals as another dimension to work-force flexibility—to satisfy downsizing and redeployment objectives, and to address a need for more balance in the work and personal lives of their employees," writes Helen Axel in her special report, "Redefining Corporate Sabbaticals for the 1990's," a Conference Board publication. "Some see them as opportunities for personal growth and career development," Axel continues. "Other firms are attracted to sabbaticals because they meet social or cultural interests of the organization. To still others, they're part of a 'kit of tools' to compete in the marketplace for people with skills they need and want."

Diana Reace, manager of Hewitt Research Group, a research arm of Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Hewitt Corp., has studied workplace sabbaticals in detail. "There are many different kinds of sabbaticals," she says. "The major reasons for them are reducing job burn-out, avoiding technical obsolescence, rewarding longevity on the job and use as a carrot to retain senior employees. They also make people feel better about their jobs, and help employers compete for employees."

Sabbaticals offer workers R&R.
Workplace stress is the most often cited reason for companies to adopt sabbatical programs. Disability due to stress costs the nation an estimated $75 billion annually, according to Palo Alto, California-based stress-management specialist, Sharon Kufeldt. Because few companies are immune to stress-related disabilities, many are looking at sabbaticals as an answer.

This is particularly true among the high-tech colossi of the Silicon Valley. Workplace sabbaticals here date back to the early 1970s and are seen as necessary relief from the turbulent grind of corporate high-tech. "The intent behind our sabbatical program was to recognize that employees are more productive if they're given a chance to periodically recharge their batteries while focusing on personal priorities," says Betsy Lamb, director of compensation and benefits for Cupertino, California-based Tandem Computers Inc. "They actually come back refreshed and ready to go."

Workplace sabbaticals in the Silicon Valley date back to the erly '70s, and are seen as necessary relief from the turbulent grind of corporate high-tech.

This philosophy, Lamb points out, is typical of Silicon Valley firms. "The cornerstone of Silicon Valley high-tech companies is the need to be creative. They need to offer employees a chance to focus on personal goals to stay creative."

Tandem employees are eligible for sabbaticals after four years of continuous service. The policy allows employees six weeks' leave with full pay and benefits. Even part-timers, who work 20-hour weeks, are eligible, and receive their normal part-time pay.

Another high-tech Silicon Valley company, Apple Computer Inc., also based in Cupertino, offers its employees a similar sabbatical program. Under its terms, employees are allowed six weeks of paid leave every five years.

But the computer industry isn't alone in using sabbaticals to combat stress. Major law firms, consulting practices and other high-stress industries also offer the programs to counter the job burnout problem.

For example, Hewitt Associates, which provides management consulting services, launched an ambitious sabbatical program in 1988. "We wanted to reward the long service of our senior people," says Dave Wille, Hewitt's director of human resources. "Rather than beefing up our vacation policy, we looked at a 'vacation splash' sabbatical." Through the program, an employee is eligible for an additional three weeks of vacation after 15 years of service, and another three weeks of leave every five years after that. Principals in the firm are eligible for a five-week leave every five years. "Employees are encouraged to take the full three or five weeks at a time," Wille adds, "because the consulting business can be so draining."

Even companies such as Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's Corp.—which is mostly divided into numerous regional offices and restaurants throughout the country—offer sabbaticals for key employees. McDonald's established its program in 1977.

"Our definition of a sabbatical," explains company spokesperson, Mark Walker, "is a program that offers long-term employees an opportunity to reflect on their jobs and careers, as well as the overall operation of the business, and to do it away from the daily pressures of work. We feel this time should be spent any way the employee feels will contribute to his or her personal and professional growth with McDonald's."

McDonald's offers its sabbatical program to full-time employees who have completed at least 10 years of service. Employees are then eligible for an eight-week paid leave. After 20 years of service, employees are eligible for a 16-week break. "The leave must be taken all at once," Walker says. "That's because it isn't a reward for past performance, but an investment in their futures. It isn't seen as a fringe benefit."

Sabbaticals provide time for personal pursuits and philanthropic projects.
In addition to relieving stress, sabbaticals can be employed as a way to recognize employees' various personal needs. Such needs can't always be expressed in simple terms, but they may still be important to the people who have them. One person may feel a pressing need to write a book, for example, while another may wish to explore his or her family history. Still others may wish to engage in personal challenges that will help them better understand themselves.

New York City-based Time Inc.—a vast repository of "creative types"—recognized a need to provide this opportunity for its employees many years ago. Time's program, according to Axel's Conference Board report, was originally established for the benefit of its editorial employees, "... for research and writing, with the expectation that the company would benefit from this enrichment when the employee returned. However, the leaves have long been available to employees on the business side of the company as well."

Robert Mintz, vice president of human resources for Time, says his company's sabbaticals are available to employees with 15 or more years of service. Eligible employees may take up to six months' leave, and receive 50% of their normal pay. They may also opt to break the leave into two separate three-month leaves. Employees who choose to take their leaves after 20 years of service are eligible to receive 75% of their regular pay for a three-month leave. "Given the demands on our people," Mintz reflects, "it's helpful for them to go off and explore other things. It's an opportunity for a combination of rest, relaxation and personal growth."

For these same reasons, San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. provides a Personal Growth Leave (PGL) sabbatical for employees in good standing with more than 10 years of service. "The purpose of PGL," explains Diane Egelston, vice president of Corporate Responsibility, "is for employees with long service to take leave of up to three months, with full pay and benefits, to pursue personal interests. They must, however, demonstrate a past commitment to that interest."

Some companies are going beyond providing sabbaticals as a way to fulfill personal needs and offering them to employees who choose to work for nonprofit groups. Stamford, Connecticut-based Xerox Corp., for example, launched its ambitious Social Service Leave program in 1971. Originally an experimental program, the plan was developed at the behest of socially conscious employees.

"We allow employees to take off for up to one year," explains Evelyn Shockley, program manager for Xerox Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Xerox. "We pay their full salary while they work for organizations of their own choosing."

Although employees choose their own projects, the projects must first be approved by a special committee, put together by Shockley and consisting of a cross-functional, cross-divisional group of employees. Religious or political activities are excluded from consideration. Shockley says that employees wishing to take leave must have at least three years of service with the company, must agree to submit monthly reports and adhere to site visits by public affairs personnel.

Wells Fargo was inspired by Xerox's lead. "Our Social Service Leave (SSL) is available to full or part-time employees who have three or more years of service," says Egelston, who's the officer in charge of the program. "The purpose of SSL is to allow employees with a demonstrated commitment to community service to work for a nonprofit service agency for up to six months, with full pay and benefits."

Egelston says that Wells Fargo supports numerous worthy projects. For example, "One of our branch managers worked for six months with the American Women's Economic Development Corp., an organization that provides training for female entrepreneurs. She developed training program components for them, and a book about obtaining loans."

Another use of sabbaticals that has emerged in recent years has come about as a result of the need to reduce the work force. Companies facing the ordeal of downsizing have eyed sabbaticals as a kinder and gentler way to ease the transition. One notable example is the colossal AT&T, which refers to its sabbatical program as a Special Enhanced Leave of Absence (SELOA). "We first tried Special Enhanced Leaves of Absence in 1991 as an experiment," reports Ruthanne Prange, district manager of human resources for Basking Ridge, New Jersey-based AT&T. "There were a combination of such factors as a need to reduce our work force while balancing force and load."

The AT&T program, which Prange says was tried again in 1993, was offered for periods ranging from nine to 24 months. The leaves, which were granted to 1,700 employees in 1991, were given without pay to employees who had been with the company at least five years. Prange says, however, that some benefits were offered.

The idea behind the program was to reduce the company's payroll burden, while also allowing favored employees a chance to tend to personal needs. "If people needed time to do something," Prange says, "and there were places in the business where we needed to cut back, why shouldn't we do something that allows some ventilation in the system?"

Philadelphia-based Bell Atlantic Corp. experimented with a similar sabbatical program during the late 1980s. The purpose of the program—which allowed employees to take up to two years unpaid leave—was to provide the company with a way to ease its downsizing efforts. In the short run, the absence of these employees would ease payroll expenses. It also was suspected that some workers would ultimately terminate their relationship with the company.

Bell Atlantic soon discovered, however, that using a sabbatical program as an incentive plan for work-force reduction fosters a lack of control. First, there's no control over which persons will elect to go on leave. A company could unintentionally lose some of its prize employees. Second, there's no guarantee that leave-takers will not eventually elect to return to their jobs.

As a consequence, Bell Atlantic's sabbatical program lasted only three years, according to Joan Rasmussen, a Bell Atlantic spokesperson. "We felt that our sabbatical program wasn't effective for our company," she says. "It wasn't a permanent solution to the downsizing issue. We've since developed other incentive programs for our employees, such as early retirement programs."

HR facilitates sabbatical programs.
With the exception of social service leave programs which usually are managed by agencies that take responsibility for community relations and philanthropy, most sabbatical programs are designed and administered by human resources departments. Indeed, it's often necessary for HR to assume this management role because it normally maintains records pertaining to employee eligibility. (Benefits consultants, actuaries or others who often work with HR, seem to have rarely—if ever—had a hand in the formation of sabbatical programs for any known major company.)

In addition to conceiving and administering the programs, HR people tend to assume responsibility for selling the idea to management. This is usually true of the more conventional sabbatical programs, such as those offered by Tandem, Apple, McDonald's and Hewitt.

HR rarely needs to vigorously promote the programs, however, because most employees tend to be well aware of their options to take such generous leaves. Often, companies that offer sabbatical programs will make their employees aware of them at the time of hiring, and provide references in employee handbooks.

The job of the human resources department, according to Lamb, is to smooth out any rough edges. "We try to minimize the use of temporary employees to fill in," she explains. "Rather, we use [the leave] as an opportunity for employees to 'take ownership' of their work, and to coordinate with their managers and work groups to make sure the job gets done while they're gone."

Most HR people whose companies have implemented sabbaticals haven't been overburdened by managing them. Mintz, for example, says the program at Time is fairly simple to manage. "We make sure individuals know what they need to know," he says, referring to such matters as eligibility requirements and time restrictions. "We also credit pensions, keep track of details, and make sure that the program is administered fairly and equally in all departments."

Wille also reports smooth sailing at Hewitt. "We notify associates and their managers a year in advance that they have the time coming so that they can make adequate preparations," he says.

Hewitt's HR department, according to Wille, also solicited feedback from the program's first leave-takers. "We asked our principals—during the first four or five years of our program—to provide us with a little write-up about what they did while they were away. The idea was to share this information with others who weren't sure how to use their own leave time."

Wille's department also makes an effort to obtain feedback about the effects of the program. "We want to know if, when an owner (partner) is away for five weeks, the business still runs. We also want to know if the person is refreshed and rejuvenated [upon return]."

Although HR usually manages the programs, most engage the use of special committees for approving sabbaticals. At Wells Fargo, for example, Egelston is responsible for assembling a Social Service Leave committee, and a Personal Growth Leave committee, each of which oversees one of the employee leave programs and reviews applications. Egelston chooses a chairperson for each committee who, in turn, recruits several other members, usually company vice presidents who represent various divisions of the company. Each member serves a two-year term.

Committee members meet each fall and render their decisions by early winter. "Each committee member reads through applications," Egelston explains. "They look for such things as commitment to activities, and the specificity of the plan of action. We end up selecting applicants on merit."

Egelston says each of her committees reviewed approximately 50 applications last year. Of that number, each committee selected approximately 10 candidates.

A Social Service selection committee, made up of people from different divisions and focus areas of diversity from across the nation, chooses Xerox's leave takers as well. "We bring them to corporate headquarters, where they sit for two days and review the applications," Shockley says. "The Xerox foundation staff has no vote." In a typical year the company, which employs 56,000 people nationally and nearly as many outside the country, receives between 47 and 60 applications.

Shockley says that after employees are selected for leave, her department manages the follow-up details. "We put employees through orientation and explain to them exactly what their responsibilities are to their company and organizations," she says. "We're also responsible for follow-up. We require monthly reports, and report plans for each coming month. We go out and visit leave-takers to ensure that everything is going smoothly. And, we encourage employees to keep in touch with their managers at Xerox so that their re-entry will be smoother."

Before following up, follow through.
When implementing and running a sabbatical program, Hewitt Research Group's Reace emphasizes that HR people plan above all else. "Plan carefully for it," she urges. "Look carefully at goals. Is it meant to be a reward, or to help control stress? Answers to those questions will tell you who the program's for." Reace also tells interested HR people to carefully study companies that have already tried sabbaticals for their workers.

Tandem's Lamb says that companies wishing to adopt sabbatical programs should carefully consult their own internal players as well. "For HR people working on these issues, I would encourage them to have other groups explore the program, and to get a lot of feedback from employees and managers."

Adds Hewitt Associate's Wille: "First, establish up-front objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? How will you measure strict cost objectives? How will you measure morale? Also, listen to the needs of business as well as to those of your employees.

"I think companies should explore [the concept] to see if it meets some of the needs they have in terms of their relationships with their employees," he suggests. "But it depends on the company. Some may already have broad vacation policies so that additional time away from the company won't work. Others may find that their business won't allow for people to be off so long."

Poor planning is one of the major causes of problems with sabbatical programs. For example, Reace says that if a company wants to make sabbaticals available only for top people, HR must consider the effects on the morale of people who aren't eligible.

Even with planning, however, problems with sabbatical programs can occur. Through her research, Reace has identified some challenges that sabbatical planners have faced. "There has been concern about people who need them, but who don't take them," she notes. "One or two law firms have had to make their programs mandatory. The people who are susceptible to burnout are the people who think their companies can't survive without them."

Reace also suggests that timidity can be a problem. "Another element is letting people know it's OK to take leave," she points out. "One of the best ways to do that is to lead by example by having senior people be the first to use the program."

Time's Mintz claims HR's biggest problems can be self-inflicted. "We have no problems with the program," he says, "because we don't overmanage it. I advise other HR people to just follow common sense parameters, and not to make a big bureaucracy out of it."

Sometimes problems can't be avoided, however. ROLM, a Siemens company, established a pioneer sabbatical program as a way to ease the stress on its hard-working employees. "We worked long and hard hours," recalls Catherine Healy, human resources administrator for ROLM. "And the program was an opportunity to give our people time to relax and sort things out."

Let people know it's OK to take leave. One of the best ways to do that is to lead by example by having senior people be the first to use the program.

Under the San Francisco-based tele-communications company's sabbatical program-conceived and shaped exclusively by its HR people-full-time employees were eligible for a 12-week, fully paid leave in their seventh year. Those who desired could opt for a six-week leave at double pay.

ROLM discontinued the program in 1993. Was it because it was a failure? Not according to Healy, who even suggests that the program "may have reduced turn-over." Significant changes within the organization, however, created irresistible pressures for change. "It no longer was cost-effective," Healy says, referring to the changing nature of a company that had grown dramatically over the years.

Even more than growth pressures, however, were the unique problems associated with ROLM's merger with IBM, and later with Siemens. "Sabbaticals weren't a benefit that IBM or Siemens offered," Healy explains. And because company officials desired a consistent benefits package for all employees, the ROLM division was encouraged to phase out its sabbaticals program.

(Axel's recent Conference Board report, "Redefining Corporate Sabbaticals for the 1990's," indicates that IBM does offer unpaid Extended Personal Leaves of up to three years for full-time employees. Workers receive full benefits during the leaves. Employees must, however, be available for part-time work during the second and third years, and are subject to annual reviews while on leave. A company spokesperson confirmed this, and explained that IBM also offers a Flexible Work Leave of Absence, which enables employees to work part-time for three years while receiving full benefit coverage. Full-time reinstatement after that time, however, isn't guaranteed. Approximately 90% of the average 2,500 employees on leave at any one time are women with small children.)

Sabbaticals reap benefits for workers and employers.
Despite some setbacks, problems with sabbaticals seem to be few and far between. In fact, most companies insist that their sabbatical programs are little or no trouble.

Wille knows of no problems at Hewitt. "We've shown that we can work through five-week absences," he says. "Now with five years' experience, we don't have any problems. It isn't a difficult program, but it yields positive results."

The wide-spread optimism reported by administrators of sabbatical programs seems largely based on an almost intuitive sense of the programs' results, more than on any hard scientific data that validates those feelings. "We didn't spend much time looking at cost," Wille admits. "But in the consulting business, work tends to get done anyway. We find that most people are ready to cover for each other."

Lamb also acknowledges no awareness of scientific cost or benefit studies at Tandem. "We haven't undertaken any productivity studies," she says. "My suspicion is that if we did, we would see improvement because of cross-training that occurs."

Shockley offers her own positive findings, though they don't directly relate to dollars and cents either: "We feel it's a success because of the feedback we get from employees and outside organizations."

Companies that use sabbatical programs define success in many ways. Lamb explains the three major benefits of Tandem's program: "The first is rest and relaxation [for employees]," she says. "The second is our belief that we gain in productivity from employees who gain a renewed perspective. And the third is our desire to acknowledge their hard work to their own work unit."

Tandem also sees the program as a vehicle for development. "We look upon the sabbaticals as an opportunity to cross-train our employees," Lamb points out, referring to the opportunities for employees to learn other jobs while filling in for those on leave.

Walker says that McDonald's program has been a big success because, "We've found that sabbaticals bring tremendous personal satisfaction to employees and their families," he says. "The principal purpose is to enhance the quality, quantity and duration of our long-service employees' work. We believe that long-time employees are able to lend unique and valuable perspective to the business. That's why we instituted this program."

Despite all the optimism, Reace finds: "There's no overwhelming trend toward these sabbaticals." Not all organizations are equally troubled by stress problems. And some organizations—because of the nature of their business—can't spare key employees for long stretches of time.

Timidity also may be a factor. Offering generous leaves—especially during tough economic times—may seem risky, to say the least. But according to the companies that have found success from these programs, the risk is worth the price.

Personnel Journal, January 1995, Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 38-48.