Research Shows That Organizations Benefit When Employees Take Sabbaticals

While sabbaticals are still rare in corporate America, their presence is increasing rapidly. Recent research and corporate experiments suggest that there might not be enough employees taking time off — and even if they are taking time off, they should be taking more of it. According to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, the percentage of companies offering sabbaticals, both paid and unpaid, rose to nearly 17% of employers in 2017. While the type (paid versus unpaid), length (weeks versus months), and other sabbatical details vary, research suggests that everyone benefits with the upward trend in sabbaticals, due to two primary factors. Sabbaticals and extended vacation time are not just good for employees to rest and recharge — they benefit the organization by ‘stress-testing’ the organizational chart and by providing interim roles to aspiring employees for taking on more leadership.

One notable study compared 129 university professors who took a sabbatical in a given term with 129 equally qualified colleagues who didn’t. Both groups were surveyed before, during, and after the term to assess stress levels, psychological resources, and even overall life satisfaction. Researchers found that those who took sabbaticals experienced, upon return, a decline in stress and an increase in psychological resources and overall well-being. Surprisingly, those positive changes often remained long after the sabbatical takers returned to work. This suggests that not only do the rested employees benefit from time away — the organization benefits as well.

The bigger benefit to organizations, however, comes in unexpected ways. Providing sabbaticals or extended leave time to leaders, can actually be a means to stress test the organizational chart and give aspiring leaders a chance to grow. In one study, researchers surveyed 61 leaders at five different nonprofit organizations with sabbatical programs. Each organization had slightly different requirements, but all required at least three months off and discouraged executives from visiting office during the sabbatical period.

Researchers found that the majority of leaders surveyed said, the time away allowed them the space to generate new ideas for innovating in the organization and helped them gain greater confidence in themselves as leaders. They also reported a better ability to collaborate with their board of directors, most likely because the planning and execution of sabbatical provided a learning experience for everyone involved.

Most intriguing, the researchers found that majority of leaders surveyed said that the interim leaders were more effective and responsible when the sabbatical takers returned. Many even reported that those interim leaders continued some responsibilities and made the overall leader-subordinate relationship more collaborative. Some organizations reported having much more confidence in their succession planning, since they were able to try out the role on interim leaders to assess qualifications and any development opportunities that were still needed.

At the very least, having people rotate out for an extended period of time allowed organizations to stress test their organizational chart. Ideally, no team should be so dependent on any one person that productivity grinds to a halt during an event of extended vacation. And while it may look good on paper, the only way to know for sure is to test it.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes that whether it’s a long-term sabbatical or a surprise vacation, the success of extended time off — both for employees and for organizations — is an encouragement and a warning. The warning is that, most organizations are probably not giving employees enough time away. The encouragement? Extended time off, pays off.

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