Companies want workers to get out of the office.
As they try to stand out in the hiring market and show they care about employee burnout, some employers are trying out new sabbatical programs.
But unlike the semester- and year-long sabbaticals common among academics, the new leave programs, which usually come with full pay, are shorter—lasting as little as a week—and occur earlier in an employee’s tenure at a company.
At Deloitte LLP, for example, employees can take an extended leave after six months, while Birchbox Inc. staffers get a three-week sabbatical after their third year at the beauty e-commerce company.
“A sabbatical is a way of recognizing that everyone needs a break at a certain point,” says Marla Kaplowitz, the North America CEO of media agency MEC, which started its own sabbatical program last year. Freed from the office, employees at the financial-services website The Motley Fool and the communications firm Edelman have driven the Pacific Coast Highway, spent time at a writing retreat and trekked up mountains.
Calling such leaves sabbaticals may strike some as odd. For workers in Europe, after all, a three-week out-of-office jaunt is better known as a vacation. But U.S. workers tend to be shy about taking a week off, much less two. According to a new report from the U.S. Travel Association, American workers took off an average of 16 days last year, down from 20.3 before 2000.
Driving the trend is Americans’ “work martyr complex,” the report states, and a belief that too much time out of the office could harm their careers.
The Motley Fool offers four-to-six-week sabbaticals for long-serving employees. And workers who have been there more than a year get a shot at a leave through “the Fool’s Errand,” a monthly drawing whose winner must disconnect from work for two consecutive weeks out of the following four.
Now in its eighth year, the program was devised to ensure the company can function without any one person, says Sam Cicotello, the Motley Fool executive who now oversees the program.
But she estimates that about half of those whose names are drawn try to get out of the prize, despite the $1,000 that comes with it. They don’t think their work can wait or get done without them.
“Almost everyone wants to win it until they win it,” Ms. Cicotello says.
Nearly all chosen employees do go eventually. The latest winner, the company’s chief executive, is currently planning his time off.
A 2010 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that sabbatical leaves of six months or more reduced individuals’ stress levels, particularly for those who fully unplugged from work, according to James Campbell Quick, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and one of the study’s authors.
Yet shorter leaves function more like vacations, says Charlotte Fritz, an assistant professor in industrial and organizational psychology at Portland State University, who studies how individuals recover from work. Employees’ stress levels do go down after a few weeks away, she adds, but the benefits don’t last long.
Birchbox has an unlimited vacation policy, but co-CEO Katia Beauchamp says workers rarely take off more than a week. So this year she began sending those with at least three years at the firm on three-week “tribbaticals,” which include $750.
“The first few, it was really scary,” Ms. Beauchamp says. “Your most tenured employees are the ones” who take the breaks.
But less-experienced workers stepped up in the veterans’ absence, sharpening their skills, she says, and employees returned from their time off refreshed.
In industries with high turnover among younger employees, companies might have to accelerate sabbatical programs to see a payoff, executives say. Ms. Beauchamp says she knew the stars on her staff wouldn’t stick around five years for some extra leave. “If we’re going to do something for them, it better be something they can realize pretty quickly.”
Intel Corp. , which has long offered U.S. and Canadian employees eight weeks off after seven years with the company, will tweak its policy in January. Employees will be able to opt for four weeks off after four years, or take the longer leave down the line.
Ogden Reid, Intel’s vice president of global compensation and benefits, anticipates the change will strengthen the company’s appeal to recent college graduates.
“It’s hard for them to get their brains around seven years in one place,” he says.
For smaller companies with sabbatical programs, absorbing the extra workload can be a challenge.
Portland, Ore.-based virtual-receptionist company Ruby Receptionists started a sabbatical program in 2012, when it had just 50 employees. CEO Jill Nelson says she has no regrets about implementing the five-week leave program, which comes with three life-coaching sessions so workers don’t “fritter away” the opportunity and $1,000 if they agree to let the company publicize their experience.
About three weeks into an employee’s leave, co-workers often start wishing for their return, and some things at the office “have to wait” when the now 190-worker company is short-handed, says Ms. Nelson.
When employees come back, they are refreshed, but they may find things have changed. One manager returned to find her department had been completely restructured, Ms. Nelson says.
Diana Stepleton, the company’s general manager, says the leave was worth it. She spent August in Europe with her two teenage children.
“It was the most relaxing thing possible,” she says.