As employees seek work/life balance, the sabbatical returns

Employees see work/life balance as a top priority when choosing an employer, so should more businesses offer opportunities for a mid-career adventure?

After years of hopping on planes to Denmark every week as an executive director for Leo Pharma, Mike Hinchy decided to hit pause on his career and take a sabbatical. 

“You don’t often get a chance to take more than a two-week holiday, so this seemed like a great opportunity to reflect and focus on my own wellbeing and family,” Hinchy says. “It sounds obvious, but the pandemic has prompted me to reconsider my priorities and where I invest my time and emotion.” 

Hinchy is far from alone. Covid-19 prompted many of us to reassess our work commitments, with employees increasingly prioritising work/life balance over career progression. 

A third of UK workers interviewed for Totaljobs Hiring Trends Index valued work/life balance highly when looking for a new job. It was second only to higher salaries in terms of employee priorities. 

Julie Gaskell is head of partnerships for events company Wild in Art and a former CEO. She’s  also opted to take a break from the world of work. According to Gaskell, the pandemic has been a very isolating experience, especially for single people. With travel restrictions lifting again, she feels it’s the right time for a six-month trip across America and Europe. 

“I’ve had a good career, but a lot of the drive has disappeared over the last few years,” Gaskell says. “It felt like the right time to try something different and shake my life up a bit. Luckily I’ve got an employer who sees the benefits I can bring the business by exploring more of the world while on sabbatical.” 

Growing demand 

In today’s competitive job market, many companies are renewing their efforts to improve staff retention. With employees increasingly demanding additional flexibility in their work life, sabbaticals are growing in popularity. 

“Following the working situation during the pandemic, people are thinking quite differently about their careers and the importance of work/life balance,” says Claire McCartney, resourcing and inclusion policy advisor for the Chartered Institute of Professional Development. “So it makes sense to me that employers are introducing sabbaticals as a way of supporting people in this.” 

Earlier this month, Monzo announced that it will offer all employees a three-month paid sabbatical after they’ve worked at the online bank for four years. According to its people experience director Tara Ryan, the aim is to allow employees to take time out to travel, spend time with families and focus on themselves, without having to leave the company or sacrifice pay. 

“We’re always looking to introduce best-in-class policies for our employees,” Ryan says. “Our aim is to not only reinvent banking for customers… but to shake up and vastly improve the experience for employees working within it.” 

We hope sabbaticals encourage our employees to fully switch off, recharge, and come back with new perspectives

Global identity verification company Veriff introduced its own sabbatical policy this month and will now offer staff in its European and US offices six weeks of fully paid time off for every three years of service. 

“We believe that in order to live a fulfilling and impactful life, our employees could benefit from longer breaks every once in a while,” says Piret Saag, Veriff’s head of learning and employee experience.  “The past couple of years have been full of challenges for our global team, both professionally and personally, which is why we hope sabbaticals encourage them to fully switch off, recharge, and come back well-rested and with new perspectives.” 

The change in policy comes off the back of a successful year for the business, which achieved unicorn status in January, meaning it is valued at more than $1 billion. The additional time off is seen as a token of appreciation for those who have been with the company during this period of growth and an enticing benefit as the business engages in a new round of recruitment. 

“With our sabbatical programme, we want to give our employees a chance to step back from their role at Veriff and focus on their personal enrichment, as well as consider new angles for professional development,” Saag adds. “We hope this serves as a great benefit for people looking to join Veriff as well as those seeking new opportunities within the company.” 

Handling sabbatical requests 

There are a range of reasons that people could decide to take a sabbatical, many of which may partly stem from the pandemic. For some, experiences of stress and burnout may influence their decision to take a break, while those with family living abroad might have been unable to spend significant time with them while travel restrictions were in place. 

For Hinchy, the mundanity of working from home played a part in his decision. “Being on calls all day at a desk and not moving has definitely negatively impacted me – I feel like I’ve aged over the last couple of years. In my mind, there must be a better way to balance out life and work, rather than being stuck at a desk for 10 hours a day on a variety of meetings and calls.” 

Companies that ignore employee requests for greater flexibility risk an exodus of talent. After what Hinchy describes as six happy years at LEO Pharma, he opted to leave the company before taking a sabbatical. “I’ve had a 22-year career in the pharmaceutical industry, so not knowing what that next job is or where the next pay cheque is coming from is a new experience for me,” he says. 

A spokesperson for Leo Pharma UK says that the business is “lean and agile, making it a challenge to offer a standard sabbatical offering while maintaining business continuity”. However they add that the company is open to considering requests from employees on a case-by-case basis and frequently adapts working arrangements “to meet individual needs”.

Hinchy would like to see more employers follow the lead of businesses like Monzo and Veriff in offering loyal staff additional time off. “If you’re looking for people to invest a significant portion of their career at a single company, the opportunity to have a sabbatical and time to reflect every few years could be a very clever thing for employers to offer,” he says. “If it isn’t offered, people may just do it anyway, which would mean you end up losing talent from the business.” 

Assessing priorities 

While it may sound simple to introduce a sabbatical policy, there are important considerations for HR departments. “It’s really important to have a clear policy in place and to think through all of the potential implications,” McCartney says. 

First will be eligibility criteria. Will it depend on length of service or seniority? With people taking additional time off, the level of disruption for the business will also need to be explored. 

Perhaps most importantly, businesses will need to decide whether the sabbatical is paid or unpaid. 

This decision could have consequences for people’s contracts, McCartney explains. “If it’s unpaid organisations would need to clarify that the employee will be able to return to the business in the same position, as stopping and restarting their contract would have an impact for the employee, in terms of their continuation of service.” 

With more employees seeking a better work/life balance, introducing a sabbatical policy could boost staff loyalty and retention. Like many workers, Hinchy now believes that work should fit around his commitments to friends and family life, rather than the other way around. “When I finish my sabbatical and find a job again, I’ll have a better sense of my priorities and how I want to be spending my time,” he says. “And it probably won’t involve being in the airport multiple hours every weekend.”