Chris Johnston (wearing the hat) with his wife Carolyn, son Henry and daughter Esther hiked the West Coast Trail in B.C. for five days on his first sabbatical from Steam Whistle Brewery. (Supplied by Chris Johnston)
In the world of employee benefits there’s a practice that’s well-loved by employees and well regarded by human resources managers, and has been around for decades.
Yet it remains rarely used, puzzling some HR experts.
“The strategic use of sabbaticals can greatly enhance an organization’s competitiveness,” says Maurice Mazerolle, a professor in Human Resources at Ryerson Univesity’s Ted Rogers School of Management.
“I think they are making a serious mistake if they don’t see the benefit.”
Sabbaticals are a set period of rest taken at regular intervals, and in a competitive labour market they could become an important perk to woo workers.
Primarily associated with academics, who can apply for paid time off from teaching to pursue special research or projects, sabbaticals have also been offered at a small number of private companies since the 1970s.
In a corporate context, they usually come without conditions about how the time is used. An employee is typically granted a sabbatical after a period of four, five or 10 years on the job and those leaves range from four to eight weeks.
In Mazerolle’s view they enhance employee loyalty and combat burnout by providing workers with extra time to experience life, whether that be through rest or play.
“When people have enough money that satiates them to a point then people want experience, they want to be able to have something that is different.”
Better benefits in a tight labour market
A photo of Bolivia’s salt flats taken by an employee on sabbatical from Epic, a U.S. software development company. Epic offers four-week paid sabbaticals every five years and says their staff has taken over 3,000 trips. (Epic)
It’s possible more companies will offer a sabbatical benefit, given that — in most of Canada — workers are in high demand.
That tight labour market also means workers are in a position to demand more from employers, according to Trina Casey-Myatt, a regional vice-president with Robert Half Staffing and Consulting in Calgary.
“Generous vacations and sabbaticals are something people are looking for in all industries,” she says. “People are really looking for escape time.”
A number of companies offering sabbaticals are in the tech space. The list in that sector includes Adobe, Facebook, Microsoft, and Shopify.
One software company called Epic has a “sabbatablog” page, featuring digital postcard from some of the 3,000 sabbatical trips taken by their employees.
In 2017, the Society for Human Resource Management annual survey of U.S. employers on worker benefits found that 17 per cent of respondents offer sabbaticals, but only five per cent of those were paid leaves. A survey by the Conference Board of Canada reported eight per cent of companies offer paid time off for sabbaticals or education, though 55 per cent offer leave without pay.
There is a chart at the bottom of this story comparing the sabbaticals of 25 North American companies. It includes some non-tech businesses such as Clif Bar, The Container Store, craft brewer New Belgium and even McDonald’s. The company that created the golden arches was possibly the first business to offer sabbaticals, starting them for head office staff and salaried managers back in 1975.
3 Canadians, 3 sabbaticals
A number of factors convinced Laurel McGregor to join Kijiji’s Canadian ad sales team, but one key was their sabbatical program. “I’ve never had that kind of consecutive time off in my adult life, like never.”
Kijiji, which is part of eBay, gives workers four weeks sabbatical after every five years of service. In spring 2018, McGregor used her sabbatical plus a week of holidays for a solo trip to Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and South Korea.
One highlight of her trip was visiting a Malaysian sanctuary for orphan orangutans rescued from logging sites, plantations and illegal hunting. The primates were roaming freely in the jungle area around visitors. “You were kind of in their habitat, so that was pretty spectacular,” says McGregor.
Laurel McGregor snapped this shot of an orangutan at play at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysia last year. She used her paid sabbatical from Kijiji to explore four countries in Southeast Asia. (Supplied by Laurel McGregor)
Mike Morgan took a very different kind of sabbatical from his job as a reserves evaluator for GLJ Petroleum Consultants in Calgary. GLJ offers two months leave for every five years of service
In 2013, Morgan and his wife went to live in Barcelona for eight weeks.
“We were there long enough to you know to kind of feel what it was like to live there,” says Morgan. The couple rented an apartment, shopped for groceries at local markets and had friends from home come visit.
Mike Morgan and his wife Nadine lived for eight weeks in Barcelona while he was on sabbatical from GLJ Petroleum Consultants in 2013. They pose in the city’s Park Güell, designed by Antoni Gaudi. (Supplied by Mike Morgan)
The weekends were open for adventures, but for Morgan was also writing his PhD thesis on weekdays. The defined period of time and new environment helped him concentrate his efforts in between breaks exploring the city with his wife.
For both, “the immersive experience” of the Barcelona sabbatical became the model of how they think about travel. As it happens, Morgan is about to start his second sabbatical and the priority, like in Spain, is “to experience something closer, more authentic.”
The experience of Chris Johnston’s sabbatical was what might be called authentically Canadian.
Though now retired, while Johnston worked at Steam Whistle Brewing, he had two sabbaticals — one at his ten year mark, and one at 15 years of service.
At his 10-year sabbatical in 2012, Johnston had six weeks off. He used them to take a touristy drive from Toronto to Vancouver with his wife and kids. Then, the family embarked on hiking the 75-kilometre West Coast Trail in Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim National Park.
“That was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done in my life,” remembers Johnston.
Chris Johnston takes a break on sabbatical in 2012. He says the 75-kilometre West Coast Trail hike is the hardest physical thing he’s done. (Supplied by Chris Johnston)
The family bonded over rough terrain and narrow paths, traversing hip-deep streams, and climbing steel ladders pegged into rock faces, all while carrying gear and food to cover five days.
Some memorable moments included hearing ghostly grunts and growls of sea lions on coastal rocks, invisible in a night thick with fog, as well as searching for — and finding — a legendary 1,000-year-old rainforest tree.
“I’ll never forget the accomplishment when we got to the other end,” says Johnston, adding family friends were waiting for them with a meal and prepped for few days of leisurely beach camping when they arrived.
‘I won’t deny I felt a little bit of guilt’
While sabbaticals can leave workers who are away with lasting memories, they also leave the colleagues who stay behind with extra work.
McGregor and Morgan say their co-workers were able to pick up the slack at Kijiji and GLJ.
Johnston, who was a purchasing agent for Steam Whistle, found his colleagues were relieved to get him back.
Not everything went as smoothly as planned during his leave because Johnston’s expertise in dealing with the brewery’s suppliers could not be fully replaced, leading to stress and mistakes.
“I won’t deny I felt a little bit of guilt, because I hate to leave co-workers in a bind.”
Trina Casey-Myatt, an executive with Robert Half Staffing and Consulting, believes sabbaticals aren’t just good for employees, they also pay off for employers in the long run.
For HR experts like Mazerolle and Casey-Myatt though, sabbaticals present opportunities for employers to offer training for workers taking on new roles or extra duties in helping cover for their absent colleague. In fact, Mazerolle believes sabbaticals could be “connected to succession planning.”
Within benefits packages, however, today’s employers are weighing the costs and value of several different types of paid leave, including the needs of workers with elder-care responsibilities and accounting for laws that have increased parental leave.
Allison Cowan of the Conference Board of Canada sees a more progressive benefits culture emerging. In a competitive labour market, Cowan expects “we will see more creative types of leave to suit a variety of purposes.”
Casey-Myatt thinks some employers will realize the math on sabbaticals adds up.
“You’re going to have a much more successful organization by being able to retain the talent that you have, versus having the cost on the turnover and the training and the hiring.”
While Canadian companies mull over the options, Canadian workers can look to a pair of countries with envy.
Australia and New Zealand have “long-service leave” laws, which entitle workers to paid time off.
For example, the state of New South Wales, Australia gives employees three months paid time off, or six months off at 50 per cent of their wages, after ten years. The catch: not many people stay with the same company for that long.