Burn-out is expensive.
When employees get bored with their jobs, or start thinking wistfully that life is passing them by, in the best case scenario they spend a lot of time surfing the web. In the worst case, they drag the mood of the whole office down with them.
So what to do? The answer might be a concept long talked about in the academic world, but only recently embraced in the corporate one: the sabbatical.
Taking a sabbatical means taking a period of time—generally at least a month or two—off work to explore other interests. "For your employees who truly need a break, who are burned out and exhausted, but are great people, it’s far better to give them that opportunity to recharge than to run them into the ground," says Dan Clements, co-author with Tara Gignac of Escape 101, a book about sabbaticals and career breaks. "This is a legitimate tool for doing this." He argues that sabbaticals are more strategic than a few extra vacation days. Here are some reasons that a few companies (American Express, REI) offer sabbaticals, and you might too:
While the holy grail for employees might be a fully-paid sabbatical, many people would be satisfied with just keeping their benefits and their job. You could pay a portion of the person’s usual salary as a goodwill gesture, and use the rest to pay for temp help (if it turns out to be necessary). This keeps costs under control.
These days, the average tenure at a job is about 4.6 years. By offering sabbaticals after five years, you give people a solid incentive to stay at least a little longer than they otherwise might. Less hiring and training means lower transaction costs for you.
"It’s really interesting what you discover when you take someone you feel is indispensable, and then you dispense with them," says Clements. "You discover, hey, maybe we can do things differently." Maybe your team member who’s on sabbatical always organized weekly status meetings on his projects. In his absence, people just swing by each other’s offices to ask how things are going. The projects still get done on time, but people are spending less time in meetings. Good to know. Absence shows what has to get done and what does not.
You never want a situation where only one employee can do something that’s critical. People get sick, have accidents, quit suddenly, and so forth. Building extended absences into your human capital structure creates a more resilient organization. You need to do this anyway for things like parental leaves, so you may as well do it for sabbaticals, too, and seize the opportunity to train. You can test whether newer hires can take on certain responsibilities without officially promoting them. Or you can bring in someone you’re thinking of hiring as a temporary replacement, to audition them before extending an offer.
One reason sabbaticals have been more common in academia or religious institutions is that these organizations know they benefit from people doing something big beyond their day-to-day responsibilities. If an academic or pastor writes a book, that makes her institution seem like the sort of place where people think big ideas. Donors like that. You can tap into a similar dynamic by encouraging people taking sabbaticals to do some sort of passion project that would make for a great story and reflect well on your organization. Let’s put it this way: It won’t hurt recruiting to have your local newspaper gushing about how your employee took three months off to go teach in a school in Kenya. "Those stories become part of the corporate story," says Clements, and frankly, that’s a much more interesting story than the usual one.
The transition back from a sabbatical can be rough on an employee, but smart managers might use it as a chance to offer someone a different role. "If you go away and have this great growth experience as an individual, to come back to the same job can be disheartening in a way," says Clements. "If the job can grow as well for you to come back to—that’s a good tactic." People are often willing to give new jobs the old college try, so by dangling one out as a carrot, you keep a veteran employee even longer.
Sometimes people don’t come back from sabbaticals, and though people don’t like to talk about this, Clements says that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sabbaticals are also a tool "for weeding out the people who are truly no longer happy," he says. "Organizations know that the cost of keeping people who are disengaged is extremely high. If people leave and discover that for themselves, and choose not to come back, it’s a win-win for everyone." It’s probably cheaper than a buy-out, too.