Why You Should Pay Employees To Take A Sabbatical

Paid sabbaticals are something many people dream of–but what happens when you actually implement them? The VIA Agency just found out.

Why You Should Pay Employees To Take A Sabbatical
John Coleman, CEO of The VIA Agency spent his time off painting more than 100 different works of art. [Photos: courtesy of John Coleman, The VIA Agency]

John Coleman took a two-month paid vacation this summer. On top of the endorsed time off, his employer and the company he founded 20 years ago, The VIA Agency, gave him $2,500 of reimbursed expenses. The CEO spent his time painting more than 100 different works of art. “It was pretty awesome,” he said.


Indeed, a few months of salary without having to work sounds like a dream. Coleman described it as rejuvenating, invigorating, and joyous. But Coleman, who was the first to partake in VIA’s newly implemented sabbatical program, argues that it benefited both him and the company from a business perspective.

The VIA sabbatical program asks employees to propose more than a six-week break from work. “We have kind of a very complicated application process,” said Coleman. “It’s a piece of paper with the word ‘Why.'” That sounds easy enough, but the executive team that reviews requests has in fact sent back applications–people don’t just automatically get it. Coleman says they expect people to be “thoughtful” about what to do with their time off.

For his sabbatical, Coleman, who has surrounded himself with creativity his entire career, proposed getting in touch with his own creativity via painting. From a personal growth standpoint, he learned to make something for the sake of expressing his feelings–not for a commercial purpose. He also learned the creative power of constraints. For one of his painting projects, for example, he painted a three-inch square every morning, based on his feelings. “It became my teacher, my guide, my structure, my discipline, my journal. Each one of these are wildly different.”

In another, he would paint a square a minute. “You don’t have time to think, you just have time to express,” he explained. “You do that for an hour and you’re helping your mind not dictate what you’re doing. You’re painting from a deeper place.”

He plans to impart all of those lessons to the company. But he also has tangible business lessons to bring back to his team; one of the other requirements of the sabbatical is putting together a presentation for colleagues after the leave. For advertising creatives, specifically, he learned that truly making something new requires “getting to a place of being non-judgmental about the work and ideas, and giving them time to grow and see where they take you is critical.”

Of course, each employee will come back with different perspectives, but the idea is that time spent away will lead to more creative ideas at work. And even if the person only comes back refreshed and excited to return to work, the company will see tangible benefits from the program, such as:


Employee Retention

The VIA sabbatical program is open to employees who have dedicated at least 10 years to the advertising agency.

That alone will keep people around, argues Coleman. “The second it was announced it had an extraordinary impact on the place,” he said. People who only had a few years until they qualified were already plotting their trips. There were even murmurings among those who had just started at the company. Certainly, other companies that have similar programs say that it has kept people, who might have otherwise left, dedicated.

Organizational Development

As of now, about 25% of the VIA’s workforce qualifies for the program. So the entire office doesn’t go into chaos mode, VIA is implementing the sabbaticals sequentially, starting with the people who have the most tenure. Still, an organization of 100 people without three or four of its most senior people has to adapt. “When people are gone, the organization tries new things and develops efficiencies,” said Coleman.

On a more micro level, people within the company have to learn new skills to fill in the gaps left by the people who are on their personal journeys. “It’s career development for individuals who have to take on different responsibilities that remain at the company,” he added.

Refreshed Workers Are Happy Workers Are Productive Workers

The perk not only leads to refreshed workers, who contrary to logic want to return to work, but research has proven that those who take sabbaticals come back better than ever. Another study found that employee stress not only went down during the time off (duh), but stayed down after.

“I don’t have a big enough sample size,” said Coleman, “But everybody has come back high as a kite.”


About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news