The hottest new perk for employees on the Eastside isn’t an onsite chef, free massages, or even puppy daycare (yes, all those perks do exist here). These days, employees are seeking a workplace that will provide them with long-term work-life balance. For many, that means a company that promises to help prevent burnout by offering a sabbatical, usually to employees who have been around for roughly 7-10 years.
Sabbaticals are not a novel concept, but they are gaining popularity as established companies (and even a few startups) look to attract top-tier talent. Microsoft has offered sabbaticals for years, though the company is mum on the details of its program. Employees who have been offered a sabbatical typically have been with the Redmond giant for at least seven years, and they receive several months of paid time off. According to employees who previously have taken sabbaticals, details about this benefit are buried within the human resources website.
Other companies with a presence here are following suit. Edward Jones, REI, Men’s Wearhouse, and Waggener Edstrom (which manages most of Microsoft’s public relations) all offer sabbaticals. Waggener Edstrom, for example, offers four paid weeks off for every seven years of employment in addition to regular PTO and vacation, according to Kate Richmond, a senior vice president at the company. It’s a rare benefit in the PR industry and a great way to attract top-tier talent in a field where burnout is frequent.
Why are sabbaticals so popular? Data show that millennials are more likely to job-hop than any other generation, and the companies that want to hire them need to give them a reason to stay put. Say, after one or two years, another company offers a promotion and a significant increase in salary. But will it offer a sabbatical? Stick with the first company, and you can get paid to travel the world, write a book, or even sleep until noon and play golf the rest of the day.
While the time is yours to do whatever you want, companies like Waggener Edstrom do hope employees use their sabbatical to do something meaningful. It’s the kind of long-term vacation almost everyone dreams of. (This we probably can blame on Tim Ferriss and his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, which has created a cult following among twenty-somethings who desperately want to escape their cubicles while maintaining an income).
With the promise of a sabbatical, employees know they can step away from their job for months to check out and recharge without losing their job or their paycheck. For many, this opportunity is taken to coincide with major life milestones — getting married or having a baby, tending to aging parents, or becoming an empty-nester years away from retirement. These moments not only require a great deal of personal time, but can stir up some serious introspection, too. With a sabbatical, you actually have the ability to deal with life without worrying about what’s happening in the office, your inbox, or your bank account.
The number of companies offering sabbaticals is small but growing. In 2011, only 4 percent of U.S. companies offered paid sabbaticals. However, out of Fortune’s annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work For, the amount of companies included that offer sabbaticals steadily has been increasing every year. As companies fight to attract and retain the best talent, sabbaticals are an increasingly unique proposition to keep candidates onboard. “We don’t necessarily find that sabbaticals are a key reason someone joins our agency,” Waggener Edstrom’s Richmond explains, “but many of our employees tell us it is one of the reasons they choose to stay. Many employees have even stayed long enough to be awarded more than one sabbatical.”
While sabbaticals may be an attractive perk for employees looking for stability — especially those who know the reality of burnout all too well — the question is whether the perk is enough to both attract and retain younger employees. Will the promise of extended paid time off in the future lure them to companies offering sabbaticals, or is the perk too distant to compete with a more lucrative offer from competitors in the present?