Sabbaticals: A New Lease on Life

FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - As the fortunes of companies ebb and flow, so do their sabbatical programs. These aren't the simplest benefits programs to manage, but they draw much attention.

A work-weary employee imagines that a sabbatical is a break from the action, a chance to learn something new or rethink priorities. The information technology manager thinks: We can barely cover the workload as it stands.

Here's advice from both parties on the program's risks and rewards:

The Manager's Perspective

For those who worry that a sabbatical offers its recipient time to look for a better job: don't.

A sabbatical opportunity shouldn't be the first catalyst for talking about a person's future, says Cathy Hirsh, a vice president at IT consulting firm American Management Systems Inc. (AMS) in Fairfax, Virginia.

When an AMS employee becomes eligible for a sabbatical, "we talk about their recent history and what's coming up. If they're unhappy or having second thoughts, these issues should come up and be resolved," explains Hirsh.

Susan Harrell, a managing director of the technology innovation enterprise at San Francisco-based Charles Schwab & Co., has never had an employee disappear during a sabbatical. "In this job market, it's too easy to make a change. You don't need a specific time frame [to accomplish this]," says Harrell.

Schwab offers its employees a four-week sabbatical after five years of service.

In the past, an employee could take an eight-week sabbatical at 40 percent pay.

Now, a four-week, fully paid sabbatical is available. Under the new guidelines, Schwab anticipates that 1,000 employees will take their sabbatical each year.

With this many extended absences, covering the workload of an employee is a formidable task. But employees willingly take on additional work to minimize the impact. Harrell, who took an eight-week sabbatical in 1998, claims that "people jump in and go the extra mile to pick up the specific pieces." And companies hire contractors.

Neither company obliges its employees to justify how they will spend their time. Both companies see benefits to the program that go beyond good morale.

"People come back with new energy, they think about work in different ways," says Harrell.

The Employee's Perspective

Employees who have taken sabbaticals tend to agree that they returned to work with a new lease on life. Debra Carmody-Poon, a technical director at Charles Schwab, says, "I was ready to go back and take on new things," after spending two months with her 2-year-old son and traveling.

When the human resources department notified Carmody-Poon, a 10-year veteran of the company, of her eligibility for a sabbatical, she took it. Not that work - though challenging - was a problem, she just wanted the chance to spend time with her son.

Leaving for an extended period does pose risks. "This is such a fast-paced, results-driven environment; if you're not there to raise your hand, then an opportunity can pass you by. But so much is going on," Carmody-Poon says.

When she returned to Schwab, many changes had taken place. Her group had begun taking on new roles before her sabbatical. Catching up on what decisions had been made and how responsibility had been delegated was challenging. However, interesting opportunities to shape the group's new responsibilities also became available, she says.

Like Carmody-Poon, many people vacation during their sabbaticals or spend extensive time with their families. Others learn new skills.

Nathan Ainspan, a research associate at The Conference Board Inc. in New York, likens sabbaticals to training programs. "In high tech, skills get antiquated quickly, and most people are concerned about being current." In the war for high-tech talent, offering the opportunity to learn new skills attracts motivated employees.

Other people put their skills to use for volunteer organizations. Sue Hanley, a principal at AMS, spent her first sabbatical planning a concert to raise money for her children's nursery school. She dealt with tasks that she'd never been exposed to: booking venues, selling tickets, coordinating lighting and settling demands from artists.

People who volunteer typically apply workplace skills to an avocation, finding satisfaction in helping others and, in turn, gaining new perspective.

When Hanley, who has taken two sabbaticals in her 18 years at AMS, reflects on the benefits of these extended leaves, she notes, "I was able to reflect on what was important in my life."

Shand is a freelance writer in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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