The question of how organisations should manage sabbaticals has surfaced from a recent Quartz at Work interview with Helen Chiang: studio head of popular gaming platform Minecraft. 
In Chiang’s view, companies in the US “need more off-ramps from work, or opportunities to take a career break. Whether it’s parental leave, or elder-care leave, or a sabbatical, we need opportunities for people to take a break and not have to start over from scratch when they come back”.
She explains: “I’ve really thought about this because half of my Minecraft team is based in Sweden, and I looked at some of these European countries that support a gap year, or more extended parental leave, and it really gives employees the opportunity to really enjoy or immerse themselves in their life experiences – whether it’s having a baby, or something that’s happening in their family.”
Chiang adds: “On my team, someone is about to go on sabbatical, and someone else is taking an extended summer leave to go work on a passion project, and I don’t look at this as proof that they’re any less committed to what we’re doing.”
Almost a year ago, the Harvard Business Review pointed out that sabbaticals were on a steady rise in the US workplace,  and noted: “While the type (paid versus unpaid), length (weeks versus months), and other sabbatical details vary, research suggests that the upward trend in sabbaticals is due to two primary factors: sabbaticals and extended vacation time are not just good for employees to rest and recharge – they benefit the organisation by stress-testing the organisational chart and providing interim roles to allow aspiring employees to take on more leadership.”
With all this in mind, how should employers ensure that sabbaticals strengthen their organisations?
“It’s interesting that the way senior leaders view sabbaticals varies, depending upon the context,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “Maternity leave, for example, is frequently seen as an inconvenience. But the same principle applies: you’re going off from work, for quite some time, to do something that is life-changing and perspective-altering, and will therefore make you a different person. The challenge for the organisation, therefore, is not to make that individual feel invisible while they’re gone – or to assume that they’re going to come back unchanged.”
Cooper explains: “As I mentioned in our recent blog on Walmart’s staff-education drive, Ford’s Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP) is widely recognised as a highly effective example of in-company development. But the key with any organisation that sponsors its employees to take courses – which, if they involve business schools and universities, will typically be degrees – is that they can’t expect those individuals to go straight back into the same jobs afterwards. Quite simply, they will be different people. And the same applies to those who re-enter work after sabbaticals.”
As such, she notes, “leaders must navigate a twofold challenge: i) grasping that their people are going to grow and change as a result of sabbaticals, and ii) not being totally sure about how that change will manifest itself. But if we’re really serious about people being our greatest asset, and we’ve invested in that person who’s going on a sabbatical, then surely we can make room in the organisation for the new-and-improved version of that person. Leaders have to take onboard an awareness that their relationship with that worker is going to be different, and that they will have to work hard to include them in an adaptive way.”
Cooper points out: “a lot of maternity-leave programmes now encompass Keep in Touch days, whereby leaders reach out to staff who are taking maternity breaks and update them on the organisation’s projects. While staff on sabbaticals may not be looking for that same level of contact from their firms, it is nonetheless imperative for leaders to ensure that those people aren’t forgotten. For as long as those workers are away, their bosses must consciously ask: ‘How will we be able to make use of these new strengths, skills and experiences that our people are acquiring while they are following their passions?’”
She adds: “then, of course, there should be some form of evaluation. Not just from the individual concerned – who is likely to say that the experience was marvellous – but in a 360-degree fashion from their colleagues: ‘In what way was this break beneficial to the organisation?’ That way, when the next round of sabbatical requests come in, leaders can evidence that the previous ventures made positive contributions.”
For further thoughts on developing talent, check out these learning resources from the Institute