Sabbaticals are periods of paid or unpaid time away from work which are agreed between the employer and employee. One of the key points to be agreed on is whether the employment contract remains in place during the sabbatical.
Historically sabbaticals have been a benefit for employees. They are agreed for a variety of reasons including rewarding long service, travel, research or acquiring new skills, voluntary work, alleviating stress and burn out, or to take care of health. In current times the motivation behind sabbaticals may be more for the employer’s benefit in order to provide alternatives to redundancy.
Businesses that have not yet returned to previous activity levels due to COVID-19 may be contemplating redundancies and potential alternatives. Employers affected by the downturn can offer unpaid sabbaticals instead of redundancies. Employees may agree to take a sabbatical if the alternative is being made redundant, especially until the COVID-19 risks further reduce. Sabbaticals are one method of reducing salary overheads while preserving valued employees and overall morale.
Right to take a sabbatical
There is no legal obligation on employers to offer employees sabbaticals.
Where employers do offer sabbaticals, it is invariably a discretionary benefit granted subject to specified parameters and restrictions.
Purposes for which a sabbatical may be granted
Sabbaticals are often regarded as an important part of an employee’s career development, and may be granted for a variety of different reasons.
Offering sabbaticals to senior staff, for example, can aid their retention by allowing them scope to try something different with the security of knowing that they can return to work at the end of the time away.
Employers who grant sabbaticals usually attach various conditions, both in respect of eligibility for a sabbatical and what happens during and at the end of the sabbatical itself.
Sabbaticals are usually available only to employees in senior grades or defined disciplines and to those who have a specified minimum number of years’ continuous service with the organisation.
Having a Sabbaticals policy in place
Increasingly, employers are introducing policies on sabbaticals, recognising the potential benefits to the organisation and to their other employees of some time spent away from work during which the employee can focus on different activities.
It is a good idea for employers to make it clear in their sabbaticals policy that the granting of a sabbatical is dependent on (amongst other things) the employer’s operational requirements at the relevant time, and that no request can be guaranteed even where an employee meets all the eligibility criteria.
Where an employer does grant sabbaticals, it must ensure that part-time employees are afforded the same benefits as equivalent full-time staff – for example, any length of service requirement must be the same as for full-time employees.
Rules on sabbaticals must include whether the sabbatical is paid (in full or in part), what happens to the job while the individual is away, and the employee’s rights in respect of the return to work.
The employer must determine as part of its sabbaticals policy what employment benefits (if any) are to continue during the employee’s absence on sabbatical.
Length and timing of a sabbatical
A sabbatical can be of any length, although breaks are typically between four weeks and one year. Because there are no statutory provisions governing the granting of sabbaticals, the minimum and/or maximum duration and any restrictions on timing are up to each individual employer to determine.
Although it is good practice to set out in a policy the general conditions under which the employer will grant a sabbatical, it may be advisable to make the length and timing of any sabbatical subject to the employer’s discretion at the time the sabbatical is requested.
Staying in touch
An employer who grants a sabbatical usually requires the employee to stay in touch during the period of absence.
From the employee’s perspective, regular contact provides evidence of the employer’s on-going interest in retaining the skills and expertise of the individual, and, from the employer’s perspective, the interest of the individual in eventually returning to work will be paramount. Staying in touch helps to maintain an employee’s confidence, skills and knowledge, and by so doing will ease their subsequent return to work.
Returning to work after a sabbatical
It’s important that both employer and employee agree in advance when and how the employee will return to the workplace.
The employer should take particular care to ensure that any guarantee of re-employment is worded clearly and unambiguously in order to avoid any disagreement or challenge at a later date.
The effect of sabbaticals and continuity of employment
If the employee continues to be paid during the sabbatical, it has the effect that the contract of employment continues in force, which in turn means that the employee’s continuity of service is preserved for statutory purposes.
Where a period of sabbatical leave is unpaid (so that the contract of employment does not remain in force), the employee’s continuity of service may nevertheless be preserved following his or her return to work, provided the absence was as a result of a prior ‘arrangement’ or a ‘custom’.
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