June 17, 2024

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Sabbaticals – getting it right for you and your employees

Alan Price, CEO and HR expert at BrightHR discusses the value of sabbaticals and how to get them right

In the pursuit of a better work/life balance, employees are increasingly opting for sabbaticals, many taking unpaid leave for weeks or even months to their recharge batteries. And despite knowing that some staff may not return, a growing number of organisations now offer opportunities to take a break. So how can your business get sabbaticals right for their business and the employee?

Firstly, an employer needs to be aware that there is no statutory right to grant an employee time to take off for a sabbatical. There may be a contractual right to a career break for professional learning, so employers need to follow the contractual procedure for approving or declining the request. If the employee has no contractual right to the time off, then employers should process the request as any standard request for time off.

If an employer has a sabbatical policy, it will usually set out that an organisation can approve or decline a request based on specific criteria. Policies usually only apply to employees with a minimum period of service and may be restricted to those circumstances where the organisation believes it and the employee will benefit from the purpose of the sabbatical.

A sabbatical policy should cover the minimum notice the employee must give when requesting a sabbatical and the maximum amount of time the employee can take. The policy should also include a reminder that some disciplinary rules will still apply to the employee during the absence.

One of the main aspects of managing a sabbatical is the effect it has on employment rights. As the employee is not working, they are not entitled to receive their regular wages. However, they continue to accrue their statutory 5.6 working weeks of annual leave because the contract of employment continues to exist, and the organisation still employs the individual.

Additional contractual entitlements, such as an extra holiday or use of a company car, for example, also need to be considered and an agreement reached on whether these will continue during the period of absence. Where the contract does not address this, or a sabbatical policy is not in operation, employers should meet with the employee and cover off these issues. They might be able to reach an agreement, for example, that contractual annual leave will be taken as part of the sabbatical to reduce the overall time away from work. Any agreement reached should be documented and signed and dated by both parties.

Discussions about sabbaticals should address what will happen to the employee’s work during their absence. A period of handover should be organised before the employee’s departure and on their return. The date of return should be clearly stated, and the employee reminded that if they do not return as planned, their absence may be classed as unauthorised.