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What to Consider When Offering Sabbatical Leave

Given the disruptions and volatility of the pandemic, sabbaticals have been used as a reasonable way to reduce staff numbers for a set period. You may be here because you are looking to implement a more general sabbatical policy as we see companies increasingly using this benefit to attract and retain employees.

What exactly is sabbatical leave?

Broadly, a sabbatical is an extended leave of absence an employee takes from their role while keeping their job and salary protected. A sabbatical is time taken off beyond the standard leave entitlement, and can run for any length of time that both employee and employer agree on beforehand. Sabbaticals are usually taken as a single long period, but can also be just one or two isolated days in a fixed period of work. 

Sabbaticals typically last a few months to a year. Longer than a year’s absence is better classed as a full career break, although it’s important to note that none of these terms are precisely defined in UK law, and instead need to be determined by mutual agreement between employer and employee. 

Originating from the Greek sabbatikos (σαββατικός), meaning “of the sabbath,” a sabbatical was originally based on the biblical practice of taking a year-long break for every seven years agricultural work. Today, sabbaticals are most common in universities and other research or higher educational institutes. A study by indicates that around 17% of companies now have some form of sabbatical policy in place, with more intending to create one in time. 

Deloitte, for example, offers both an unpaid month-long sabbatical, and a six-month sabbatical where employees continue to receive 40% of their salary. MacDonald’s is another company embracing the trend, offering eight week’s paid sabbatical for every ten-year service period.

What are the eligibility requirements?

There is no governmental legislation around the granting of sabbatical leave, and who is eligible. Companies are at liberty to define their terms and conditions for granting sabbatical leave. 

Though it depends entirely on individual company policy, management should ideally take care to define a sabbatical protocol that is truly fair and non-discriminatory. This means that applications should all be considered equally, regardless of employee age, disability, gender, etc. However, in practice, organisations often do request a minimum employment period before making a sabbatical request, for example 5 years’ accrued service. This inevitably favours more senior employees.

How can employees benefit from sabbaticals?

The benefits of an extended break from work are obvious: employees can destress and take time to pursue their wellbeing outside of work commitments. Traditionally, employees used sabbaticals to carry out some personal goal, such a completing a book, conducting research for a private project, travelling, focusing on family, volunteering, studying, or pursuing an artistic or even spiritual journey.

During a sabbatical, an employee can rest, cultivate personal development, or engage in a passion that full-time employment would otherwise make impossible. Though fully paid sabbaticals are rare and typically reserved for extremely senior staff, the security of knowing there is a position to return to can provide employees with a privileged opportunity to cultivate their wellbeing. Particularly if the job is high-stress, a sabbatical can allow an employee to recharge, returning to their duties with renewed passion and focus.  

How can employers benefit from sabbaticals?

Sabbaticals are extremely attractive when offered as part of a benefits package, and will considerably enhance an organisation’s employee value proposition. Today more than ever, employees value work-life balance and employers who can recognise and appreciate the need for rest and time to pursue non-work goals. 

In the UK, the provision of sabbaticals is becoming more popular, and can increase employee retention, since it is essentially an incentive and reward for long service. HR are finding that sabbaticals allow staff to develop new skills and bring fresh insight and motivation to the workplace on returning. In addition, employees who feel that their rest and wellbeing is prioritised will likely have a greater sense of gratitude and loyalty going forward. If the employee is engaged in volunteer work or charity, this can be tied together with the company’s own corporate social responsibility policy. 

How to offer sabbaticals as an employer

Clarity is essential. There are no legal requirements for sabbatical provision in the UK, so the onus is on HR to reach a clear, written agreement about the purpose of the sabbatical, the duration, the pay terms, and what both parties can expect on the employee’s return. If drawing up a sabbatical policy for the first time, make sure to consider:

  • eligibility criteria and the application process
  • required notice period
  • how to combine sabbatical with other leave entitlements
  • grounds for refusing a sabbatical request
  • the maximum leave period offered
  • exactly how the employee will reintegrate and the work expected of them
  • how sabbaticals will affect the existing work contract

On this last point, it’s worth stressing to any employee that it may not be possible to reintegrate them into the company in the exact role they occupied previously, especially if their leave has been long. It’s also a good idea to outline terms and conditions under which the sabbatical will be granted and sustained. You are in your rights to refuse a request if you feel the employee’s performance or attendance is sub-par, if there are unresolved disciplinary issues or simply because the employee’s absence would be too disruptive. 


With a clear policy drawn up beforehand, employers can weigh up applications against their criteria and discuss the proposed leave with relevant management. It should be decided on a case-by-case basis whether to keep the employee technically on the pay roll, of if it would be more convenient to ask them to resign, on the understanding that they will be re-hired on ending their sabbatical. However, in the former case, HR needs to consider how a sabbatical will impact things like pension contributions, holidays, and bonuses. 

Ideally, this should be concluded in writing before the sabbatical begins, to avoid disputes or misunderstandings later. However, the employee should be made aware that all sabbatical agreements are essentially informal in nature, and that they are not legally entitled to return to work under their previous work terms. 

Posted by Robin on 28 Apr, 2021 in Guides