If Sabbaticals Sound Too Good to Be True, Maybe It’s Because They Are

The trouble is, taking a sabbatical is not risk-free for employees.

When I learned of  Citigroup Inc.’s announcement in December to let employees to take a 12-week sabbatical, my first thought was, this sounds too good to be true. How could time away from growing in your role not come with a risk of slowing down your career advancement?

During the pandemic, we’ve joked that “we aren’t working from home, we’re sleeping in the office.” And it's true the longer hours and repetitive days make me yearn for a break from screens and time to rest and focus on other goals like improving my French. But having spent a decade working in the tech industry, I worry that sabbaticals in highly competitive sectors could come at the cost of a future promotion.

Before you start making plans for a leave of absence, it’s worth doing some due diligence to understand how it might work and what you can expect upon returning to your job.

More employers have offered sabbaticals, extra vacation days and flexible working hours to help employees to cope with the Covid crisis. In Citi’s case, employees with five years’ tenure can now take 12 weeks of sabbatical on 25% pay. Last June, law firm Baker McKenzie started offering its lawyers partly paid sabbaticals of up to three months. In August, global accounting firm PWC offered employees the option to go down to part time or compressed hours. Learn In, a startup aiming to help more employers offer sabbaticals for cost-saving purposes, raised a $3.5 million seed round last April.

Even before the pandemic, tech firms like HubSpot and Adobe were offering employees a month’s paid sabbatical once they reached five years at the company. Part of the rationale was that employees would blog about their experiences and post on social media, giving the employers a brand boost. In cases like Basecamp, which offers a month of paid sabbatical for every three years of employment, the perk has proven to be an effective way of retaining talent.

The benefits for employees are well reported, too. Research shows that extended time off has a huge positive impact on employee well-being. Professionals who take sabbaticals demonstrate stronger relationships with their loved ones, increased satisfaction with their lives and an increased comfort with and capacity for change.

The trouble is, taking a sabbatical is not risk-free for employees. Extended leaves of absence, for reasons outside of the standard employment contract, e.g. parental leave or long term illness, are still far from the norm. Choosing to take one could result in being seen as less ambitious or less committed to the job — especially if you’re already prone to bias because of your race, gender or age. It could also hurt you in future pay or promotion reviews if you’re compared with others on the team who worked while you were out.

It’s important to consider too the impact a sabbatical could have on the skills and knowledge required for your role. If you work in a fast-moving environment like tech, where product development and growth priorities can change in a flash, then the longer you’re away, the harder it may be to remain the most qualified person for the job.

When I worked at Amazon in 2015, one of our key hiring rules was to ensure that newcomers were more talented than anyone already on the team. In my experience, this often created conflict. New teammates would be encouraged to step into, improve and even take over existing projects. You could be the most important person on the team one week, then find yourself without work to do the next. Needless to say, it was stressful, and it’s hard to see how taking leave would allay fears of being replaced or managed out.

In an ideal world, you could benefit from a sabbatical without worrying about your career development slowing down. Perhaps that’s possible in some industries and organizations. Still, it’s important to weigh the risks, think about your priorities and create a plan for approaching your manager.  

Consider what’s more important in the near term: Is it taking a much-needed break, or advancing within your team? What are your long-term goals? Would taking a sabbatical help move you toward those? If you’re envisioning a future at your company, speak openly with your manager about whether they see a sabbatical impacting that timeline.

You also want to reflect on your company’s culture. Can you take your manager’s advice at face value or would you benefit from gathering more information? Are people generally happy to cover for colleagues who are out – and then cede that work back to them when they return? Reach out to colleagues who have taken a sabbatical or other time off and ask if they feel it affected their career progression or compensation in any way.

If you’re set on taking leave, get commitments from your manager about what your role will look like when you return. Ensure that you’ll be able to work on integral projects and have opportunities to train or onboard when you’re back.

You can also create a 30-60-90 day plan for your return, listing what meetings you’ll need to have and what milestones you’ll need to reach. Your 30-day goal could be getting up to speed with current projects and targets and ensuring you have the skills and information you need. At 60 days, your goal could be resuming leading initiatives within your team and department, and by 90 days, it may be having results to show and feeling back in the swing of things.

If my employer decided to start offering sabbaticals, I’d be tempted to go for it. But eventually my ambition would take over. For now, I’d rather dream about promotions and pay rises and stick with my work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Abadesi Osunsade is the founder and chief executive officer of Hustle Crew. She is the co-host of the Techish podcast and author of "Dream Big. Hustle Hard: The Millennial Woman’s Guide to Success in Tech."

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