Supporting employee sabbaticals

HRM,Shalini Shukla 29 Nov 2012

Sabbaticals make business sense. That sums up Joe Reynolds’ take on the concept. The CEO of Red Frog Events, winner of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Dream Big Small Business of the Year Award in 2011, had his biggest light-bulb moment – the one that spurred the idea for his company – whilst on Red Frog Beach in Panama.

“I was thinking that marathons and five kilometre runs had become, well, boring. It was time to inject military-style obstacles, mud, and beer,” says Reynolds. “We created an event called Warrior Dash, which did just that. In three years, it became the world’s largest running series.”

Bolivia, Morocco, Vietnam, and many other exotic locations worldwide, have taught Reynolds valuable business lessons. That’s because he would throw most of his income from his first business into yearly treks that would flood his head with business ideas.

“These annual, three-month trips never failed to rekindle the fire in my belly needed to lead a fast-growing company,” he says.

Reynolds gained so much from his wanderlust that it only made sense for him to offer this benefit to his employees, his “Frogs”. Every five years, his staff (and a guest of their choice) get a fully paid one-month trip to the destination of their choice.

There’s one catch though: North America and Australia are off limits (most ‘Frogs’ already go to Australia for company events there).

“This isn’t a cocktail-umbrella-on-the-beach sort of trip,” says Reynolds. “It’s a push-yourself-outside-of-your-comfort-zone, culture-drenched, ‘that-just-changed-my-life’ trip. Those trips bring home game-changing ideas. Those are sabbaticals.”

The sabbatical advantage

While Asia is a well-known place for hard-working people, ‘sabbatical’, unfortunately is not a word that is commonly found in the local corporate vocabulary yet, says Lee Song Teck, CEO of The Gold Guarantee, a Singapore-based gold trading company.

But done right, sabbatical programmes have positive effects on companies as well as their employees.

“I think that sabbaticals are a powerful retention tool,” says Jarrod Ng, Director – Human Capital, WongPartnership. “It allows organisations to retain good talent that they would otherwise lose, especially in cases where the attrition is due to reasons that the organisation cannot control; such as an employee who wishes to start a family or who needs to take time off work due to family commitments.”

In organisations where work stress and loads are high, sabbaticals give the organisation the ability to manage these “push” factors by allowing employees the chance to recharge.

That said, there should be a discretionary policy tool to ensure that sabbaticals are given to deserving employees and only under circumstances where the organisation’s interests are not compromised, Ng cautions.

“Ultimately, there will be jobs within an organisation where a sabbatical is not a feasible option given the job scope and work requirements,” he points out. “As such, there must be a balance struck between the needs of the employee going on sabbatical, the needs of the organisation, and the needs of the colleagues who remain working.”

Risks and responses

Typically, companies are concerned about losing employees once they send them for sabbaticals. “They fear that during the sabbatical, the employee will be exposed to new industries and opportunities, ultimately leaving the organisation as a result,” says Lee.

“I believe that we have failed to see the usefulness of the sabbaticals. The fears of companies are usually also due to a weak engagement and corporate culture,” he counters.

Lee explains that meaningful social relationships are a component of work that is rarely emphasised. There must be constant engagement of staff so that staff know they are part of the organisation and are indispensable.

“It takes a village to raise a child. It also takes one to keep an employee,” he says. “HR personnel in companies should work on forming a strong culture of closely-knitted relationships that serve as the main magnet as to why employees want to stay on.”

He adds that while the void of communication during sabbaticals may cause employees to venture to other pastures, a closely-knitted culture and regular communication (often with the help of a corporate coach) can work towards assuring management about retaining key talent.

Sabbaticals can be used as a time to realign employees with their career goals. According to Half-Time by Bob Buford, the second half of one’s life can be better than the first. “But first, we all need time to figure out what we want to do with the rest of our lives,” says Lee.

Many employees today do not have guidance to craft out their purposes in life, much less what they really want to do. HR is an avenue to fulfil these functions.

“For all you know, an engaged employee that is given a sabbatical can come back with a revitalised business plan or new profit-generating units,” Lee advises.

Planning a sabbatical

There is never a best time for sabbaticals, says Ng. “It all depends on the need of the individuals and the organisation. For practical reasons from the firm’s perspective, the candidate should preferably have some history in the organisation before a sabbatical is granted.”

Lee is of the mind that timing a sabbatical is dependent on the maturity and threshold of stress of an individual in their career thus far. “Certain key phases, such as the death of a next of kin, transition into parenthood, and other such occurrences can also be used as events to plan for a sabbatical,” he says.

As for the “right” length of a sabbatical, there is no fixed rule to how long it should be. It depends on the individual, says Lee. However, he says there must be boundaries for the sabbatical, such as how many days, and what is to be done during that time.

“That said, I would imagine that for practical reasons, sabbaticals that are too lengthy become very problematic for both the organisation, in terms of resource management, and also for the person on sabbatical, in terms of re-integration of after the sabbatical as many things may have moved on,” says Ng.

Sabbaticals need not be of long duration; in fact they should be planned out consistently. One hour a day, one day a week, and at least one week a year, should be set aside for sabbaticals. “If we keep to this consistently, we can be constantly recharged,” Lee explains.

There should also be a feedback channel to ensure that both the individual and company’s objectives of ‘being rested’ and ‘rejuvenation’ are fulfilled,” he adds.

Forced sabbaticals

While sabbaticals have their myriad of advantages, forced ones can work in the opposite direction.

“The complex nature of organisations and their work processes make enforced sabbaticals difficult to manage in terms of resource management,” says Ng. “In some cases, the organisation is effectively depriving themselves of value knowledge and institutional know-how deliberately by forcing employees to go on sabbaticals.”

Also, each employee is unique and the effect of a forced sabbatical would be very different. For some it would be a much needed break, but for others it would be disruptive and unwelcomed, Ng explains.

“We should force sabbaticals as little as possible, (only) in cases of physical and mental burn out,” Lee advises. “The usefulness of a sabbatical is brought to its full potential when the parties are both willing and clear about the purpose of the sabbatical.”


Case studies

The Gold Guarantee

An employee of Singapore gold trading firm The Gold Guarantee wanted to resign because she found it too difficult to cope with studying for a part-time degree and working at the same time. There were also changes in management in the company at the time. “She found it overwhelming to cope and decided to leave,” says Lee Song Teck, CEO of The Gold Guarantee. ”We did not accept her resignation but gave her a sabbatical of two to three months instead.”

During these months, the company kept careful communication with her and got her department to encourage her during the exam period. Upon the completion of her exams, she immediately came back on board, re-charged, more engaged and more willing to learn, Lee noted.

“Because she now knows that the organisation cares for her well-being, she was able to draw encouragement from the community here.”

Red Frog Events

Everyone needs to recharge. “’Frogs’ (Employees) can disconnect for a full month every five years,” says Joe Reynolds, CEO, Red Frog Events. “A month away allows enough time for staff to come back hungry to tackle the next big project.”

‘Frogs’ gain worldly perspectives and learning new cultures only helps bring fresh thoughts to the table on their next project.

“Furthermore, going outside of your comfort zone elicits unconventional ideas,” Reynolds adds. “Being away for a month breeds creativity. My best ideas come during extended time away.”

Professional development aside, sabbaticals of a month every five years give Red Frog Events staff quality time outside their hectic work schedules to reconnect with loved ones.


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