By David Burkus
It’s the time of year when many employees are cashing in their vacation allotment, and it can sometimes seem like no one is in the office. But rather than bemoan how hard it is to get stuff done during vacation season, recent research and corporate experiments suggest that there might not be enough employees taking time off — and even if they are taking time off, they should be taking more of it. There’s an upward trend in employers offering their people more long-term vacations and sabbaticals, and the evidence suggests that everyone benefits.
While sabbaticals are still rare inside of corporate America, their presence is increasing rapidly. According to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, the percentage of companies offering sabbaticals (both paid and unpaid) rose to nearly 17% of employers in 2017. That’s a significant gain from 1977 when McDonald’s instituted what was arguably the first corporate sabbatical program in the United States.
While the type (paid versus unpaid), length (weeks versus months), and other sabbatical details vary, research suggests that the upward trend in sabbaticals is due to two primary factors. Sabbaticals and extended vacation time are not just good for employees to rest and recharge — they benefit the organization by stress-testing the organizational chart and providing interim roles to allow aspiring employees to take on more leadership.
Since the concept of sabbaticals is most popular in the academic arena, the majority of research done on their effect on employees has been conducted by studying professors. One notable study compared 129 university professors who took a sabbatical in a given term with 129 equally qualified colleagues who didn’t. Both groups were surveyed before, during, and after the term to assess stress levels, psychological resources, and even overall life satisfaction. It’s not surprising that the researchers found that those who took sabbaticals experienced, upon return, a decline in stress and an increase in psychological resources and overall well-being. What is surprising, however, is that those positive changes often remained long after the sabbatical takers returned to work. This suggests that not only do the rested employees benefit from time away — the organization benefits as well.
The bigger benefit to organizations, however, comes in unexpected ways. Providing sabbaticals or extended leave time to leaders can actually be a means to stress test the organizational chart and give aspiring leaders a chance to grow. In one study, researchers surveyed 61 leaders at five different non-profit organizations with sabbatical programs. Each organization had slightly different requirements, but all required at least three months off and discouraged executives from visiting the office during the sabbatical period.
The researchers found that the majority of leaders surveyed said the time away allowed them the space to generate new ideas for innovating in the organization and helped them gain greater confidence in themselves as leaders. They also reported a better ability to collaborate with their board of directors, most likely because the planning and execution of the sabbatical provided a learning experience for everyone involved.
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Most intriguing, the researchers found that the majority of leaders surveyed said that the interim leaders (those who filled in for them during their leave) were more effective and responsible when the sabbatical takers returned. Many even reported that those interim leaders continued some responsibilities and made the overall leader-subordinate relationship more collaborative. Some organizations reported having much more confidence in their succession planning since they were able to try out the role of the interim leaders to assess qualifications and any development opportunities that were still needed. One firm was conducting a national search for a future executive director but ended up hiring the deputy director after her high performance as the interim leader.
At the very least, having people rotate out for an extended period of time allows organizations to stress test their organizational chart. Ideally, no team should be so dependent on any one person that productivity grinds to a halt during an extended vacation. And while it may look good on paper, the only way to know for sure is to test it. This is one of the main reasons behind one of the unique vacation/sabbatical policies out there: The Motley Fool’s approach, called “The Fool’s Errand.” Each month leadership of The Motley Fool draws a random name from the company roster and awards that person two weeks of paid time off with a catch: It must be taken in the next month. It’s a way to make sure employees are getting much-needed breaks, while also ensuring that the company is prepared for unexpected absences.
Whether it’s a long-term sabbatical or a surprise vacation, the success of extended time off — both for the employee and for the organization — is an encouragement and a warning. The warning is that most organizations are probably not giving employees enough time away. The encouragement? Extended time off pays off.
David Burkus is the author of under new management. He is the host of the radio free leader podcast and associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University.