The professional re-boot; the benefits of the new age sabbatical

By Paul Hallam

Published on 01-02-2016

The professional re-boot; the benefits of a sabbatical

A team member perspective

Jennifer Kenworthy, a long-time team member at Six Degrees, discusses her experience of a well-earned sabbatical she took last year.

You do not need to be burnt out, exhausted or in between roles to call for the time out. At the end of last year I returned to the office after taking some extended time off in what would be recognised by most as a career sabbatical.

The term sabbatical is derived from the biblical term Sabbath which serves an ancient human need to build periods of rest and rejuvenation into a lifetime.

This may take the form of three months, up to 12 months or more, however, the objective is the same. For me it was to rejuvenate and return with a refreshed professional outlook and I thought of this time as a non-indulgent, professional re-boot.

The way in which this sabbatical came to life was through the evaluation of growth and change within the business and understanding my role within that, now and in the future.  I felt I had naturally come to a point where change in my role was imminent and in order to fully commit to that change and what it looked like for me, I needed to provide myself with the opportunity to truly reflect and connect.

Once my decision on how I wanted to spend my time was made, the plan came together seamlessly.

Focus on the physical me

Ubud (Bali) detox. Time off and detox are not normally two things that go together in my life but I thought this was the perfect start to clearing the head and shifting focus.  A healthy body, a healthy mind as they say and what better way to start four months off with renewed physical energy.  This also provided a significant personal challenge in commitment to the detox process and discipline in adhering to all requirements for the period.

Fun and reward

Time to unwind and pat myself on the back for completing the detox. Enjoy the things I love the most…sun, good food and wine and friends – tick, achieved in tenfold!

Unique life changing experience

An eight week volunteer program in the Malaysian Borneo jungle with orphaned orangutans, 11 other strangers, one Big Brother style house, the welcome of the Malay culture and the special experience of working in an environment so different to home with such incredible and humbling creatures.

The excitement, anticipation and slight nervousness about stepping away from all things comfortable to new character building and boundary pushing arenas was exhilarating.  It has also resulted in one of the best experiences of my life that has not only delivered on the initial objectives but has gone over and above in personal development which will no doubt transcribe to professional career and the success thereof.

We somehow convince ourselves of the importance of our everyday busy lives and that we do not have the time to step away from our desks for lunch let alone taking months out to fulfil personal goals and objectives.  The power of this time is not only beneficial to the individual but the employer.  The feeling of being valued, supported and the show of flexibility has resulted in the return of an engaged, refreshed and motivated employee contributing to both cultural and commercial success.

A business perspective

Paul Hallam, Managing Director and founder of Six Degrees, discusses the commercial, developmental and personal benefits of businesses supporting team members who need a career sabbatical.

Jennifer and I first spoke of her taking a sabbatical early last year, and the benefits were clear and plentiful from the start. Not only do I think it is an intelligent business decision but the most important factor of this decision was about supporting someone, who has worked so incredibly hard for Six Degrees over the last six years, to achieve her personal goals. My philosophical business belief is that, in many cases, making a decision that is most beneficial to the individual will often be the most beneficial solution for the business.

Retain top talent

It costs businesses 150 – 200% of a person’s salary to recruit and train a new employee. Given this, retention strategies are at the top of the priority list for businesses. Flexibility and time off consistently rank as popular perks for employees. Here are some of the retention benefits of offering a sabbatical:

  • A research team from Israel, New Zealand, and the United States published a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology that found people who take sabbaticals not only experience a decline in stress during their sabbatical, but experience an overall stress decline after returning to work as well. This was certainly Jennifer’s experience.
  • Employees who have suffered from burnout feel rejuvenated. Burnout can manifest in low productivity, depressed moral and high turnover in high valued employees, who often have the most intellectual property in a business in the form of knowledge and skills. Sabbaticals are particularly effective in high burnout industries.
  • Increased productivity as a result of reversing burnout.
  • Maintain goodwill of employees through reinvesting in them and allowing personal growth and development through a focus on personal goals.

Attract top talent

Top talent is in high demand in the current market. So expressing your EVP (Employee Value Proposition) to the market is vital to remain competitive in the search for top talent. Sabbaticals are not a common benefit for employees, despite the positive research. Even among the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, fewer than 25% offer a fully paid sabbatical program. This offers businesses an excellent opportunity to differentiate from their competitors and makes for a great PR story.

Development of talent

There are also benefits to other employees in the business, by giving them the opportunity to expand their role and responsibilities.  This can encourage idea generation and innovation to help grow the business or expand product offerings in those acting in a new role or those taking the time out on a sabbatical.

Our culture is built on a foundation of family principles like looking after each other and ensuring the whole team is reaching their professional and personal ambitions. The two are not mutually exclusive. A Sabbatical is just another way in which we are able to support our team. In my experience, giving Jennifer the opportunity to take time out for herself has resulted in a reinvigorated approach to her role, and a resilience and determination to take on the challenges that her role as a manager requires.


Paul Hallam

A HR perspective

Aaron Lamers, Human Resource Director at General Mills, talks about the success they have had in offering flexible working options to employees.

Last year General Mills was named one of the top 100 employers to work for by Fortune, due to their competitive talent retention strategies. Included in the impressive list of benefits is compressed hours and paid sabbaticals.

What can be attributed to the high level of success General Mills has experienced as a result of these retention strategies?  

General Mills has achieved a culture of flexibility over time by using clear flexible working guidelines in conjunction with a can-do approach from leaders. We have found this helps our leaders tailor their approach to motivating individuals. The flexibility is a real benefit to employees and ensures we retain an engaged and diverse workforce.

Our success has relied on the development of great managers and leaders by empowering them to assess requests on their merit and encourage the right behavioural response when employees request short-term or long-term career breaks. By all reports (360 feedback and engagement surveys) these benefits are one of the defining characteristics of the strong employee value proposition at General Mills.

Many businesses would be able to see the benefits from a theoretical perspective but in practice may not know how to manage this commercially. What is your advice to those businesses?

Businesses are able to cope with more than they believe. Once the business case is clear you can make anything happen. For example, arrangements such as job share and part-time work which may not seem like a viable option at surface level, can produce great results. It is far more beneficial to have someone away for a period of time than to try and replace them at great expense in a tight talent market!

Boundaries need to be employed to manage commercial expectations. For example, if your business is offering sabbaticals, the policy may stipulate that they should be no less than six months in length to ensure that a suitable replacement can be found in the short-term.

How do you balance individual needs with business needs?

All of these strategies go to the heart of the employment relationship. All relationships are based on respect and if people feel that you respect them, that’s often all it takes to retain the best talent. That’s why taking an individual approach works so well for us, because everyone has a different need and if you cater to that it will be returned in spades! And if people don’t feel like they are getting what they need from the employment relationship it is unlikely the employer will get what they need.