Our Human Resources consultant Cate Oliver discusses the importance of sabbaticals in an unprecedented age of  increasing life expectancy

It has recently been reported that average life expectancy will rise in many countries with many likely to live beyond 90 by 2030.  In their book, ‘The 100 Year Life’, Gratton and Scott suggest that more than half the children born now, in England and Wales, are likely to have a 100 year life.

Today, our adult lives typically follow the same three-stage pattern – education, work, retirement.  However, for those who start work in the near future, who are likely to have a ‘100-year life’, it will not be possible to accumulate enough wealth to support themselves through 35 years of retirement.  For most, working longer is the only option and to achieve this there will need to be a change to a more flexible and responsive, multistage life. A life with a variety of careers, breaks and transitions - a life that has seven or eight stages not just three.

Gratton and Scott suggest that that this life extension enables more experiences, multiple careers, richer relationships and greater possibilities for self-actualisation, putting added emphasis on choice and options.  Earning will be interspersed with learning and self-reflection – and that is why I believe sabbaticals or career breaks will become increasingly important within employment.

Sabbaticals usually involve an employee taking an extended period of time away from the workplace – either paid or unpaid. They have been growing in popularity as an employee benefit, with almost a quarter of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For including sabbaticals on their list of benefits for staff.

However, rather than be hesitant about losing valuable people, think about the benefits:

  • Employees can return rejuvenated with a fresh perspective – feeling inspired and like they have a new job.  This will have a positive impact on morale and productivity.
  • Employees are encouraged to stay with the company, rather than simply leave to pursue alternative interests, meaning that you will retain their skills and experience.  Turnover will be reduced which will save money.
  • Sabbaticals can be used to extend your family friendly policies e.g. ‘mid-life parental leave’ – it has been reported that an increasing number of parents are looking to take a career break to support older children.
  • Sabbatical programmes also act as an attractive benefit to prospective employees - people want to work for organisations that invest in their employees by offering a greater level of work/life balance
  • Supported by secondment programmes, sabbaticals can serve as excellent development opportunities, enabling individuals to gain experience in different organisations. 
  • As part of a professional development programme, sabbaticals can support employees to gain additional qualifications.
  • Sabbaticals can support your Corporate Social Responsibility programme, enabling employees to undertake a longer-term volunteer programme.
  • Sabbaticals can also benefit others – giving development opportunities to those filling the role of an absent colleague.

So, should it only be 18 year olds who have a gap year? Definitely not.  As HR professionals we should advocate for sabbaticals to be integral to our people strategies, to support, develop and re-energise the workforce, as the population gets older and people have to work longer.

Top tips for facilitating sabbaticals: -

  • Have a clear policy and process for managing sabbaticals
  • 2-way engagement in the discussion – discuss options, how it will benefit the individual personally and professionally and how it will benefit the business
  • Plan and delegate – ensure all tasks and projects are covered
  • Be clear about the practicalities, for example, what will happen to your continuous service and pension whilst you are on sabbatical?
  • Have an open discussion about the process of returning to work – this needs to be well managed, with clarity about changes to roles and the wider business
  • Keep in touch and maintain clear lines of communication