It is widely believed that Harvard University was the first institution of any kind in the U.S. to offer a system of sabbatical leave when it established a program for faculty in 1880.
McDonald’s USA is reportedly the first corporation to offer a sabbatical program, which it began in 1977.
While sabbatical details vary from company to company, research suggests an upward trend in sabbaticals is due to two primary factors. The Harvard Business Review says, “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.”
The same article reports that most research done on the effect of sabbaticals has been conducted by studying professors in academic settings; however, the results should be considered by those outside of academia as well.
One study compared 129 university professors who took a sabbatical versus equally qualified professors who elected not to take a sabbatical. Both groups were surveyed before, during, and after the sabbatical to assess stress levels, psychological resources, and life satisfaction. The research found that those who had experienced the sabbatical reported a decline in stress and an increase in psychological resources as well as overall life well-being. Even more importantly, these positive changes remained long after the professors returned to campus life, suggesting that not only do the employees benefit from the time away, but also the organization benefits from the well-rounded health of the employee upon return.
Lawyers Mutual Sabbatical Policy
In 2019, Lawyers Mutual implemented a sabbatical policy. Each eligible employee is allowed four weeks paid sabbatical time, with the ability to add one week of earned vacation to the time off. The employee commits to staying two years after the sabbatical or they must repay the company the cost of the time off. An important component of the policy is that one week of sabbatical leave must be devoted to professional development or service to the community.
My sabbatical began in late September. I spent three days in leadership training at the Biltmore Center for Professional Development. While the content and classes were exceptional, the experience of extended time on the Biltmore property felt in line with the concept of sabbatical refreshment, including beautiful mountain scenery, time spent in nature, and time spent in solitude away from the demands of both office and home. Once I returned home, I spent two days volunteering at a local thrift store where all proceeds benefit victims of domestic violence.
The big finale to my sabbatical was a trip to Italy. My husband and I traveled with a Meredith College alumnae group to Florence and Tuscany for 11 days, which included cooking school in Tuscany. It was our first trip to Italy and the perfect sabbatical trip, both educational and restorative.
Managing the Work
Preparation to be out of the office for a vacation or conference requires plenty of planning. Preparing to be out for five weeks required planning on steroids. However, everyone in my circle went out of their way to assist. I had clients who wanted to get on my calendar, and we were able to schedule a date before the sabbatical, leaving me with a quick turnaround on their work product. They were very accommodating. I was able to meet the deadline and I offered to be available during my time off if they had immediate needs. However, they respected the schedule and waited until I returned for follow-up.
My work colleagues Sharon Sparrow and Mark Scruggs lightened my load as well. Sharon assisted by monitoring my phone calls, email, snail mail and calendar requests. Mark agreed to handle phone calls from clients and potential clients. Knowing I had support in the office made it much easier to be away. Having their assistance also made re-entry easier knowing I wasn’t going to find a client who felt forgotten.
Benefits of Sabbatical
One purpose of a sabbatical is to be relieved of regular duties in order to focus on things outside the normal routine. In the academic world, a sabbatical from teaching might find the professor traveling for research or completing a large writing project. In academia, the sabbatical may be months or even a year long. However, in a five-week period, I did not set such a lofty goal as to author a book. My focus was on personal rejuvenation. I wasn’t tired of work or worn down in any way. After all, I’m still within the 18-month mark of starting a new venture with Lawyers Mutual Consulting. However, I am wearied by having an electronic device attached to me at all times, being available by phone, text or email to work colleagues, clients or potential clients at all times, and being in an outward-facing job that requires evening and weekend commitments. These are not complaints, just the realities of professional life in the 21st century.
Stepping away from these commitments felt freeing. Using my phone as a camera rather than a constant mode of communication was liberating. And spending a week in a Tuscan medieval, walled city built in the 14th century was glorious.
Application for You
Too often in law, we live unbalanced lives with more attention on our professional pursuits and serving client needs than taking care of ourselves. By viewing the sabbatical as an investment in ourselves, our employees, as well as our organizations, it might be easier to contemplate adding a sabbatical as a benefit.
Based on research, as well as my personal experience, no matter your firm or organization size, a sabbatical is an experience that will benefit your employees as well as your organization.
Camille Stell is the President of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800.662.8843.