Absence makes the heart grow fonder
How can HR offer sabbatical schemes that work?
According to research by life insurance firm LV, average employee tenure is circa five years long. Whilst many HR Directors would like this figure to be higher, it’s hardly surprising there’s a relatively low cap on how much time a worker wants to stick their job. At many firms, even if their day-to-day is invigorating, there is a ceiling on how much an employee can learn and how much satisfaction they can take from the duties they carry out. Apathy, boredom and stagnation are, perhaps inevitably, given characteristics of the employee life-cycle; concomitant to them moving on to pastures anew.
So, if employee departures are so unavoidable, why should HR worry? It’s perhaps a facetious question. With statistics suggesting that most workers are disengaged from their jobs, re-energising employees to lift lagging productivity levels is something that falls under the remit of ‘things HR should worry about’. Add into consideration results from a University of Warwick study, which suggested that happier and better engaged staff are 12% more productive than their disengaged colleagues, and the impetus is there to put engagement on the agenda.
For earnest HR Directors, there’s a variety of literature and suggestions – both useful and otherwise - on how to keep employees engaged. Amongst the practical (providing line managers better training), systematic (examining your own review processes and employee metrics) and the faddish (ping-pong tables and frothy coffees) not much time gets given to sabbaticals. But, could paid leave be the holy grail to better employee retention and engagement?
Lee Shaw, Head of HR Service Delivery and Change at Shawbrook Bank certainly thinks so. He believes that “a sabbatical enables employers to retain talent and reduce associated sourcing costs and risks whilst at the same time increasing the engagement of the employee and reducing the longer-term flight risk.” Shaw explains that Shawbrook Bank use sabbaticals to send a message to their staff: that they value that employees have lives and interests outside of work. “This truly enables the individual to bring their whole self to work as a result of the life experience a sabbatical brings,” he said.
For Vicki Field, HR Director at London Doctors Clinic, she sees the benefits similarly, understanding that “a sabbatical is a great way for someone to explore an area which interests them without resigning.” Additionally, in an age in which there is no dearth of news on how insecure modern life is, Field believes they give employees: “the comfort that their absence is only for a set period, allowing them to return to their same job.” This allows them to plan their finances and removes the worry of being unemployed. Field, like Shaw, sees it as another way in which employers can truly show they care about their employees - who are in turn become more motivated and productive. “Great employees are people with complex lives,” she says. “Treating people in a better way, giving them space to explore other factors other than work, can lead to increased motivation and productivity as well as reductions in turnover.”
Likewise, Iain Thompson, Director of Incentive & Recognition at Sodexo Engage, understands that a sabbatical scheme can have a massive boost for business. “It’s a great way to keep hold of top talent,” he said. “Employees returning from a break will often have a sense of loyalty to their employer as well as a renewed connection to the role and different perspectives.” However, its not without its dangers. Field explains that HR need to work to create a well thought through policy to make it work for the business as well as preventing too many employees going on long-term leave at once. Furthermore, she adds, there needs to be a plan to manage them back into the business.
To ensure the best scheme, Shaw believes that “there would be very clear processes and approvals regarding sabbaticals.” Yet, he admits this isn’t always the case. Therefore, he believes HR have to be clear with line managers about how to conduct those conversations with their employees. “In addition,” he concludes, “we encourage the line manager to have a regular check-in with the employee during the sabbatical to maintain engagement and manage some of the risks that could occur.”
If there is no clear plan or contact, HR could be facing a holiday that never ends and a very empty, not to mention expensive, seat in their own office. However, the absence and distance that sabbaticals offer, could nurture a new found fondness for the same old job.