‘Life sabbaticals’ popular: Survey

Employees may be looking for a break, but are employers comfortable with the idea?
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/21/2018

The idea of taking a leave from work is popular with Canadians, according to a CIBC survey of 3,025 people, and many workers are actively saving money to accomplish this goal.

“So many Canadians — 63 per cent — are already thinking about doing something in regard to a life sabbatical,” said Corby Fine, vice-president and head of Simplii Financial at CIBC in Toronto.

“The more telling numbers are that a quarter of those, 25 per cent, are already doing something about it in terms of beginning to plan, and that is obviously something that Canadians in general are very passionate about.”

The affection for retreats cuts across all generations — which is a little surprising, he said.

“There’s definitely a millennial impact on other people’s perceptions of what life satisfaction is (and) definitely our numbers skewed a little bit higher for the millennial segment. But it was pretty universal across the board.”

For instance, the 63 per cent of Canadians who thought about taking time off or quitting their job to pursue this personal dream or passion jumps to 78 per cent for millennials age 23 to 37, said Fine.

“There’s definitely an increase, but the overall numbers were still quite compelling... they’re telling us that they, en masse, really do value experience over stuff.”

‘Living spontaneously’

Anecdotally, sabbaticals are a growing trend, said Caterina Sanders, senior consultant at Habanero Consulting Group in Vancouver, and the comfort level for some employers is one reason why.

“The whole idea that somebody could step out of their job for as long as a year has become very comfortable for employers. There’s a lot less friction and fewer obstacles for individuals to do this, as long as they can get in front of it pretty far in advance to deal with the financial side of it,”
 she said.

“I’m thinking about mat leaves mostly where… they can plan for it (and) there are steps taken to backfill their role and steps taken to consider when they rejoin.”

If an employer has done well in dealing with a mat leave, a sabbatical could be weathered quite straightforwardly, said Sanders.

“It also matters how much advance notice is given. Somebody giving two weeks and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to be away long-term’ is not going to be successful. Most organizations, if they have policy around long-term leaves, they likely have a piece in there that says, ‘You must give up X number of weeks per month you’re planning on being away’ so that they can plan for it.’”

In 2013, Sanders and her husband decided a year of travel might help them recharge from their jobs.

“I left feeling pretty burnt out: I was VP at Habanero which means I was responsible for employee experience and day-to-day operations and I was pretty fatigued from everything that was going on, the stress in the workload.”

“Luckily, we knew we wanted to do this with enough advance notice that I was able to transition out of my role a good six months before departure. I left feeling really happy and confident that everything was going to be well taken care of,” she said.

“When I returned, I did very much feel like I had had this year of the fountain of youth, because it was a year of living spontaneously.”

Benefits for employers

Despite the newfound acceptance of sabbaticals, adding specific language into an employment contract is not common, according to Henry Goldbeck, president and CEO of Goldbeck Recruiting in Vancouver.

“In 30 years as a recruiter, I’ve probably seen it as part of a benefit package maybe twice,” he said.

“I can’t remember when the last one was. I think most sabbaticals are when they’re in between jobs, they either resigned to take a sabbatical or they’re laid off. They take that opportunity to take a sabbatical.”

But employers would do well to consider sabbaticals for the benefit package, especially for high-performing employees, said Goldbeck.

“It comes down to how do you engender loyalty, so that valuable employees aren’t going to leave for a little bit of extra money?” he said.

“The way you really engender loyalty is that you care about your employees, and... to care about their life and their desire to do something besides work until they die.”

Employers shouldn’t look down their nose if somebody says, “I want to travel for a year,” said Sanders.

“It would be fantastic if employers really were concerned enough to wrap their head around extended leave,” she said.

“Either way, I think it should lead to better mental health for an employee (and), ultimately, happy, healthy employees are going to make life better for everyone involved.”

Even though the employer may suffer in the short run from losing an employee, it might benefit all parties in the end, according to Sanders.

“If you have someone who you really value as an employee, who has made a decision that they’re at a point in their lives where they want to take an extended leave, I think that an employer would do well to embrace that and say, ‘Look, you’re a valued employee, this is where you’re at in your life, we want to support you in it,” she said.

“You’re either going to have someone who comes back and is really fired-up and jumps right back into things because they have had this chance to explore this other side, or they’re going to come back and they’re going to have made some major decisions in their lives. And they’re going to say, ‘I appreciate what you’ve done for me and I feel ready to take the next step’ and that may be a departure.”

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