There are various reasons why an employee may want to take a period of sabbatical leave, from family commitments to carrying out research or volunteering abroad. Employees may have personal ambitions and goals they want to achieve, without stepping away from their career or job permanently.
For employers, it will be important to understand how to deal with a request to take sabbatical leave, giving consideration to employees’ rights and how you be can supportive of employees while minimising disruption to your organisation.
We look at the legal rights of your employees taking a period of sabbatical, from what constitutes sabbatical leave to what risks to be aware of as an employer when implementing and managing a sabbatical leave programme.
What is sabbatical leave?
Originating from the Hebrew word “shabbāth” meaning “rest”, a “sabbatical” traditionally describes the period of time taken by professionals in an academic context to devote to things like research, travel and writing, typically relating to their field of study.
In more recent times, however, the phrase “sabbatical leave” has become synonymous with any employee taking an extended period of leave, during which time the individual is not required to report to work but still remains employed under their contract of employment.
In many cases, especially where employees have by-passed university to join a company or organisation from a young age, or joined as a graduate trainee, they may now be looking to fulfil personal or different academic interests. Or those further on in their career may be looking for some extended ‘time out’, to travel for example, with the assurance of having their job to come back to. It may even be that an employee is looking to enhance their career prospects within your organisation by gaining additional qualifications.
Do employers have to allow sabbatical leave?
In the UK there is currently no law compelling employers to grant a period of sabbatical leave to their employees. In other words, there is no statutory right for individuals to take an extended period of leave from work to pursue personal or other interests.
As such, whether or not an employee is granted the flexibility to take time out from their career is entirely a matter of discretion for the employer. That said, given the potential benefits for both employee and the business, it is not uncommon for companies and organisations to now make provision for this.
However, even in cases where an employer is prepared, at least in principle, to offer a period of extended leave to its employees by way of sabbatical leave, this will usually be approached on a case-by-case basis.
Should sabbatical leave be paid?
Given that there is no legal right to take sabbatical leave, it follows that whether or not the employee will be paid during any period of leave is again at the discretion of the company or organisation for whom they work. The terms of any period of sabbatical leave should therefore be agreed between the employer and employee.
Typically, sabbatical leave is normally unpaid, although some employers may elect to pay an employee a reduced rate or, alternatively, pay a retainer to secure an employee’s return to work after their break has ended.
Needless to say, the question of paid or unpaid sabbatical leave will depend on the nature of the company or organisation in question, including the resources available to it, the extent to which the employee’s absence will disrupt the business and the cost of any necessary replacement during their absence.
Career break or sabbatical leave?
Although the terms “career break” and “sabbatical” are often used interchangeably, a career break usually involves the employee’s resignation from work, with some form of promise of re-employment in the future, whereas sabbatical leave is often used to describe an unpaid release from reporting to work, but without bringing the employment contract to an end.
Employees’ rights to take sabbatical leave
The extent to which sabbatical leave will affect an employee’s rights will primarily depend upon whether they have been asked to resign, albeit on the basis that they will be offered re-employment at the end of their break, or whether their contract of employment is to remain in effect throughout the period of leave.
Although it is open to the employer to vary the contractual rights of an employee on sabbatical leave, in circumstances where the employment contract remains in force, certain statutory rights will still continue to accrue, for example, annual holiday leave entitlement.
Further, in respect of those statutory rights where entitlement is based on a minimum period of continuous service, for example, the right to claim unfair dismissal, continuity will still be preserved where an employee is ‘absent from work in circumstances such that, by arrangement or custom, they are regarded as continuing in the employment of his or her employer for any purpose’.
In contrast, in cases where an employee takes what is commonly known as a ‘career break’, spanning several months or even years, the parties will often agree to terminate the contract of employment at the commencement of that break. In these circumstances, unless agreed otherwise, any continuity of employment is unlikely to be preserved and, as such, any statutory or contractual rights will not usually be maintained.
Is there a right to return to work after sabbatical leave?
Unlike other employees on maternity or other family-related leave, employees who have taken sabbatical leave have no statutory right to return to work. As such, the arrangements for returning to work after a period of sabbatical leave will fall to be agreed between the employer and employee in advance.
In the case of a career break, in other words, where the employee is required to resign and there is no longer any employment contract in place, the employer must decide to what extent any right to return to work is to be guaranteed, including what kind of job role will be offered and on what terms.
Even in circumstances where re-appointment is guaranteed, the employee may not necessarily be allowed to return to the same or similar job.
Benefits to employers
As an employer, you may have serious reservations about your employees taking even a short period of sabbatical leave, not to mention an extended career break, not least given the potential disruption to your business and the risk that valuable members of staff may not return to work for you.
In practice, however, this can often be the reverse, whereby well-planned absences need not unduly disrupt your business, and the benefits of sabbatical leave for the employee can often help to aid staff retention rates.
Below are six reasons why sabbatical leave can bring benefits for both your employees and your business:
Increase staff retention As touched upon above, possibly one of the biggest benefits of allowing employees to take the leave is retaining talented staff. By showing that you care about your employee’s personal development and wellbeing, you will encourage key members of staff to return to work for you after their break.
Incentivise hard work By offering employees time out of their career to pursue their own personal interests or goals, this is an excellent way to reward employees for their hard work and years of service. Further, by showing your desire for them to return to work for your company or organisation, you can also make an employee feel much more valued.
Increase employee productivity Having helped to restore an individual’s work-life balance through a period of sabbatical leave, this makes for a much happier, more productive and motivated employee on their return.
Attract talented recruits With a well-formed sabbatical leave policy in place, you are much more likely to attract talented individuals when recruiting. The prospective employee who is looking for some flexibility in their career may chose to work for you, over and above the employer who is only looking for unbending loyalty and unbroken long service.
Bring new skills to your business In some cases, the employee looking to take a period of leave may be looking to gain additional qualifications and/or work experience in other fields or even abroad. These are skills and experience that could benefit your business on their return. Further, for those who have filled in for the absent employee, they may also have developed a new skillset that you can utilise.
Make financial savings By granting existing employees periods of sabbatical leave to pursue their own personal interests and goals, or even to meet unavoidable commitments that they may otherwise be forced to resign over, you will avoid the time and expense of recruiting and training their replacement.
What are the risks
Needless to say, there are also risks associated with granting an employee a period of sabbatical leave although, as long as you are aware of these risks and plan ahead, these can be properly managed.
The three most commonly cited risks to be aware of are as follows:
Business disruption Where a key employee is looking to take an extended period of absence, this can potentially impact on your business. However, with careful planning and/or only allowing for relatively short periods of sabbatical leave during less busy times, you can avoid putting extra strain on the business and on other employees.
Loss of staff Where employees take a career break, there is always the risk that they may not return to work for you. However, by putting in place sufficient benefits to incentivise an employee to return after their break can significantly help to increase staff retention rates.
Exposure to complaints Where different employees are looking to take sabbatical leave, it is important to treat every request fairly and consistently, otherwise risk being exposed to a complaint for less favourable treatment or discrimination. In particular, any eligibility requirements, such as the minimum period of service to qualify for sabbatical leave, should not discriminate against certain groups of staff, for example, part-time employees.
As an employer offering sabbatical leave, you should always consider putting in place a clear written policy. Notwithstanding the potential benefits of allowing employees to take extended periods of leave, it is still important to draft a policy that minimises any risks involved and maximises any benefits to your business.
That said, each company or organisation is likely to have different needs, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for a sabbatical leave policy. Further, any requests for sabbatical leave should ideally be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, based on the needs of the business.
First and foremost, therefore, any sabbatical leave policy should make it clear that any period of extended leave is at the employer’s discretion and not an automatic entitlement.
The policy should then go on to set out the basis upon which an employee will become eligible to take sabbatical leave, for example, any minimum period of service. It should also include what notice period will be required, how to apply, how long will be allowed and what benefits the employee will be entitled to throughout this period, including but not limited to pay.
In addition, prior to putting a sabbatical leave policy in place, you should give consideration to the following matters:
- Will employees be able to take more than one period of sabbatical leave and, if so, how often?
- Are all your employees eligible, or only those in certain roles?
- Will employees on leave be able to undertake alternative employment?
- Will the employee receive full or reduced pay during the period of leave?
- Will the employee who doesn’t return to work for you be required to pay back any salary received during their period of leave?
- How will sabbatical leave affect the terms and conditions of their employment, for example, will continuity of employment be preserved?
- Will the employee be entitled to curtail or extend their period of leave?
Having granted a request for sabbatical leave, either under the terms of any written policy or otherwise, you should always set out in writing the terms and conditions that will apply during the period of leave.
In particular, the agreement should clearly set out how long the leave is to last, what benefits the employee will be entitled to throughout this period, including pay and any bonuses, as well as the arrangements for the employee’s return.
You should also set out whether any time spent on sabbatical leave will count towards qualification for service-related benefits.
It is important to remember that even though the terms of any agreement are at your discretion, any sabbatical leave or career break agreement is still governed by law, such that you cannot include any unreasonable provisions.
Further, the more unreasonable the terms the less likely the take-up, resulting in dissatisfied employees and a wholly unworkable system of sabbatical leave.
DavidsonMorris are experienced employment law and HR specialists. We work with employers to advise on all aspects of workforce management to develop policies and programmes focused on building employee engagement, productivity and morale while controlling costs, minimising legal risk and optimising operational performance.
If you have a question or need advice on any aspect of sabbatical leave or any other area of workforce management, contact us.
Sabbatical leave FAQs
Are you legally entitled to a sabbatical?
There is no law providing the right to take sabbatical leave. However, organisations may offer this type of leave at their discretion.
Is sabbatical leave paid in UK?
Whether sabbatical leave is paid or unpaid will depend on factors such as the organisation’s policy and the type of activity the employee will be undertaking during their time away. For example, if carrying out research, the employee may still be paid while on sabbatical, whereas if the time is being spent travelling and unwinding, it is likely to be unpaid.
How does sabbatical leave work?
Sabbatical leave is an authorised extended period of time away from work.
What is the law on sabbatical leave UK?
There are no statutory provisions in the UK governing sabbatical leave, nor is there a statutory right to take a career break. Employers can offer sabbatical periods at their discretion on terms agreed between the employer and employee.
Last updated: 9 May 2023