Sabbaticals as retention tool for top leaders on the rise
South African companies are increasingly offering top executives paid sabbaticals as part of their remuneration packages, in an effort to lure and retain top talent.
“In the past, sabbaticals – or the request for one – were frowned upon and were rare outside of academic circles. However as a younger generation of leaders start filling the higher echelons, companies are recognising that financial incentives are not the only answer to keeping their leaders happy,” says Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, CEO of Jack Hammer, which is rated as one of South Africa’s top 3 executive search firms.
She says that although companies now increasingly and pro-actively start including tenure-linked sabbaticals in contracts, they also often arise in response to attempted resignations.
“We see this a lot with younger executives who have been ‘on the treadmill’ since the day they started university. They’ve endured years of intense pressure to excel at their studies, while also working during vacations and then immediately getting the best job they can after graduation.
“These driven, ambitious young people then start pulling out incredibly long hours to prove themselves. Fast forward a decade or two, and they reach burnout point typically in their mid-30s to early 40s. It is at this stage where we’re seeing companies consider the offer of a paid sabbatical, or risk losing a high-performing member of their organisation.”
Goodman-Bhyat says in the past when executives reached burnout mid-career, they would simply soldier on, accepting pay-raises and promotions despite the ongoing toll on their personal wellbeing and overall job and life satisfaction. But as people are now generally more aware of the importance of work-life balance, more money is no longer the motivation that it used to be.
Best-selling author Daniel Pink, who unpacks motivation and rewards in his renowned book ‘Drive’, notes that a key factor to enhanced professional performance is autonomy and the ability to direct one’s own life. Even billionaire Johann Rupert, before taking a sabbatical, said that he just wanted to be “master of my own time for a while”.
“South African companies are picking up on this global trend of affirming the value that a break from work provides, and exploring creative ways of ensuring leaders stay on board,” says Goodman-Bhyat.
These days, one doesn’t have to look too far to find great examples of international companies including sabbaticals as part of employee packages:
- Morgan Stanley recently announced that newly-promoted vice presidents will receive paid sabbaticals.
- Law firms routinely offer them to partners after a number of years of service.
- At software company Adobe, employees are entitled to a sabbatical for every five years of service.
- Australian enterprise software company Atlassian, voted one of the best places to work in the world, has a programme called Vacay your way – a benefit that gives each exempt employee the flexibility to choose the amount of paid time off that they need.
“Particularly in innovative ‘new-age’ companies who are focusing on attracting and retaining Gen Ys, long service may be rewarded with a paid sabbatical. Often, the alternative for these people is to resign and travel or pursue personal ambitions rather than staying on. With sabbaticals, companies can now ensure that instead of losing a valuable member of the team, the person will return with renewed vigour to drive business forward,” notes Goodman-Bhyat.
But she warns that the potential downside of taking a sabbatical also needs to be considered before throwing caution to the wind.
“You could come back to find that your services are no longer needed, or that your priorities have changed and that you are no longer motivated to work in your prior role, or for your employer. It’s also possible that the landscape in the company may have changed or that your boss and teammates have moved on.
“But if you are able to acknowledge and accept that nothing stays the same, and just as you are taking time out to refresh and energise, things won’t stand still for you while you are away, a sabbatical is a great tool not just for you but also for the company.”