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Sabbaticals usually involve the employee taking a period of time - over and above normal paid annual leave - away from the workplace. It is usually a single period of extended leave, but may instead comprise short, frequent periods of absence or regular time off - for instance, to work with or support another organisation.

Key points

  • There is no legal obligation on employers to offer employees sabbaticals. 
  • Sabbaticals are often regarded as an important part of an employee's career development, and may be granted for a variety of different reasons including study, research, travel or voluntary work.
  • Offering sabbaticals to senior staff can aid their retention by allowing them scope to try something different with the security of knowing that they can return to work at the end of the time away.
  • Employers who grant sabbaticals usually attach various conditions, both in respect of eligibility for a sabbatical and what happens during and at the end of the sabbatical itself.
  • Sabbaticals are usually available only to employees in senior grades or defined disciplines and to those who have a specified minimum number of years' continuous service with the organisation.
  • It is advisable for employers to make it clear in their sabbaticals policy that the granting of a sabbatical is dependent on (amongst other things) the employer's operational requirements at the relevant time, and that no request can be guaranteed even where an employee meets all the eligibility criteria.
  • Where an employer does grant sabbaticals, it must ensure that part-time employees are afforded the same benefits as equivalent full-time staff - for example, any length of service requirement must be the same as for full-time employees.
  • Rules on sabbaticals must include whether the sabbatical is paid (in full or in part), what happens to the job while the individual is away, and the employee's rights in respect of the return to work.
  • The employer must determine as part of its sabbaticals policy what employment benefits (if any) are to continue during the employee's absence on sabbatical.
  • If pay is not maintained during a sabbatical, the contract of employment is normally regarded as suspended, so that no contractual benefits are due either.
  • An employer who grants a sabbatical usually requires the employee to stay in touch during the period of absence.
  • It is most important that both the employer and the employee agree in advance when and how the employee will return to the workplace.
  • The employer should take particular care to ensure that any guarantee of re-employment is worded clearly and unambiguously in order to avoid any disagreement or challenge at a later date.
  • If the employee continues to be paid during the sabbatical, it has the effect that the contract of employment continues in force, which in turn means that the employee's continuity of service is preserved for statutory purposes.
  • Where a period of sabbatical leave is unpaid (so that the contract of employment does not remain in force), the employee's continuity of service may nevertheless be preserved following his or her return to work, provided the absence was as a result of a prior 'arrangement' or a 'custom'.