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Overview
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'.
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 - eg to work with or support another organisation. An employee who is an accountant may, for example, perform some accountancy work for a small business.
There is no legal obligation on employers to offer employees sabbaticals.
 
Where employers do offer sabbaticals, it is invariably a discretionary benefit granted subject to specified parameters and restrictions.
Sabbaticals are often regarded as an important part of an employee's career development.
 
An employee may wish to take a sabbatical for a variety of reasons. For example, to:
  • undertake a period of study
  • conduct some research
  • travel (usually with a view to broadening the employee's outlook and general knowledge)
  • do voluntary work
  • work for a temporary period in a different type of organisation.
Any employer that considers employees for sabbaticals will have to decide as a matter of policy whether there are any reasons for which a sabbatical will be refused. Another important policy matter will be whether there are other employers and organisations - for instance, competitors - for which the employee will specifically not be allowed to work during the sabbatical.
 
Although sabbaticals can be used to enable employees to better balance their work and family lives, many employers treat breaks for that purpose separately, providing a career break scheme specifically to give working parents more time with their children.
Increasingly, employers are introducing policies on sabbaticals, recognising the potential benefits to the organisation and to their other employees of some time spent away from work during which the employee can focus on different activities.
 
Sabbaticals can be to the benefit of both the employee and the employer. Often they are used as a way of rewarding employees for long service and/or for exemplary work.
 
Benefits to employers
Sabbaticals can aid retention by allowing employees scope to try something different with the security of knowing that they can return to work at the end of the time away. The employer then benefits from an employee who returns with broader experience and skills. In times of downturn, moreover, agreeing a period of sabbatical leave may be an alternative to a redundancy.
 
The opportunity to take a sabbatical may enable the organisation to retain valued employees whom it might otherwise lose. Furthermore, an employee who has been granted a period of sabbatical leave is likely to return to work not only refreshed, but also with an increased sense of loyalty and commitment to the employer.
 
The existence of a policy granting sabbaticals may also improve the organisation's public image and render the employer more attractive to potential job applicants. This may, of course, be of great assistance to the employer in times of skills shortages.
 
Benefits to employees
Sabbaticals may afford employees an opportunity they would not otherwise have - for example, to pursue a course of higher education and thus develop their knowledge and skills in a subject that is of interest to them. A sabbatical may be an opportunity to broaden skills and experience, to try out something different (eg voluntary work) or to travel.
Because no statutory right exists for employees to be granted sabbaticals, no legislation specifically covers this area. This means that the only rules are those in employees' contracts or in a company policy. Employers who grant sabbaticals usually attach various conditions, in respect of both eligibility to apply and of what happens during the sabbatical itself. Conditions relevant to eligibility might include: 
  • sabbaticals are open only to employees in certain grades or disciplines
  • employees must have a minimum number of years' continuous service with the organisation in order to be eligible for sabbatical leave
  • employees must have met certain minimum performance standards in order to be eligible, measurable (for example) by way of performance appraisals over the past three to five years.
It is advisable for employers to make it clear in their policy document that the granting of a sabbatical is also dependent on 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. However, employees should have the opportunity to challenge any decision to refuse a sabbatical.
 
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). Treating part-timers less favourably with respect to entitlement to sabbatical leave would represent a breach of the Part-Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000.
 
Care should also be taken not to impose arbitrary conditions that could inadvertently discriminate against a particular group of employees. For example, an upper or lower age limit on eligibility would be contrary to the Equality Act 2010 and would be unlawful unless the employer could provide objective justification for applying it. It is recommended therefore that no age criterion should be applied.
 
Technically it is indirectly age-discriminatory for an employer to apply a length of service criterion in respect of eligibility for sabbatical leave, because that might discriminate against younger staff who are less likely to have long service. However, the Equality Act 2010 provides that any length of service criterion of five years or less applied in respect of an employee benefit is automatically permitted without the need for the employer to justify it. Where the length of service criterion is longer than five years, it must be justified. To make this case, the employer must reasonably believe and be able to demonstrate that the length of service provision fulfils a defined business need.
A sabbatical can be of any length, although breaks are typically between four weeks and one year. Because there are no statutory provisions governing the granting of sabbaticals, the minimum and/or maximum duration and any restrictions on timing are up to each individual employer to determine.
 
Although it is good practice to set out in a policy the general conditions under which the employer will grant a sabbatical, it may be advisable to make the length and timing of any sabbatical subject to the employer's discretion at the time the sabbatical is requested.
The rules applicable during an employee's sabbatical leave depend on the terms of the employer's policy on sabbatical leave. The rules must include whether the sabbatical is paid, what (if any) fringe benefits will apply, and what happens to the job while the individual is away.
 
Employers who grant sabbaticals usually attach conditions in respect of what happens during the sabbatical itself. Such conditions might include that the:
  • sabbatical must be for no more than a defined period of time - for example, one year
  • sabbatical may be taken only in one block, or alternatively that several defined shorter periods of time within an overall time-span may be taken
  • employee must keep in touch with his or her manager during the absence at defined intervals
  • employee must do some work for the employer during the period of the sabbatical, and the nature and timing of such work
  • employee may not work for another employer without the current employer's express consent
  • employee must give a minimum period of notice prior to the proposed return date if the date has not been expressly agreed in advance.
The employer need not pay the employee while he or she is absent unless the employee's contract stipulates a right to payment.
 
The employer may, however, at its discretion, elect to pay the employee full or partial salary while the employee is away from work. This is often considered appropriate in circumstances where it can be shown that the activities the employee will undertake during the break will be of direct benefit to the organisation as well as to the employee personally. An example of this might be when an employee intends to undertake a full-time course of study that is directly relevant to his or her career with the organisation.
 
The employer need not pay the employee while he or she is absent unless the employee's contract stipulates a right to payment.
 
If the sabbatical is for the purpose of seconding an employee to another organisation, there will be an implied right for the employee to be paid. In this case, the employer will have to discuss the matter with the organisation to which the employee is to be seconded in order to agree arrangements that are satisfactory to all parties.
 
If pay is maintained during the employee's absence, the employer would be entitled to set down conditions that the employee must meet - for example, that the employee must produce written reports of his or her activities at defined intervals during the period of leave.
The employer must determine, as part of its policy on sabbaticals, what employment benefits (if any) the employee will continue to receive during the sabbatical.
 
If pay is not maintained, the contract of employment would normally be regarded as suspended, so that no contractual benefits would be due either.
 
If, however, the employer continues to pay the employee the whole or part of his or her salary during the sabbatical, the contract of employment remains in force - so it is important that the employer's policy defines clearly what contractual terms and benefits will, and will not, continue to apply during the period of leave. In particular, the employer will have to decide:
  • how the sabbatical will affect the employee's entitlement to employment benefits in the longer term - ie whether the period of absence will be counted or discounted in respect of any contractual benefits that are dependent on length of service
  • whether to continue perks such as the use of a company car, paid telephone bills, the provision of a laptop or other equipment, etc
  • how any occupational pension benefits will be affected. 
If the employee is paid full or part-salary whilst absent on sabbatical leave, statutory annual holidays will continue to accrue in the usual way. The employer should therefore make arrangements with the employee, preferably before the sabbatical begins, as to when that holiday leave is to be taken.
An employer who grants a sabbatical usually requires the employee to stay in touch during the period of leave.
 
From the employee's perspective, regular contact provides evidence of the employer's on-going interest in retaining the skills and expertise of the individual, and, from the employer's perspective, the interest of the individual in eventually returning to work will be paramount. Staying in touch helps to maintain an employee's confidence, skills and knowledge, and by so doing will ease his or her subsequent return to work.
The employer and the employee must agree when and how the employee will return to the workplace, especially if the sabbatical is to be several months in duration.
 
Employers who grant sabbaticals must decide whether to:
  • guarantee that the employee will be reinstated at the end of the sabbatical in the same job as before, or
  • guarantee that the employee will be re-engaged in a job of equivalent status and on terms no less favourable than those that would have applied had the employee not taken the sabbatical, or
  • stipulate that re-employment in the same job or an equivalent job cannot be guaranteed, but that the employer will do its best to offer the employee a suitable position that will make appropriate use of his or her skills and experience as and when a vacancy arises. If this is the case, the employer may wish to introduce a 'retainer scheme' which places employees on a waiting list until a suitable vacancy arises.
The employer should take 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.
 
The employer will also have to decide what will happen if no work is available or if the employee's job has become redundant - for example, due to a restructuring or downturn in the business.
If the employee continues to be paid during the sabbatical (whether in full or partially), it is clear that the contract of employment likewise continues in force, which means that the employee's continuity of service is preserved for statutory purposes.
 
Under the Employment Rights Act 1996 Section 212(3)(c) any week during which an employee is absent from work 'by arrangement' or as a result of a 'custom' will count in computing the employee's period of continuous employment. The effect of this provision is that an employee's continuity of employment can be preserved during a period of absence from work during which the contract is not in force. There is no stated maximum period of time during which an employee may be absent by arrangement or custom and still maintain continuity of employment.
 
If, however, the statutory rules are not complied with, there will be no continuity (see Curr v Marks and Spencer [2003]). Nevertheless, where an employer and an employee agree jointly in advance that the employee will take a sabbatical, and that the employee's job will be held open for him or her, this agreement may represent an 'arrangement' under these provisions. So long as the arrangement is made prior to the commencement of the period of leave, continuity of employment will be preserved on the employee's return to work.
 
An employee who goes on a sabbatical is not redundant because the job will continue to exist and someone else may have been appointed to replace him or her on a temporary basis for the period of time absent. So there is, in consequence, no entitlement for the employee to claim a redundancy payment.

I am an HR Manager in a small business employing 30 staff. Our team leader has asked if he can have a six month sabbatical to visit family in Australia. We have agreed in principle because of his personal circumstances – his daughter has just had a baby and he has not seen her for four years. However, we will need to replace him in his absence and because of the specialist nature of the role it would be with another member of staff. The member of staff we have in mind is keen to develop and we feel it would be difficult for her to step down again on his return. How should we proceed?

There is no statutory right for employees to be granted sabbaticals and no legislation specifically covering this area. The only rules governing sabbaticals are those contained within your company policy or employees’ contracts. It is therefore open for you to set the conditions on which the sabbatical is being granted and when and how the employee will return. You are therefore able to stipulate that re-employment in the same job cannot be guaranteed. However, you must agree this with the employee before they go on sabbatical.
 
It is also important to make it clear to the member of staff taking on the role in his absence what the position is - if she is going to be covering the role until he comes back then you should make that clear and discuss what the means for her on his return. If she is going to take on the role on a permanent basis you will need to ensure she has the required development to manage his return, particularly if he will be working directly for her.

I am an HR Business Partner with a medium sized business with offices across the UK. We don’t have a policy on sabbaticals but it was agreed three months ago that one of our long serving staff – she has been with us for 20 years – could have a six month paid sabbatical in order to travel. She has contacted me to say she is 16 weeks pregnant and wants to start her maternity leave immediately at the end of her sabbatical when she will be 29 weeks pregnant. She has given me her EWC and her calculations seem to be accurate. Do we have to agree to this?

As you agreed to pay your employee during her sabbatical her contract of employment is still in force. Whether contractual terms and benefits remain in force is something that should be covered in an employer’s policy on sabbaticals. As you do not have a policy in place it would be reasonable for the employee to assume that these terms and benefits will continue unless you have specifically stated otherwise. Her continuity of service would remain and she would therefore retain her right to maternity leave which is a day one right and entitlement to SMP as she will have 26 weeks’ continuous service at the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth. A pregnant employee is required to notify her employer of her intention to take maternity leave by the end of the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth which she has done. She must comply with the other notification requirements (for example to provide you with her MAT B1 form) but as long as this is the case she would be entitled to start her maternity leave as requested.

We have an employee on sabbatical in accordance with our policy of offering unpaid sabbaticals of up to three months to members of staff who have been with us for 10 years. We now have a redundancy situation within the department this employee works as we lost a key client and the work of the department has now diminished. It is a small department of six staff. We need to reduce headcount by two and would like one of those people to be the person on sabbatical as we have not covered his role for the last month and we have found that the team have managed well without him and productivity has not dipped. We would like to write to him to say he is redundant at the end of his sabbatical – can we do this?

If pay is not maintained during a sabbatical the contract of employment would normally be regarded as suspended however under the Employment Rights Act 1996 Section 212(3)(c) any week during which an employee is absent from work ‘by arrangement’ or as a result of a ‘custom’ will count in computing the employee’s period of continuous employment. You can make your employee redundant but even though he is on an unpaid sabbatical you are required to consult with him as an affected individual and to treat him in the same way as you would treat employees not on sabbatical. The consultation carried out with the individual needs to be ‘adequate’ if any subsequent dismissal is not to be unfair. This would mean warning at an early stage that the job may be redundant, consultation on selection for redundancy and opportunity to appeal, discussion on possible alternative employment. King v Eaton (1996) clarified requirements on individual consultation by creating the following test: Was the employee ‘given a fair and proper opportunity to understand the matters that are subject to consultation, express a view and have that view properly considered?’. You must ensure that you follow these requirements with regards to consulting the employee on sabbatical.