CXO

Why more tech workers should take sabbaticals

Sabbaticals can be a chance to recharge and prevent burnout, and more companies are starting to offer them. Here's why tech workers should take advantage.

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Image: iStock/gpointstudio

In 2016, researcher Statistic Brain reported that 48% of Americans said that stress was having a negative effect on their personal and professional lives, 31% said they were having difficulty managing the responsibilities their professional and personal lives, and 30% said they are under constant stress at work. The researcher projected a cost of $300 billion annually for companies that was due to employee stress.

Employers are not unaware of these on-the-job stress factors that can ultimately lead to burnout. Some offer stress management and burnout prevention programs and others have reintegration programs that offer reduced hours and coaching.

But there is yet another approach to burnout management and even prevention that has historically been practiced in academia, and that companies are now entertaining: the idea of offering employees (including managers) a sabbatical away from work so they can "get away" altogether and do something else.

Zillow, an online real estate company, has adopted the approach with a sabbatical program that offers employees who have been with the company at least six years the opportunity to take a six-week sabbatical at half salary and full health benefits.

The intent is to give employees a chance to recharge.

"We want to create an environment where people have a life outside of work and can see themselves being here many years," said Amy Bohutinsky, Zillow Group's chief operating officer, in an interview with CNN Money.

Bohutinsky said the intent of the program is to help employees clear their minds and to come back to work with fresh approaches.

Other companies, as well, have joined the sabbatical movement. Accenture, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Adobe, AMD, American Express, Autodesk, Charles Schwab, Deloitte, General Mills, Hallmark, Intel, Proctor and Gamble, McDonalds and REI are among them.

What role should managers play in all of this?

Advocate for sabbaticals

There are many forward-thinking companies that already offer sabbaticals. Some of these companies might even be head to head competitors with your own company. With more employees looking to find a balance between their personal and professional lives, offering a sabbatical can be a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting top talent.

If your company offers a sabbatical program and you qualify for it, seriously consider taking one!

A sabbatical is great way to rebalance yourself, get away from work for awhile and come back with fresh ideas, especially if you have been under constant project pressures over a period of years. As a manager, you are also the one who leads your staff by example. If your staff doesn't see you taking a sabbatical or at least encouraging others to do so, it is less likely to feel that taking one is an appropriate thing to do.

Encourage your staff to take sabbaticals

When I was managing workgroups in Europe a number of years ago, I was struck by the fact that although they worked shorter work weeks and took longer vacations, they were more productive than the employees in my American offices. Yet, surveys conducted by The Creative Group showed that 72% of senior managers and 56% of American employees wouldn't use any more vacation than they already do—even if they were offered unlimited vacation days by their companies.

"The fact is, the work still has to get done," said Creative Group executive director Diane Domeyer in an interview with Fortune. "For many people, just the thought of being out of the office can be stressful."

If your company doesn't offer sabbaticals, be on the watch for telltale signs of burnout—in yourself and in those who work for you.

These signs can range from physical illness and anxiety to insomnia, depression and forgetfulness. When you spot them, a mini-retreat vacation, taking stock of your priorities, and checking into your time management habits can help.

Taking a break from work, like a long weekend, is one way that employees and their managers can use to counteract burnout. Another tactic is to move an employee to a less stressful assignment, or to transfer an employee to a new area of work where he/she can get away from older pressures and start fresh. Still another tactic is to develop staff "bench strength" so that project stresses don't continuously fall on the same group of people. Finally, it helps to have fun and relaxation at work! An occasional pizza party, an onsite exercise workout room, or even a quiet sanctuary where employees can meditate or relax their minds, all contribute.

A last word about sabbaticals

Five years ago, only 4% of American companies offered sabbaticals, and the reality is, many smaller and mid-sized companies simply don't have the bench strength to offer them. Then there are companies like Intel that are at the other end of the spectrum and that require employees to take a sabbatical after three years of eligibility to do so.

What is exciting is that sabbaticals are starting to make their way onto emerging HR trend lists for progressive companies—and they can, indeed, be transformational.

Just ask Gerda Slagter, a 16-year employee at SAP, who participated in the company's social sabbatical program for global engagement in Colombia with Fundacion Proyectar Sin Fronteras (PSF), a non-profit organization that offers financial and social support to disadvantaged people, and helps them become self-sufficient.

"I learned that I'm capable of achieving a lot more than I thought," said Slagter, in an article on the company's website. When she got back, she ended up leaving HR and accept another position within the company as a customer engagement executive."Working at PSF boosted my self-confidence so much that I really felt ready to take on this new role."

Also see:
How to ensure employees take leave: 7 tips from the experts
French email law requiring employees to disconnect after work goes into effect
8 practical ways to make your tech job less stressful
How having fun at work can make employees more productive

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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