Helping Employees Return to Work After a Sabbatical or Career Break

Ross Brooks
Helping Employees Return to Work After a Sabbatical or Career Break
Historically, the sabbatical (so-called because they typically happened every seven years) was for academic study time only. However in 1977, McDonald’s started the first corporate sabbatical programme – and now 17% of American employers offer one. The modern-day sabbatical tends to have one of three aims: professional development, time in a different role, or a well-earned extended holiday.
 
By definition, a sabbatical is a designated period away from work, paid or unpaid, in which the employee has a complete break from the organisation. Sabbaticals are regarded as a generous perk, but they’re increasingly becoming much more common. It’s easy to see why – it’s a popular way of retaining long-serving employees or attracting new recruits. Time out, or a clean break, also has a positive effect on mental wellbeing. A sabbatical could help your employees avoid stress or burnout. Even in a low-stress role, taking a break after a few years can give people the mental space to think about how they want their career to develop and what they can to do make that happen on their return.
We all know how hard it can be to go back to work after a two-week break, so the prospect of returning to the routine of a 9-6 job after a few months or half a year might be daunting. That being said, there’s no doubt it’s beneficial. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest returnees are positive and reinvigorated and can be a great asset to their organisation.

Post-Sabbatical Shock

First up, do some groundwork, as sabbaticals are not covered in employment law. Acas advises creating a policy of your own. Done right, there are a number of ways that a sabbatical can benefit the business. For example, you can provide interim cover by means of a job enrichment or job rotation schemes, which can contribute to the development of other people within the organisation. A recent report called Creative Disruption highlighted a number of other benefits that happen as the result of executives taking a sabbatical. Some of which include:
  • An increase in organisational capacity as the second tier of leadership takes on new responsibilities
  • Executives coming back to work with a fresh vision and innovative ideas – they also tend to extend their tenure with the organisation
  • Stronger governance as a result of the planning and learning that happens as part of the sabbatical process
 
Regardless of who is taking a sabbatical, it’s important to ease people back into their role. One way of doing this is to have their line manager keep a running tab of any changes that will affect them while they’re away. It might be as simple as going for a coffee before their first day back, or a more in-depth re-orientation process that highlights any significant changes that have happened within the organisation. Social activities are also a good way to re-engage them. Organise an informal get-together with the individual’s immediate team, such as lunch or meeting up after work, and let everyone in the organisation know when they’re returning so they get a good welcome back.
 
Employees on parental leave often have ‘keeping in touch days’ towards their return to work, when they spend some time in the office. Depending on the reasons for leave, it’s a good idea to implement something similar for sabbatical colleagues. Staying in touch helps the employee feel like they’re still one of the team. Communication platforms like Slack make it easy to check in as often or little as they wish – and let them share the odd photo if they’re travelling or on maternity leave. Even just sending a mass email every now and then can help the employee feel they’re still part of the company.

Getting Back to Work

It might seem to you as though nothing has changed, but to your newly returning employee, it might all seem a bit overwhelming. Even if they seem recharged and enthused, remember this is still a transition and should be managed calmly. It’s natural to want to update them on everything immediately, but take the time they need. Let them relax back into their role and have a handover period with the interim cover. If they have a new manager or new team members, they’ll need to spend time getting to know them.
 
Bear in mind that in certain fast-paced organisations (financial, research-based, legal, advertising), employees who have been away for several months will need to catch up with advances and changes. You may need to devise a structured retraining programme to bring them back up to speed quickly, taking care not to overload them with too much new information all at once they won’t retain. If you use a 30-60-90 plan for your new starters, you could adapt this for your returning colleague, ensuring a well thought-out and gradual transition.

Keep the Momentum Going

The Creative Disruption report found that those returning from a career break are highly motivated. 87% of those interviewed reported feeling more confident about their work and 75% said they had a clearer vision for their organisation. So, the role of the employer is less one of having to re-motivate and more about maintaining that high level of enthusiasm and engagement.
 
Listen to your employee’s ideas. If they have been at another organisation or undertaking voluntary work, give them the opportunity to share their experiences with the team. A Q&A session, a paper, a presentation or a blog post will help them communicate their experiences and lets other employees see the benefits of the scheme.
 
In their paper Sabbaticals and Employee Motivation: Benefits, Concerns, and Implications, Andrew Carr and Thomas Le-Ping Tang recommend that the employee “continues useful habits or projects begun during their break”. Think about how they can use their new skills. There might be a project they can lead based on their learning. If you run a sabbatical scheme, have you received any feedback from employees on how they found the reintegration process? If not – ask them, they might be able to give you some innovative suggestions.
 
Once they’re settled in again, you can harness their rejuvenated creativity and energy. Have a new goal-setting conversation and think about exciting new endeavours to engage them with. It can also be a great opportunity for the team to refresh any ways of working or processes they think could change. If handled well, a sabbatical can ultimately be thoroughly worthwhile for the whole organisation.

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