Workers Take Leave of Job Stress

Article excerpt

Mention the word sabbatical and most people think of teachers. Hailed as an opportunity for faculty members to renew their classroom-worn vigor, these leaves of absence were often used to attract people to a profession known for dubious financial rewards.

Today, what was once considered useful for teachers is reaping benefits for layers, consultants and techies alike as a owing number of companies experiment with workplace sabbatical programs--lengthy leaves of absence that often include full pay and benefits. Companies employ these programs as a way to deal with employee burnout and morale problems. Some even use them to ease the pain of downsizing, or to enable employees to participate in community service projects. Most often overseen by human resources departments, sabbaticals benefit both employees and employers. Workers get a break from job stress; their employers get rejuvenated employees.

"Companies are beginning to view sabbaticals as another dimension to workforce flexibility--to satisfy downsizing and redeployment objectives, and to address a need for more balance in the work and personal lives of their employees," writes Helen Axel in her special report, "Redefining Corporate Sabbaticals for the 1990's," a Conference Board publication. "Some see them as opportunities for personal growth and career development," Axel continues. "Other firms are attracted to sabbaticals because they meet social or cultural interests of the organization. To still others, they're part of a 'kit of tools' to compete in the marketplace for people with skills they need and want."

Diana Reace, manager of Hewitt Research Group, a research arm of Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Hewitt Corp., has studied workplace sabbaticals in detail. "There are many different kinds of sabbaticals," she says. "The major reasons for them are reducing job burnout, avoiding technical obsolescence, rewarding longevity on the job and use as a carrot to retain senior employees. They also make people feel better about their jobs, and help employers compete for employees."

SABBATICALS OFFER WORKERS R&R. Workplace stress is the most often cited reason for companies to adopt sabbatical programs. Disability due to stress costs the nation an estimated $75 billion annually, according to Palo Alto, California-based stress-management specialist, Sharon Kufeldt. Because few companies are immune to stress-related disabilities, many are looking at sabbaticals as an answer.

This is particularly true among the high-tech colossi of the Silicon Valley. Workplace sabbaticals here date back to the early 1970s and are seen as necessary relief from the turbulent grind of corporate high-tech. "The intent behind our sabbatical program was to recognize that employees are more productive if they're given a chance to periodically recharge their batteries while focusing on personal priorities," says Betsy Lamb, director of compensation and benefits for Cupertino, California-based Tandem Computers Inc. "They actually come back refreshed and ready to go."

This philosophy, Lamb points out, is typical of Silicon Valley firms. "The cornerstone of Silicon Valley high-tech companies is the need to be creative. They need to offer employees a chance to focus on personal goals to stay creative."

Tandem employees are eligible for sabbaticals after four years of continuous service. The policy allows employees six weeks' leave with full pay and benefits. Even part-timers, who work 20-hour weeks, are eligible, and receive their normal part-time pay.

Another high-tech Silicon Valley company, Apple Computer Inc., also based in Cupertino, offers its employees a similar sabbatical program. Under its terms, employees are allowed six weeks of paid leave every five years.

But the computer industry isn't alone in using sabbaticals to combat stress. Major law firms, consulting practices and other high-stress industries also offer the programs to counter the job burnout problem. …