Sabbatical benefits go beyond staff retention

Considering the crunch for mid-level PR pros - and the tendency for industry folks to make drastic career moves - it's no surprise that agencies are rewarding employees for sticking around.

Considering the crunch for mid-level PR pros - and the tendency for industry folks to make drastic career moves - it's no surprise that agencies are rewarding employees for sticking around. A retention tool that has become increasingly popular is paid sabbaticals that usually span from one to three months, following five or more years of service.

For agencies, offering a sabbatical can keep people from leaving, especially when they hit mid-career and are reassessing their options. But giving staff so much time off has some unexpected effects, like opening new-business opportunities for other team members and expanding the agency's global reach.

Text 100's three-month sabbatical helps reinforce the agency's high-performing culture, says Shari Roberts, VP of HR. Employees who have worked at the agency for six years can apply, but typically it is the highest-achieving ones who are chosen - and it's not an automatic perk.

"The benefit is really focused on our top-performing individuals," Roberts notes.

The program lets individuals refocus their career, and they often find new pathways within the agency. For example, she notes, one staff member opted to relocate to North America from Asia Pacific following her sabbatical in order to take on a new challenge.

And it also can offer the whole team a chance to develop new skills. Roberts says that when she returned from her own sabbatical, some of her responsibilities had been turned over to others. Losing responsibility can be a frightening consequence of taking time off, Roberts says, but because it is the high-performing individuals who are selected, they easily take on new roles when they return.

"There is always exciting work, and people are always welcome back," she notes.

Not all employees use the time off for travel, but those who do often learn more about the company on their journeys. Roberts says employees often visit Text 100's global offices, strengthening the agency's international role.

Ketchum gives employees a seven-week sabbatical after eight years of service. The firm doesn't impose limitations on selections, but focuses on making sure there is an easy transition. Dan Madia, senior partner at Ketchum, says sabbaticals make employees more apt to take on bigger challenges.

"I'll bet the retention of people who have been on sabbaticals is really good," says Madia. "It does open [people] to taking a few more risks. [After spending time traveling, getting] transferred to London seems easy."

Barbara Vick, senior HR manager at Waggener Edstrom, says the firm's four-week sabbatical, given after six years, can be challenging. Making the reward less disruptive for clients and staff, the agency lets employees break their sabbatical into three-week sections. Even so, she says clients have never complained.

Charlotte Eddy, VP at Bite, recently returned from a six-week sabbatical, after six years of service. She doubts its effectiveness as a retention tool - unless it is a part of a broader package.

"If you were unhappy in your job, I'm not sure that a month-and-half salary would keep you in a job you weren't happy with," she notes.

Key points:

Sabbaticals allow mid-career employees to refocus and recharge without leaving the company

Sabbaticals can give other staff a chance to develop new skills and take on leadership positions

Planning ahead is key so that clients' needs are met with a team member gone

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