Working constantly without breaks can be difficult and the pressures of work can lead to burnout. On top of this, employees may need time away from work to deal with personal issues or problems with their family. Workplace sabbaticals are there to help when these situations occur.
But what exactly are sabbaticals and what does the law say about them?
In this article we will look to answer these questions and many more.
What is a sabbatical from work?
Sabbaticals are periods of paid or unpaid time away from work which are agreed between the employer and employee. They are often referred to as a career break or even just unpaid leave.
Historically sabbaticals have been a benefit for employees. They are agreed for a variety of reasons including:
- Rewarding long service
- For the employee to travel
- For the employee to research or acquire new skills
- So the employee can complete voluntary work
- To alleviate stress and burn out or to take care of health.
In current times the motivation behind sabbaticals may be more for the employer’s benefit to provide alternatives to redundancy.
What is the difference between unpaid leave and a career break?
Sabbaticals are sometimes referred to interchangeably with the terms career breaks or unpaid leave. While they all have similar meanings, there are slight differences between them.
Unpaid leave is an umbrella term covering all types of leave without pay. This includes both authorised and unauthorised unpaid leave and may include the following:
- Time off for an emergency involving a dependant
- Unpaid parental leave
- Time off work for certain public duties
- Jury service
- Doctor’s or dentist’s appointments
- Compassionate and bereavement leave
- Reservist duties (although some financial assistance may be available)
Unpaid leave generally applies to shorter periods of time than career breaks and, as with sabbaticals, the contract usually stays in place.
Career breaks describe longer periods of unpaid leave, during which the employment contract is usually discontinued. Like sabbaticals, the term ‘career break’ has no particular legal meaning.
Some employers may require employees to resign to begin a career break but may agree to re-employ them on their return. In other cases, continuity of employment will be preserved for example when an employer agrees a six-month break to reward an employee for long service.
Career break periods will not normally count towards years’ service under a pension scheme.
Sabbaticals are similar to career breaks but are often for shorter periods and, unlike career breaks, the contract usually continues.
They are often unpaid but can be fully or partly paid by agreeing a percentage of normal salary.
After sabbaticals employees normally return to the same job or a similar one.
Do employees have a statutory right to a sabbatical or a career break?
There is no statutory right to take a career break or sabbatical, but many larger employers or those in the public sector (for example education) may offer such breaks, at their discretion.
What does the law say about sabbaticals?
There are no specific employment laws governing sabbaticals in the UK, although the right to request flexible working hours may be used by employees to seek a variety of working arrangements including a sabbatical.
In some other countries there are specific regulations, for example, guaranteeing sabbaticals after a number of years’ service.
Due to the lack of regulation here, the legal position is mainly covered by the law of contract.
Flexible working requests for sabbaticals
All employees have a right to make a flexible working request if they have:
- Worked for the employer for at least 26 weeks; and have
- Not made any other flexible working request in the last 12 months.
The request process can cover a range of working arrangements, for example reducing or changing working hours, job sharing and longer career breaks or taking a sabbatical.
If an employer receives a flexible working request that involves an employee taking a sabbatical, it is important they consider the request fairly and follow the ACAS Code of Practice on flexible working requests. Failure to do so can lead to claims of discrimination.
What happens to an employment contract during sabbaticals?
A key legal issue for employers to address is what happens to the employment during an employee’s sabbatical.
If the sabbatical is paid, usually the contract remains in force, which means that the employee’s continuity of service is preserved.
During unpaid sabbaticals the contract of employment often does not remain in force. However, the employee’s continuity of service may be preserved provided the employer and employee agree that this is the case.
As an employer should I have a sabbatical policy?
It’s important for businesses to have a clear and fairly administered sabbatical and career break policy that sets out:
- Continuity of service.
- What happens on the employee’s return. Are they reinstated or given an equivalent role?
- What happens if there isn’t a role for the employee to return to.
- Limitations on the employees’ activities whilst on sabbatical. This may mean a blanket ban on working elsewhere.
- What happens to annual Leave.
- What happens to pay and other benefits.
What should employers do if an employee decides not to return from their sabbatical?
If employees fail to return, the employer can simply accept this or treat it as an unauthorised absence in line with the disciplinary policy. In practice, there is little employers can do to force a reluctant employee to return although they can dismiss them after the required policies have been followed.
Can an employee be made redundant whilst on sabbatical?
Employees on sabbatical who are still employed by the company can be included for selection for redundancy.
Sabbaticals and career breaks offer staff flexibility when dealing with personal/family issues or health problems, but they can be difficult to understand. We hope you have enjoyed our guide and feel better informed on the topic.
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