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Taking time to unplug and reflect

Some Mississippi companies urge employees to take paid sabbaticals

Most employees in the business world would admit that working 40-plus hours a week for 49-plus weeks a year is a lot of time behind a desk.

So it’s no surprise that professional men and women might imagine all the things they could be doing with their time besides committing the majority of their prime years to the job.

They might, for instance, fantasize about spending a month or three duck hunting, learning to surf, volunteering for a charity, traveling to Europe, enrolling in a graduate course, rescuing wild horses in Montana or doing whatever strikes their fancy.

Now imagine your company allows this, and tells you your job will be waiting for you when you come back.

For a small minority in the corporate world, that’s not just a wistful, pie-in-the-sky dream.

Paid and unpaid sabbaticals have been a part of the corporate culture for decades, offering employees an opportunity to gain perspective and return to work with a stronger commitment to the company.

Roughly 10 percent of large companies offer paid sabbaticals to employees and another 29 percent offer unpaid sabbaticals, according to figures from the Society for Human Resource Management.

Ridgeland law firm Butler Snow has been offering its partners paid three-month sabbaticals for at least the past 25 years, says executive director Lance Bonner.

“It may go back further but it’s a program that we believe in for our partners,” he said.  “The intended purpose of the sabbatical program is for our partners to get totally unplugged, reflect and come back ready to run the race again.”

Butler Snow lawyers who are eligible include those with 15 years of credited service with the firm.  Also eligible are attorneys who may have practiced at other firms — for instance, 10 years of service elsewhere equates to five years of credited service with Butler Snow.

In any one year, the firm has four to five attorneys out on sabbaticals.  

Bonner explains that the sabbatical program not only helps the employee but benefits the firm, as well.  Beside its potential pluses such as helping to prevent burnout and aiding in retention and work/life balance, a sabbatical arrangement can serve a staffing purpose, allowing those not on paid leave to stretch their abilities.

 “It reinforces our culture here at Butler Snow, where we concentrate on the client,” he said.  “Our partners who have been practicing for 15 years get worn down, what with the intense pressure of deadlines and late night meetings.  It gives us a chance to connect our clients with everyone in the firm.  When someone is on sabbatical, they hand off their clients to someone else.”   

At Jackson accounting firm BKD, partners are eligible for a one-month sabbatical every five years.

 “The program is very popular with our partners, but they have to pick a month when things are quiet,” said spokeswoman Kelly Miles.  “Our CPAs start off with four weeks of vacation when they are employed and the sabbatical is a bonus.”

While sabbaticals are usually the province of teachers, lawyers and accountants, one company offers the perk to all employees.

At fast-food giant McDonald’s, employees who reach a 10-year milestone can take a two-month sabbatical and even lengthen the eight-week leave by tacking on up to four weeks of vacation.  Sabbaticals are available to full-time employees in good standing – from corporate executives to managers to cashiers to maintenance workers.

 In addition to refreshing and energizing an employee, sabbaticals also serve as a conduit for workers who might feel they need to change their line of work.

 “I’ve seen lawyers go out on sabbatical and come back to say practicing law is not really what they want to do,” said Bonner.  “If there heart isn’t in it, then the sabbatical gives them a chance to maybe find out what they really want to do.

“But in most cases, they come back with a fresh perspective and that’s good for them and good for Butler Snow.”

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