The Benefits of Taking a [Sabbatical] Break

The Benefits of Taking a [Sabbatical] Break

Ever wish you could take some time off from your job? Not just a vacation but a significant, life-resetting break? Lacey Partipilo, a Senior HR Business Partner at Xenium, knows the feeling. In fact, she just returned from a lengthy sabbatical after 10 years at Xenium. She joins us to discuss how she planned her sabbatical, why it’s such a unique benefit for employees, and why it’s great for employers too.

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Brandon Laws: I bet people are going to be pretty excited to hear your voice, Lacey. It’s good to have you back.

Lacey Partipilo: It’s good to be back.

Brandon: You’re fresh off of a sabbatical.

Lacey: Yes.

Brandon: So you were gone for a month.

Lacey: I was –

Brandon: It’s a long time.

Lacey: Got out of Dodge. Yeah.

Brandon: I can’t believe we let you go for that long. [laughing]

Lacey: I know.

Brandon: It’s crazy.

Lacey: I know.

Brandon: I will give some context. We have a benefit here at Xenium. When you hit ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, twenty-five years – once you hit ten, you get like a month off. Then at 15, I think you get a trip to Hawaii or something like that. I’m probably butchering this. But we have a benefit in place around sabbaticals.

Lacey: We do.

Brandon: Lacey hit her 10 years and I’m jealous, but I’m almost there.

Lacey: You’re almost there.

Brandon: I’m almost there. I’m at nine years and I will have mine next year. So we will talk about that when the time comes. But Lacey was out for a month recently. I want to know what that was like.

Lacey: Oh, it was amazing.

Brandon: What did you do?

Lacey: So I decided – most of the people that have hit this mile marker, usually they take time off in the summer.

Brandon: Yeah, in December.

Lacey: Yeah. Well, yeah, and I took mine in December.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: So I’m sort of the weird one.

Brandon: People probably thought you were crazy.

Lacey: I think it was the right thing to do, at least for me and for my family. So I really wanted that time to be a time to recharge myself end of the year going into the New Year. It’s always kind of a good time to do that. I also selfishly wanted a little time to myself. So I think we’ve talked to the listeners that I have a daughter. So she is in second grade.

So I knew that by taking time off in December, there would be a couple of weeks where she would be in school. Then we would get a couple of weeks, her and I together. So I kind of selfishly planned it that way, so that I could recharge my batteries. This job, we give a lot to other people and wanted to take some time to take care of me.

So that was sort of the intentional reason. Plus it’s the holidays and just the bustle of all of that. It was just really nice to be able to enjoy all those moments that I would try to normally just cram into the free time I have.

Brandon: I think that’s – especially in service, right? You feel like you’re always connected because you’re serving your clients and you love doing it.

Lacey: I do.

Brandon: But you feel like there’s probably a bleed between work and life and there’s the balance.

Lacey: Absolutely.

Brandon: It’s probably out of whack. Did you truly disconnect on your sabbatical?

Lacey: I did.

Brandon: What was that like?

Lacey: Oh my goodness. Everyone, leading up to it, kept saying, “We’re really nervous that you’re not going to be able to disconnect,” because so often when I go on PTO, a long weekend or even a week-off, which I don’t normally take full weeks off – I’m still checking email.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: It’s a digital world. We’re so connected with our phones. I just carry one phone because carrying two just got to be too much.

Brandon: I agree with that.

Lacey: But what’s funny is that Friday afternoon that I – you know, my last day.

Brandon: The day before, yeah.

Lacey: Yeah. Five o’clock, like I was done. I did not respond to – except for one email and it was an internal email here at Xenium, not a client email.

I felt so confident and maybe we will talk some about prepping for that type of thing. But I just felt so confident that my clients were taken care of. We have got a great team here and I knew I was backed up and my clients were just so adamant with me, saying, “We don’t want you responding. You’ve taken good care of us. So we will survive four weeks without you.”

Brandon: Yeah. I have so many questions running through my head. I do want to start at the very beginning, the planning, all that stuff. But I do want to talk real quick at the high level, the purpose of having a sabbatical.

Lacey: Sure.

Brandon: A lot of employers probably use it as a benefit to show – say thanks for the loyalty, use it as a retention strategy, all of those things. How do you see that fit? I mean you just experienced it. Was it – as an employee, did you see that as a nice benefit?

Lacey: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean it was something to look forward to. I was definitely – at about seven years – I feel like I was counting down.

Brandon: Like you’re ready for it.

Lacey: The first part getting halfway there felt like it took a really long time. And then maybe the last half, that seemed a little bit quicker. But, yeah, definitely I feel like I was rewarded and I – for me, I kind of tied it to hard work too because we work really hard and give a lot. So just a way to be respectful of our time. And the cool thing is, in addition to the sabbatical, you still get your normal PTO. So it wasn’t like I had to not take other vacations throughout last year.

I still was able to take time off as I needed to. Yeah, I definitely felt like it was a reward for hanging in there for 10 years and the clients that I have that offer these programs, it definitely is a way to reward loyalty and retention.

Brandon: Let’s talk about our program and the way it works and I’m not even privy to – you’re more on the HR side and you just experienced it. So you get your sabbatical. You get a month off. And this is in addition to what you already have for PTO.

So anything you’ve accrued from a PTO standpoint, you still keep. The sabbatical is an addition. So do you – I mean your wages stay the same. Everything stays the same.

Lacey: Everything is the same. Everything is the same, yeah.

Brandon: It’s just like the sabbatical on top of that.

Lacey: It’s just your normal paycheck that you would get and you’re not working. So your PTO, you continue to accrue PTO. We have an accrual policy. So it drops in every pay period. So those drop-ins still occurred while I was off.

Brandon: How are holidays handled? So I was thinking about this last night. So if I took mine in December and have a Christmas holiday, am I just sort of giving those away because I’m taking a sabbatical during the month? That’s how it is.

Lacey: I thought about that. It’s not – I didn’t experience anything in addition to – I think that’s sort of – I don’t know, maybe the flipside, because it is a really busy time here too. So I kind of took it as, “You know what? I kind of …”

Brandon: It’s a bonus, yeah.

Lacey: Checked out during open enrollment, new clients.

Brandon: Yeah, the hardest time.

Lacey: That put some pressure on my team. So it really wasn’t a big deal. We also get the floating holidays. So I ended up taking my floating holiday the day after Thanksgiving anyway.

Brandon: Perfect.

Lacey: So it worked out fine.

Brandon: So you just – all you missed was Christmas really.

Lacey: Right.

Brandon: Yeah. So if you’re in sales, do you accrue commissions? I’m curious what employers typically would do with the sabbatical that’s like you have all this time off in addition to what you accrue from the PTO – does it throw a wrinkle into your normal wages?

Lacey: It shouldn’t. I mean the purpose of it is for it to be an incentive, right? So it doesn’t incentivize someone to take something away, especially something that is sort of baked into just their normal wages. Commission would be a good example of that. So if I were in sales and getting that, I would expect to be getting my commission.

Brandon: Yeah. The only difference is like – I was thinking – so my father who works in like a production environment, with a union, hourly employee with lots of overtime. He hates taking vacation because his base hourly salary is really low compared to all the money he makes in overtime.

So that’s the only time where I would see a sabbatical or taking extended time off would not be to your advantage.

Lacey: I think a workaround that an employer who wanted to offer an incentive program like this to a non-exempt employee, you could look at what their average wages are in a month.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: And pay it to them that way.

Brandon: That’s good.

Lacey: So that there isn’t this – because that would be demotivating I think.

Brandon: Yeah, for sure.

Lacey: My husband is an hourly employee and we joke about this too. It’s like it’s great to have a holiday in the middle of the week. But then even if you’re working long days, it’s not overtime because overtime is based on hours worked, not hours earned. So a workaround would be to look at the average pay – you know, calculating in what somebody approximately earns for over time.

Brandon: So when you see employers offering the sabbatical, what are the increments of time that you see typically?

Lacey: I haven’t ever seen anything less than four weeks. But I’ve certainly seen more. There are larger companies that offer six or eight weeks.

Brandon: Wow, that’s incredible.

Lacey: I’ve also seen it where it happens quicker than 10 years too. So –

Brandon: In terms of like – in terms of service or time of service. Maybe five years on the job or something.

Lacey: Yes.

Brandon: I know like really big companies do that. I’ve heard about the Intels of the world, and Nike…

Lacey: Yes. I had a client too that I kind of wanted to throw this out there because I just thought it was so cool. So we had a client that ended up getting acquired but they were a physical therapy clinic here in town. And they really felt strongly about the turnover rate in that industry. It’s difficult, physically-demanding work to be a physical therapist. The amount of student loan debt that those folks come out of school with is just astronomical. And then the starting wages. I mean you’re unable to move forward with your life, buy a house, have kids when you’re paying this off.

So the owners of the company wanted to reward people for their tenure and knew that there might be some folks that wanted time off. But there might be other folks who were interested in some student loan forgiveness. So we worked closely with the organization’s CPA to put together a program that was compliant with the IRS and the employee could choose either to take four weeks off paid or receive a certain amount of student loan debt forgiveness. The company was able to pay that for the employee.

Brandon: That’s an interesting one. So on one hand, you are essentially paying out more money than you otherwise would because they’re still working. They’re still getting their wages and then they’re paying extra money. So there’s a cost there. But by them being out for a month, if they took that option, you’ve lost productivity.

Lacey: And they determined that it was better for the organization from a financial perspective to have those physical therapists work and pay the student loans.

Brandon: Well, duh, that’s why we have these businesses. It’s like without productivity, you have nothing. You don’t have a business.

Lacey: Right. And they had –

Brandon: It’s a good analysis.

Lacey: Well, we were working with them and they had implemented that program kind of not too long before the acquisition happened and that program did not continue after they were acquired. But –

Brandon: Well, that was because they were a small company. Part of why they got acquired was great culture. They were very forward-thinking. And when you’re bigger, you’ve got to abide by the policies and the philosophies of the bigger company.

Lacey: Right. They did have one – I think one, maybe two – people, and I believe they both elected to do the student loan forgiveness.

Brandon: That’s cool. That’s really cool.

Lacey: So that was a smart decision. And they were really thoughtful in the way they put that program together and I think that’s the cool thing. That’s what we’re hearing about right now — employers need to be flexible and flexible doesn’t always mean work from home. That’s what everybody puts together. It’s flexible in the options so that you can appeal to all different types of employees who are at different points in their life and I think that was a cool way they did that.

Brandon: So I love that. We talked about the design of sabbaticals—how to use it. I think it’s something that even small employers can offer.

Lacey: Absolutely.

Brandon: Without it adversely impacting their business, because it is a retention tool at the end of the day. If you want to have loyalty, you want to retain your people, motivate them, all those things, I think it’s a great way.

I do want to talk about your experience prepping for it and then coming back because I think like for people who are listening, they’re HR people, maybe leaders of companies, managers who are listening. Inevitably, they’re going to go through this or they’re going to have a person that reports to them going through this. So they need to support people that are going through this where they should probably put a plan in place.

So my thought process is if you didn’t have a plan, you would approach your sabbatical and you would be off for a month. You have all this work, no backup. You come back. You’re more stressed out than ever. It’s like, “Why did I even go on the sabbatical?”

Lacey: Exactly.

Brandon: So lead me up to when you knew you were taking your sabbatical December 2017. What did you do ahead of time? Who were you communicating with? What were all the details?

Lacey: Yeah. I would say that my prep probably started about six months in advance.

Brandon: Geez!

Lacey: Some of that is –

Brandon: I better get started.

Lacey: It really depends on the job. But if you think about in my role, I’m interacting with clients, some of my clients daily.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: So it was really getting my brain wrapped around, “OK. If I’m not going to be here, where are my projects and priorities with these clients going to be at the time that I’m out?” Trying to be strategic about if there are some that could wait, because of the client schedule, what they’ve got going on, until I got back. We had conversations about that. So it really started by just telling clients that it was coming and it was happening and then working on the backend with my manager to go through my client list and really identify who might be the best person to sub in for me.

We do that when we take a week of PTO. We’ve got people that cover. But this was going to be people that were going to keep projects moving forward and not necessarily just fill in if an employee issue came up. Then communication with our sales team too on new accounts.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: So being really smart about, “I had room to take some new accounts. We want to be careful because I’m going to be gone,” and then our –

Brandon: Yeah, yeah. So it’s like you want to introduce to somebody else and then have you jump back in. Yeah –

Lacey: Yeah, and it worked out OK. I think the clients would say that it wasn’t a clunky process. We work with well-intended companies who are understanding of benefits like this, and it is so important. So if they were going to have me and I was going to be a good fit, this is something we’re going to have to work around.

Brandon: I love that.

Lacey: I also have – I just tend to be a pretty organized person and so I created spreadsheets and who’s assigned.

Brandon: Checklists.

Lacey: Yeah. What are they going to be focused on? Which clients were going through open enrollment? I tried to get as much wrapped up on that type of stuff before I left as I could. But inevitably there were decisions on benefit plans that hadn’t been made. So just really kind of working backwards and knowing what you have on your plate.

I also have direct reports. So making sure that those folks felt supported. They had a go-to person in my absence. That was really important to me because I wanted my people to not feel like they were getting, I don’t know, the short end of the stick because I was off.

Brandon: What do you do with communication-based things? Phone, email? Does IT shut it off or reroute it?

Lacey: They didn’t.

Brandon: Is somebody checking it? You haven’t connected your phone, right? So you’re on sabbatical and this is happening with a lot of people in information or the knowledge worker, right? They’re connected. Their iPad, their phone, they have home computers that they’re accessing work email. How do you – what do you do? Who’s checking your email? How are you making sure that you’re truly staying off?

Lacey: I had an out-of-office on and it was really clear and I kept up on my email on my phone just deleting the junk.

Brandon: Yeah, clean it up or organizing.

Lacey: But I didn’t respond and there were times where people emailed just me directly and I really had to trust that they got the out-of-office and that if it was urgent, we have so many means of communication here.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: Every company is different. So proactively communicating to those clients in separate emails who their person was, so they had that to save. I had some contact sheets too. I even updated those, so temporarily they could post those.

Brandon: In your out-of-office, did you have almost like a contact sheet essentially?

Lacey: I did. I had two people because some of those people – it’s the holidays. They were going to have some time off too. So it was really clear on the frontend about who was going to be covering and then making sure that if I got stuff while I was out, the clients were getting some kind of response.

Brandon: Months back for this podcast, I interviewed the author of Why Work Sucks, which was all about results-oriented workplaces and you judge performance based on the results. It’s not about being a butt in a seat.

One of the things that I got from that conversation and reading both of her books actually was about when you’re communicating. If you’re going to be out or you’re not available for the day or whatever it is, making sure to communicate that and if your out-of-office says, “I’m unavailable from this time to this time and I’m not responding to emails until X date. But if something is urgent, here’s who to contact.”

Lacey: Yeah.

Brandon: Because I’m not looking at emails, so if you’re very clear, and you wrote, “I’m out for the entire month of December and I’m not responding to emails until January when I’m back. Here’s who to contact if you need something right away. Otherwise, hey, I will connect with you when I’m back.”

Lacey: Absolutely.

Brandon: That’s the right way to do it.

Lacey: And I gave myself some wiggle room in terms of coming back. I didn’t schedule any meetings for those first couple of days because I really wanted time to connect with my team, figure out what had happened. I like to be up-to-date on what’s going on. I didn’t want to walk in to a client uneducated about what had happened.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: So I’m really glad and I do that when I take PTO too. But I was really thoughtful about it.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: About it this time. So I think when you’re direct and clear when prepping people that you’re going to be out, I think that can be really helpful.

Brandon: I thought that was interesting. So this is our first real full conversation since you’ve been back. I did see you in the hallway the other day and as we were kind of discussing this topic, but you were just going in with a couple of our other HRBPs or account reps and you were almost doing a debrief. That’s what it sounded like. They’ve been managing your accounts while you’re gone and you’re just getting back up to speed. I imagine you did it on the front end too.

Lacey: Yes.

Brandon: Like, OK, Mike, Annie, you’re taking my clients. OK? For the next month. Here are the nuances of the accounts. Here’s what to think. So you did that frontend and then on the backend you were doing a debrief. Like, catch me up. What happened the last month?

Lacey: Exactly, yeah. And the frontend was really important because different clients have different personalities and priorities and some of them, it was just – you just need to be available. Some of them say, “Hey, this is in the middle of this and I need you to keep it moving forward.”

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: I was really direct and I think the team appreciated that. So they weren’t feeling like they were filling in for somebody and it was going to be more challenging because they had their own clients that they were working with. You know, it’s not like the work that they already had, that kept them busy fulltime, went away. It didn’t.

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: So they were taking this on in addition. That’s the kind of environment that we have here.

Brandon: Team-oriented.

Lacey: Yeah. And everybody was –

Brandon: I got your back.

Lacey: I mean people would have been more upset if I was emailing and responding than they were about having to take care of things themselves.

Brandon: That’s such a great point. What do people do when they don’t have a big team like you have? So coach me up. I’m going to be doing mine at some point.

Lacey: I don’t know how we’re going to manage without you.

Brandon: Well, I mean I’ve got Julie who’s on my team. She’s the Sales and Marketing Coordinator. But she does a lot of sales-coordination-based stuff too and she does some marketing. So we will be down a person of a team of two.

Lacey: Yes.

Brandon: What do you recommend?

Lacey: Oh, it is so hard. So I would say if –

Brandon: I’m taking notes.

Lacey: We have a job description for your position. So if I was your manager, I would be looking at that well in advance to look at one, “What are the most essential functions that you’re responsible for?” because at the end of the day, there are things that might not get done while you’re gone and we’re just going to have to be OK with that.

Brandon: Yeah, yeah.

Lacey: What can we do to prep in advance? You know, you’re putting content out all the time. So can we ping the team here to help you just bust out a bunch of content, so that it’s ready to go? So our listeners don’t suffer because they’re going to be waiting for new podcasts, new articles.

Brandon: They probably hate me now because I was out for a couple of weeks and I think I skipped a week or two.

Lacey: Yeah. So when people get used to you delivering, I think the best thing that you’re going to need to do is just be proactive about what you’re going to be able to get done. Try to do as much as you can in advance and then give yourself some grace to enjoy that time because that’s what it’s there for and not everything we do is critical. So focus on the stuff that is.

Brandon: Yeah. I think that’s good. How do you prevent – so now, it’s a week and a half that you’ve been back.

Lacey: Yes.

Brandon: So how do you prevent yourself from coming back and then working like 80-hour weeks or something to catch up? Because your team is backing you up the entire time. But they may not catch every little thing that slipped through the cracks or that only you can do or something. Because there’s a lot of that too where somebody just doesn’t know how to do something.

Lacey: Right.

Brandon: So only you can touch it. How do you prevent that? How do you set the boundaries when you come back?

Lacey: Self-talk, boundary setting, checking in with my manager, asking the team to keep running with something, which I’ve done. Like you started this. Can you just keep it going? Because I’m still trying to figure out where everything is at. Having an expectation with the team that as soon as I’m back doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to jump on everything with clients and with the folks that were covering for me. I think that has helped.

I don’t know. I’ve come back kind of with a new perspective and I feel really refreshed. I know what’s really important and kind of am more in tune with the things about this job that I just love. And I want to find ways to put more energy and focus into that.

So I’m hoping that I can keep that going. And by saying it out loud here and being accountable to it, I think that’s probably the best way to do it.

Brandon: This is kind of an interesting question. But do you feel guilty being out? Like ‘my team is there without me or they need me.’

Lacey: I didn’t feel guilty. This is going to sound terrible. I didn’t feel guilty about the client work because I knew that was getting done. I felt – and I don’t know if guilt is the right word. It’s probably that I just missed my team and I missed my direct reports and I think that’s what I mean when I said I got so acutely aware of what I love in this job. Definitely a big part of that is the people that report to me and developing them and working with them.

So not having that, I definitely felt like something was missing. So it was more that. But nobody made me feel guilty. I tend to beat myself up more than anybody else. But I think I’m proud of myself for not doing that because I feel like I earned it. You know, we work really hard.

Brandon: You did. You absolutely did and I mean I look at you right now and you look recharged. You look great.

Lacey: Thanks.

Brandon: And I mean I’ve seen you when you were extremely busy and you don’t have time for a lot of stuff and you look stressed. I mean we all get like that. I think the sabbatical is a great way. It’s a great benefit for employees who have been here a long time, who have worked with you for a long time and they can get away. To your point, you said, “I understood what was truly important.” You love your work.

Lacey: I do.

Brandon: But you got to spend a whole month with your family. I’m sure you spent tons of time with your daughter, your husband, your new husband.

Lacey: Uh-huh.

Brandon: And it – you sort of realized like why we do the work that we do.

Lacey: Yes.

Brandon: It’s obviously to help people. But it’s a means to an end, which is to make sure that your family is flourishing.

Lacey: Absolutely. And we should do a version two of this. Check in with me in six months and see if I look as refreshed. But …

Brandon: Yeah.

Lacey: … I feel really busy. I feel like I’ve got a lot on my plate. But I just – you know, maybe the high expectations that I had for myself, not that those aren’t still there and I don’t still want to do great work. But I just think some grace. Take care of ourselves. We need to do that because our work product will be better.

Brandon: Awesome. OK. Just take us out of here. List me one or two cons of doing a sabbatical policy that you can think of – or benefit, not policy. Then give me the benefits, a couple of them.

Lacey: So maybe the downside – obviously the financial cost of having someone gone and paying them.

Brandon: Lost productivity.

Lacey: Yeah, yeah. I think for the employee, the prep and the catch-up, it doesn’t always – it doesn’t feel great to have to do that and it adds some pressure. But I think it’s worth it. Then there’s the risk in you retain someone this long, and they take their sabbatical and then they leave.

Brandon: Interesting.

Lacey: So that’s something I think – you know, employers have talked to me about that. What if that happens? If it happens, it happens. But I think if you’ve got somebody that has stayed with you for 10 years, they probably weren’t just staying just to get that sabbatical and then to leave.

Brandon: Yeah, I wouldn’t think so.

Lacey: Those are people that have made a commitment and they’re loyal. If it was a shorter window, two years, five years, I think that might happen more. But I can see employers – that’s one objection that I hear to creating a program like that. Benefits, I mean it recharges employees. It gives perspective. It allows other people to step up into responsibilities that that person was taking, that maybe there’s an opportunity for some cross-training or development.

Brandon: I was going to say that to you.

Lacey: That happens with my team.

Brandon: Like an unintended result of that.

Lacey: Yeah, absolutely.

Brandon: It would be cross-training. It’s like forced cross-training.

Lacey: Right, right.

Brandon: Shared knowledge.

Lacey: And helping people to let go of some of that. At least for me, I think that was a benefit. Just knowing that my employer values me and wants me to respect that time, just my perception of the organization, I think it’s great. It’s also a way to attract and retain talent. I mean that’s sort of like the basis of that program.

Brandon: Absolutely. Lacey Partipilo, thank you for being part of the podcast.

Lacey: Thanks for having me.

Brandon: A lot of fun.

Lacey: I’m glad to do that.

Brandon: I’m glad to have you back.

Lacey: Thanks.

Brandon: More podcasts, 2018.

Lacey: Yes.

Brandon: You’re on LinkedIn.

Lacey: LinkedIn, yeah, yeah.

Brandon: People can call you there.

Lacey: Yeah. They can send me a message there. If there are podcasts that folks want to hear, let us know.

Brandon: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Lacey: I would love to be back on the show.

Brandon: Yeah, especially if you want Lacey on a specific topic. She will do the research.

Lacey: I will.

Brandon: I will ask the hard questions of her. All right. Thanks for tuning in today. I’m on LinkedIn as well. Reach out to me there and on Instagram as I open that up, so you can connect with me there too.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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