To Reward And Recharge Employees, Some Vermont Companies Offer Paid Sabbaticals

Jun 11, 2015

Nearly every worker dreams of taking a long break to recharge, learn something new or explore a part of the world they’ve never seen before. Turns out, some companies are seeing the value of offering their employees such sabbaticals.

Llewellyn Cobden, or “Welly” as he is known to his friends, has been with Renewable NRG Systems in Hinesburg for 16 years. NRG designs and manufactures decision support tools for the renewable energy industry. Cobden has taken two sabbaticals.

“The first one I took a cross-country train trip with my family from here to Seattle,” Cobden says. “My wife’s family lives in Seattle and to be able to see the country from a train and to have the time to take a trip like that … it’s tough with a normal vacation schedule, but having a six-week block of time made it easy. It was super relaxing.”

NRG has offered a sabbatical benefit for a decade now. Employees who have been with the company for ten years are recognized with a six-week paid sabbatical and they’re eligible for another every five years thereafter.

Renewable NRG Systems isn't the only company with this approach.

Increasingly, Fortune 500 companies nationwide are offering sabbaticals to recruit and incentivize employees, as well as to help prevent burnout. Research shows that when people go on these kinds of extended retreats they come back with new ideas, and are more motivated and productive, benefiting both the company and the workers. Almost a quarter of Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For offer some kind of sabbatical. Some even offer fully paid sabbaticals on top of benefits and paid vacation time.

At Renewable NRG Systems, employees can take the sabbatical any time of year, as long as they give notice three or four months in advance – enough time to train others to take on their responsibilities and ensure coverage.

"No matter how much you enjoy a job, it's easy to get worn down. And to have a break is, for sure, refreshing." - Llewellyn Cobden, employee at Renewable NRG Systems

“No matter how much you enjoy a job, it’s easy to get worn down. And to have a break is, for sure, refreshing,” says Cobden. “[It gives you] some time to kind of contemplate a career, and with six weeks you really definitely have time to think about work, what work means and what work doesn’t mean.”

For Cobden, the time away also allowed him to pursue an outside interest. “One of the things I used to do a lot was play the French Horn. I actually went to school for music, and with competition from work and family, I haven’t had time to do that in years,” he says. “So one of the goals of the sabbatical was to play every day. And I did. So that took up quite a bit of time.”

Ann Greenamyre, VP of finance at Renewable NRG Systems, has been with the company for almost 20 years and is coming up on her third sabbatical. Her family traveled to Nova Scotia the first time and to New York City during the second sabbatical. But the bulk of her time was spent at their camp on Lake Dunmore in Addison County.

"... by the fourth week you're not looking at email anymore and you're just totally relaxed!" - Ann Greenamyre, VP of Finance at Renewable NRG Systems

“It’s interesting because that first week is like any other one-week vacation. You know, it’s fun and relaxing, but it’s one week,” she says. “And then the second week you’re starting to relax a little bit more, and by the third week it’s like, ‘Wow, this is kinda nice,’ and by the fourth week you’re not looking at email anymore and you’re just totally relaxed!”

Greenamyre says by the last week she starts to think about work again and is ready to jump back in, refreshed.

NRG’s policy requires there to be an educational component to the sabbatical, but exactly what that means is up to interpretation by the employee.

“I love to bake but making pie crust is very stressful for me, so I took a baking class. There’s just a one-on-one specifically to learn pie crust, so that was very exciting to me because in my busy life I don’t get to do fun things like that for myself,” says Greenamyre.

The idea of a sabbatical may be gaining steam around the country, but Greenamyre says it’s still a foreign concept to most of her friends. “They kind of look at you sort of weird … so you have six weeks off in a row and they pay you for that?” says Greenamyre, laughing. “It’s just really weird and a lot of people just don’t understand it and then it’s like, ‘Wow, I wish I had that.'"

Most companies still don’t offer this kind of benefit, and even those that do often have a minimum number of years employees have to be at the company before they are eligible.

There have been concerns at NRG that employees left behind would be burdened with more work while co-workers were exploring culinary education or playing the French Horn. But Greenamyre says in practice, the policy has been very well received.

Burton offers employees a chance to work overseas for three months in one of their international locations, like China, Japan or Australia.

There are other large Vermont companies offering a long-term change of scenery. Burton offers employees a chance to work overseas for three months in one of their international locations, like China, Japan or Australia. Green Mountain Power doesn’t have an official policy, but says it’s willing to negotiate with an employee who wants to take a sabbatical. And at Seventh Generation, workers can take a paid leave after 10 years with the company.

Susan Johnson, now retired and out of state, was a senior sales director for education & dialog and the first to take advantage of Seventh Generation’s paid leave policy back in 2009. She spent four months on a service project in Rwanda at the Akilah Institute, helping young women out of poverty. Johnson kept a blog which Seventh Generation featured on their website. Although no one else has been eligible since Johnson –  most of the employees have been there five years or less – there are three people currently in line who have hit the 10-year mark, and a few more up next year excited to plan their sabbaticals. 

Whether it’s relaxing by a lake, traveling cross-country or just being with family, time is a commodity you can’t put a price on. And the people lucky enough to take one say a sabbatical’s benefits are invaluable.