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Less Is More: The Rise of Workplace Sabbaticals

Every year around this time, when summer casts its sunny spell and beckons me to come out and play, I’m reminded of the wily wisdom of my mother. Because while I’m sitting in front of a computer fending off carpal tunnel and brain drain, my mom is outside, tending to her veggie gardens, paddling in her kayak, and composing a poem or two while munching on freshly picked raspberries—and she’s getting paid. The time off is a mini-sabbatical of sorts called summer break—far and away the best perk of being a middle-school teacher—and it serves a purpose: when she returns to work in the fall, she’ll be rejuvenated, happy, and brimming with fresh perspectives; in short, she’ll be a better teacher.

The notion that paid time off to restore, explore, and rejuvenate ultimately benefits the employer as much as the employee is a cornerstone in academia; in addition to summer breaks, universities routinely grant professors and faculty members sabbaticals to dive into research that they can’t explore while teaching. Unfortunately for the rest of us working stiffs, it’s a little hard to come by in the confines of corporate America, where forty hours a week fifty weeks a year is the gold standard. But recent trends indicate the tide may be turning. This year, twenty-one of Fortune 500’s Best Places to Work offer fully paid sabbatical leave, a bigger percentage than ever before, which suggests that many employers—even profit-hungry ones—may be adopting a more holistic approach to improving their bottom line. Here are a few world-renowned innovators that believe less is more when it comes to logging hours for the man.

Sagmeister, Inc. 
Stefan Sagmeister is a prolific graphic designer whose work has likely caught your eye, whether you know it or not. He’s designed album covers for the Rolling Stones and David Byrne, a pretty little book of culture for BMW, a brilliant poster for Levi’s that featured a mosaic of Levi Strauss & Co. buttons in the shape of a housefly (get it, button-fly?), and countless commercials. The key to his creativity, he says, is that every seven years, he shuts down his firm in New York for one full year to pursue personal interests and curiosities. The time away from clients and professional demands replenishes his seemingly bottomless well of inspiration and helps him produce great work when he returns to the office. It also makes him happy, the biggest reward of all. His latest sabbatical took him to Bali, where he and his team began work on a movie about happiness called, strangely enough, The Happy Film. It’s scheduled to be released in theaters this fall.

Google doesn’t offer sabbaticals in the traditional sense, but engineers there are told to devote 20 percent of their time at work to chasing rainbows outside of their job description. Often this translates into time spent developing new ideas for the company, but if an engineer wants to spend that fifth day spacing out and playing with Legos, that’s okay, too. The practice is based on Scotch tape maker 3M’s groundbreaking 15 percent time program, which was introduced in 1948 and gave birth to one of the brand’s most successful innovations: the Post-It note.  

El Bulli
Spain’s El Bulli is widely regarded as the world leader in avant-garde cuisine. The upscale eatery has placed first in Restaurant magazine’s ranking of the world’s best restaurants five times and won a rare three stars from the prestigious Michelin Guide. For Chef Ferran Adrià, the restaurant’s success is entirely dependent on creativity and innovation, which is why he shuts down the restaurant for six months out of the year; he uses that time to keep cultivating his passion for cooking and food and to experiment with the menu in his workshop, El Taller, in Barcelona. This year, Adrià announced that he will take a two-year sabbatical from El Bulli and reopen it in 2014 as a creativity center.

Contrary to what you might think, inventing semiconductor chips ain’t easy. Which is why Santa Clara?based Intel Corporation, the company that keeps your personal computer whirring, gives their employees an eight-week sabbatical with full salary and benefits after each seven years of full-time work.

Container Store

Sabbaticals aren’t just for the high-end design firms and tech companies, retailers can do it, too. For the past twelve years, the Container Store has scored top spots on Fortune 500’s best companies to work for. It offers paid sabbaticals to employees after ten years of service, and after twenty years, the retailer rewards its employees with two roundtrip airline tickets to any location in the United States plus gives them $1000 in spending money and an extra week off for their travels.  

Of course, we can’t all work at El Bulli or Sagmeister, Inc., or even the Container Store (imagine all the free pencil holders!). But if you’ve logged a few years at a company and you’re devoted to growing there but feeling a little stuck, it might be worth asking your employer if they’d be open to giving you some time off for personal or professional development. Consider what you’d like to get out of the sabbatical before you approach your boss and present the idea in a way that benefits your workplace. If your manager is smart, and if you’re truly presenting a win-win proposition, you might be pleasantly surprised with the answer.