Once reserved for the ranks of tenured college professors, sabbaticals are showing up as revered benefits at some financial advisory firms.
At Itasca, Ill.-based Balasa Dinverno Foltz, which introduced sabbaticals almost two years ago, the goal is to "give people an opportunity to really relax," said Susan Korin, chief operating officer and chief compliance officer of the $3.3 billion firm located 20 miles northwest of Chicago.
Ms. Korin, who is preparing to take her first sabbatical next month, said once the decision was made to introduce the benefit, the management team spent several months considering how to structure the paid leaves of absence in a way that didn't impact the business.
Unlike the traditional sabbatical from teaching, which often involves a year off to write a book or do research, advisory firms are more likely to keep the breaks to about a month and work-related activities are usually discouraged during the time off.
"It's time off for you to do whatever you want to do to rejuvenate and disconnect from work," Ms. Korin said. "We didn't feel like it was our place to tell people how to spend their time while on sabbatical."
At Balasa all 54 employees are eligible for a four-week sabbatical during the 12-month period following five calendar years of employment.
The sabbatical is in addition to any vacation time employees have also earned.
Since the program was started, 13 employees have taken sabbaticals, and they have "come back with glorious stories," said Ms. Korin.
The sabbatical adventures, which have ranged from international travel to spending summertime at home with young children, are always shared with colleagues afterward during the firm's monthly staff meetings.
There's even a sabbatical map in the office kitchen with push pins representing the locations of the travels.
"When people come back they are just floating on air with that perma-smile," said Meg Kamberis, manager of hiring and administration at Balasa.
She said the preparation for an employee sabbatical often begins a year in advance to ensure that the person's responsibilities are fully covered.
"When I speak to prospective hires I always showcase the sabbatical, and people are usually skeptical because they don't think it's real," Ms. Kamberis said. "From my point of view, it is another in an amazing line of benefits that we can offer."
Ms. Korin said clients are always notified in advance when somebody they're working with will be on sabbatical.
"We communicate to clients and they get excited, and want to hear about it, and want to see the pictures," she said. "I don't want to say we don't skip a beat, but it is handled smoothly because we make plans and there are structures in place to handle the absence."
The driving force behind offering sabbaticals came from company founder and president Armond Dinverno.
Ms. Korin confirms it is designed to be the kind of benefit that will help the firm attract and retain good employees.
"Our mindset is constantly about what do we need to do to capture and retain top talent," she said. "Theoretically, if you came here for your entire career you could have four or five sabbaticals over that time."
Ms. Korin said her upcoming sabbatical will involve "all fun family-oriented things," including a trip to California, a college orientation, a baby shower, and "hopefully some golf."
While Ms. Korin is keeping her plans flexible, she plans to hold firm on certain things.
"I will not be bringing my computer or phone with me," she said. "And we encourage people to turn off their notifications and alerts.
Tip sheet for employee sabbaticals:
• Set clear parameters and guidelines for becoming eligible for a sabbatical, and when the time off can be taken.
• Communicate clearly with clients that an employee will be completely unavailable during the sabbatical.
• Plan well in advance to ensure the person's job is covered.
• Leverage sabbaticals as a recruiting and retention tool.