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Some companies are recruiting, retaining and rewarding veteran employees by adding paid sabbaticals to their benefit packages.

Sabbaticals, which often are linked

to academia and still a relatively rare benefit in the business world, also help combat employee burnout, a research consultant says.

Employee benefit managers say the advantages of offering sabbaticals outweigh disadvantages.

Sabbaticals "are a great tool in all instances," said Cindy Dorado, a benefits administrator with Nike Inc. in Beaverton, Ore.

Employees at Nike are eligible for five-week paid sabbaticals after working 10 years at the company. The company introduced the benefit in 1994.

Sabbaticals help the company find and keep employees, because those close to 10 years of service may choose to remain with Nike for the opportunity to take a sabbatical, Ms. Dorado said.

"It gives people something to look forward to and get excited about," Ms. Dorado said.

Most companies do not experience financial loss as a result of sabbaticals, except in cases where a temporary worker or contractor is required for the duration of the absence.

"It shows as a (paid time off) cost. . .it's paid like a vacation, so the company hasn't lost any money, but there is still the situation of determining who will pick up the slack," said Susan Hall, a benefits administrator at Adobe Systems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

While some companies specify how employees are to use their sabbaticals, be it educational or service-oriented trips, others encourage rest and relaxation.

"There are no guidelines; it's meant to be used as additional vacation," said Ms. Hall of Adobe's sabbatical policy.

Sabbaticals traditionally have been used in academia for faculty to conduct research in their fields. But in recent years, other industries have begun offering sabbaticals as part of their benefits plans.

"It may have started in high-tech industries. . .probably in part for recruiting purposes," said Diana Reace, a research consultant with Hewitt Associates L.L.C. in Lincolnshire, Ill. Companies are using sabbaticals as a way to differentiate themselves and to become more competitive in the recruiting process, Ms. Reace said.

Sabbaticals are one way to avoid the "burnout issue," she said. But, she added, offering a corporate sabbatical sometimes is part of a larger company strategy.

An example would be if retention is the issue on which the company is focusing, some overall restructuring of benefits may occur, including the addition of a sabbatical, Ms. Reace said. A sabbatical alone, however "would not be the answer" in many cases, she said.

For companies that offer sabbaticals, employees generally must have five years of service to be eligible. Some companies have application processes, in which employees submit proposals in a competition for the next available sabbatical, because they limit the number available.

Still other companies create waiting lists to avoid large numbers of people in the same department taking sabbaticals at the same time.

Companies that offer the benefit generally make it available to all, or at least to a wide spectrum of employees who meet the service requirements, regardless of their position in the company.

"The trend among most companies has been to broaden programs enough that they incorporate all employees," said Ms. Reace. "There is otherwise a real danger of resentment if you limit it to, say, only those higher up in the company."

Sabbatical programs are not lacking participants, either.

"The hardest part is (for the employee to find) the five-week chunk of time, especially in management positions," said Ms. Dorado.

For other companies, the hard part of having employees missing for a lengthy period is planning how the person's duties will be covered in his or her absence. Ms. Hall said managers must compensate for the employee's time away.

Whether sabbaticals are a success in recruitment, retention, productivity or morale is difficult to measure, according to Ms. Reace and Ms. Hall.

"There's not a lot of good data out there yet," said Ms. Reace, who added, though, that the responses from human relations reports are very positive.

"We can't see that it's been a measure of success, because it is a difficult thing to measure," said Ms. Hall. "But we know the employees love it."

According to a recent survey by New York-based consultant Towers Perrin of 107 companies, only 9% offer sabbaticals to employees.

According to Ms. Reace, an additional Hewitt survey measuring the actual success of sabbatical programs is to be available in the next few months.