Service-oriented sabbaticals gain ground

What are the hallmarks of a real sabbatical?

March 01, 2018 12:34 pm | Updated 04:52 pm IST

Illustration: Sebastian Francis

Illustration: Sebastian Francis

In the corporate world, sabbaticals are now taken more frequently, often granted without much ado, and sometimes offered as a reward for stellar performance.

In some cases, sabbaticals are linked to community programmes. Many employees, especially millennials, gravitate towards these programmes because these enable them to be of use to others while taking a break.

Thothadri Srinivasan was with Infosys for 15 years and in that period, he opted for two sabbaticals, both as part of his company’s “Community Empathy Programme”.

“When I took my first sabbatical, which was for a period of six months, I was a senior project manager and also spearheading CSR activities in Chennai. My engagement with Aid India, where I work fulltime now, helped me develop a new perspective on service. During my second sabbatical, I hinted to my manager that I might enter the service sector and not return, but as I was a high-performing employee, they kept me on their rolls,” says Srinivasan.

IBM’s ‘Corporate Service Code’ allows its employees to volunteer in a different country for a period of four weeks. Telecommunication services provider Vodafone India’s ‘World of Difference’ programme nominates highly-skilled employees, identified through a selection process, to work with a voluntary programme of their choice for a period of eight weeks.

Companies are able to offer their employees service-oriented sabbaticals through tie-ups with voluntary organisations. Employees can choose the voluntary organisation they want to volunteer with.

TeachforIndia encourages working professionals to serve as full-time teachers for two years. A majority of TeachforIndia’s partners are from the banking and financial services sector, including Aditya Birla Group, Axis Bank and Citigroup.

Shalabh Sahai, co-founder, iVolunteer, a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation that promotes volunteering, says service-oriented sabbatical programmes have to be pushed hard by managers.

“Some companies have such sabbaticals as a policy, but for want of a push at the managerial level, they often don’t translate into reality,” says Sahai.


Decoding sabbaticals

Sabbaticals have become an euphemism for “I am taking a break”, says Ganesh Chella, executive and HR coach and co-founder of Coaching Foundation of India.

And, according to Chella, sabbaticals can be totally unaligned with what we know or expect them to be.

“The break could be to switch careers or the result of a conflict or lay-offs. In newer industries, you see such ‘sabbaticals’, ” says Chella

From the company’s side, there could be sabbaticals that come with strings attached.

He cites the example of engineering companies sponsoring employees for a programme in higher education that adds value to the company.

“Here, the employee is asked to sign a bond with the company. I will not call this a sabbatical. A short-term volunteering assignment is not a sabbatical either. That’s a development experience to hone leadership skills, which are best learnt outside the corporate world,” says Chella.

Then, what are the hallmarks of a real sabbatical?

“A real sabbatical is one that may be taken for any of these reasons. A professional taking a break to deal with burnout, often in the later stage of his career; an employee seeking to write a book, work on a PhD programme or do something totally unrelated to his present career,” says Chella.

When an employee decides to take a “real sabbatical” that does not have any not obvious benefits to it, the company should encourage him.

“I would treat such an employee as special. I would guide that employee, discuss with my manager how to continue the relationship with the person and if he is valuable, support him in some ways,” says Chella, adding, “A known person is always better than a newcomer.”


New commitments and causes

Name : Dr. Prahalathan K.K.

Profession: Medicine

Sabbatical period : From 2016 to March 2018

Purpose: Social service

For over a decade, ophthalmologist Prahalathan was juggling a medical career and a social commitment. He co-founded the voluntary organisation Bhumi in 2006.

“My seniors at the hospital have been very understanding. I am on unpaid leave for two years,” says Prahalathan who plans to retire soon and get involved with Bhumi full-time.

The voluntary organisation now has a presence in 13 cities and is working in the fields of education, environment and community welfare.

“I used to spend time before and after hospital hours for Bhumi; but, after the Chennai floods, we have a lot of work on our hands,” he says.


Name: Balakrishnan Velaiah

Profession: Indian Police Service

Sabbatical Period : From September 2017 to September 2018

Purpose : Study

Balakrishnan Velaiah is now Deputy Inspector General of Police.

While he was Deputy Commissioner of Police in Chennai and Thiruvannamalai, he distinguished himself as a pioneer in community policing.

Balakrishnan is now pursuing MA Human Rights at the University College of London in the United Kingdom.

He got this opportunity as part of the State Government’s policy to allow officers, on the basis of certain eligibility criteria, to take a break from work and study.

“India is signatory to many human rights conventions and the police play an important role in protecting human rights,” says Balakrishnan, on why he chose this subject.

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