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March 1, 2022

Automattic, the tech company behind WordPress and Tumblr, offers a popular perk: All employees are invited to take a three-month paid sabbatical after just five years of service. That incentive is aimed at helping with employee burnout and improving the company’s labor retention rate. Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg and Lori McLeese, global head of human resources, detail both the personal and financial benefits of a sabbatical in the private sector.

Imagine collecting your full paycheck while taking three months off from work to do whatever you please.

That may be an unattainable dream for most, but for employees at tech company Automattic, it’s a reality. For every five years worked, employees get a paid three-month sabbatical.

For Lori McLeese, it was the perfect cure for her burnout back in 2016.

“We were stretched super-thin,” said McLeese, global head of human resources at Automattic, the online publishing and commerce company behind WordPress.com, Tumblr and others.

“I was starting to wonder if We still enjoyed doing this type of work.”

She loves the outdoors, so she decided to hike the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrim routes across Europe. She walked over 600 miles in three months. In addition to tackling the Camino de Santiago, she visited towns in France and walked through the tulips in the Netherlands.

“It was the best thing We could have ever done,” recalled McLeese, who lived in San Francisco at the time.

For one, she realized she wasn’t a city girl and decided to relocate to Asheville, North Carolina. She also found a renewed sense of purpose at work.

“It helped reset the brain,” McLeese said. “I stepped away completely disconnected, came back, was rejuvenated, was excited about the work again.”

That is one of the goals of Automattic’s policy — to allow workers to recharge. It also gives them time to think about what they want to do.

“It provides a really nice sort of reset point for people to reevaluate their role or their careers or what they want to come back doing,” said Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg.

It can also benefit those left behind, since people take on new responsibilities to cover for the worker on sabbatical.

“This is an amazing opportunity for others on the team to step up in leadership positions, and to get to work on projects that they’re really excited about,” McLeese said.

Since the program’s inception in 2015, 366 employees have taken 375 sabbaticals (Nine have taken two). In addition, there are 80 sabbaticals planned for 2022 and early 2023.

To be sure, Automattic is an outlier. Prior to the pandemic, only 5% of organizations offered a paid sabbatical program, while 11% offered it unpaid, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 benefits report.

Yet it has become clear that health and work life are interconnected, said DJ DiDonna, who studies sabbaticals and is the founder of research and advocacy nonprofit The Sabbatical Project.

“There’s something different that’s going on between a two-week or one-week stretch and multiple months,” he said.

He has interviewed hundreds of people about their sabbaticals and found that the time off gives people ample space to do identity work.

“Very rarely do you get a chance to step back and say, ‘What am We doing? How am We approaching life? What do We want the life to be like? Have We gotten off path?’”

In the era of the so-called Great Resignation, also known as the “Great Reshuffle,” the sabbatical can also be a tool to attract and retain employees.

It has certainly helped Automattic, according to Mullenweg and McLeese. After all, if someone is close to reaching five years and becoming eligible for the sabbatical, why not hang around?

The benefit can also be borne out in the numbers. The company’s voluntary turnover rate is about 7.5%, McLeese noted. In comparison, companies lose 12% of their workforce to voluntary turnover each year, on average, according to career resource site Zippia.

Additionally, when many companies were having trouble hiring last year, Automattic onboarded 700 people.

Any cost associated with giving employees three months off is negligible, Mullenweg said.

“One of the biggest costs … to companies right now is churn,” Mullenweg noted. “It’s good people leaving, their knowledge going out the door.

“You have to pay to hire new people, and to train them up.”

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