One of the important things to consider when deciding whether to allow sabbaticals or career breaks, either as an individual request or as a general policy, is what happens to the contract of employment during the period of absence from work.
This has implications not only for things like contractual benefits, but also any other contract terms, such as conflicts of interest and confidentiality clauses, and continuity of service.
Although neither sabbaticals or career breaks are a legally-defined concept, generally a sabbatical would be a shorter period of absence, perhaps less than a year, while a career break would be longer.
Terms and conditions while absent
A decision will need to be made about whether the contract of employment remains in force during the absence. Usually for a shorter sabbatical, this will be the case. An employer will wish to retain a certain degree of control over the employee in terms of requiring notice of termination, ensuring confidentiality and also protecting its interests in terms of external activity (you don’t want an employee on a sabbatical working for a competitor, for example!).
It is possible to suspend some terms of the contract but retain others, and this is a common approach. The terms around pay will normally be suspended as sabbaticals are generally unpaid, and employers may wish to remove other contractual benefits as well. Restrictions on working elsewhere may or may not be relaxed, or may require prior approval.
During a longer career break, it is more common for a contract of employment to be ended entirely, with a view to engaging with a new contract if/when the employee returns. This means the individual will not be an employee during their absence, with no entitlement to corresponding statutory or contractual rights, and no obligations in terms of conflict of interests, trust and confidence, abiding by company policies or similar.
Continuity of service
During shorter periods of absence, where the contract has remained in force, continuous service would be recognised for statutory purposes, however an organisation with service-related benefits, such as enhanced family leave pay or redundancy pay, may choose to disregard service accrued on sabbatical for these purposes.
For longer career breaks, where the contract of employment is ceased, continuous service generally ceases, with the employee effectively having resigned. Employers may choose to recognise service accrued prior to the career break for the purpose of service-related benefits.
It’s worth just bearing in mind that if you make arrangements for the employee to definitely return after a career break, or for at least part of the career break they’d be absent anyway (for example if they work term time only), it is possible that at a later date a tribunal could decide that their service should be continuous. For this reason with a longer career break it is sensible to make absolutely no guarantees of a return to work, and simply express it as a request the employee may make, which will be considered.
Communication and clarity are key to managing the contract status during a prolonged absence from work. If you have a policy on sabbaticals and/or career breaks, making the conditions of those clear is essential, so that employees requesting absences understand the implications. Then, regardless of a policy, you should also set out clearly in writing before the break starts, to what extent the contract does or does not remain in force, any variations, and outline any return to work guarantees or arrangements.
As sabbaticals and career breaks are not a legal entitlement, it’s generally for an employer to decide the contractual arrangements. An employee can either accept or not. Obviously if you are arranging an absence on an individual basis and are unlikely to need a policy, there is a little more scope for negotiation, bearing in mind the risks of not being consistent should you want to offer the same opportunities more widely in future.
If you’d like further advice regarding employment contracts during sabbaticals and career breaks, do get in touch.