After four hectic, pressure-ridden years at Xerox--first as a service manager and then as a customer representative--Merlyn Thompson needed a breather.
It wasn't that the 42-year-old Los Angeles woman couldn't handle the 9-to-5 routine. She simply wanted a chance to explore the world beyond her office cubicle and avoid getting burned out on a job that she enjoyed.
The solution for Thompson--and a growing number of workers throughout the nation--was to take a sabbatical, a paid leave that allowed her to hop off the job treadmill for several months and do something entirely different with her life.
With the approval of Xerox, Thompson, a South-Central Los Angeles resident, worked for nine months counseling teen-age girls and the parents of abused children in her community. When she was done, her old job--and a new attitude toward work--were waiting for her.
"Looking back, I've become a much more relaxed person and, I think, a more productive employee," said Thompson, who called the experience "exhilarating."
"I was so tense prior to going on leave. I needed to do something different, to make a contribution. Suddenly I got a chance to work in the community where I live, to wear sandals instead of nylons every day. It's an experience more people should have."
The message seems to be catching on.
Today, about 13% of all American companies offer their employees some form of paid sabbatical leave, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics compiled in 1980. Job market analysts believe the number has been growing considerably in the last 10 years.
Once the privilege of academics, public school educators and a handful of professionals, paid sabbaticals are now increasingly being offered to rank-and-file workers as well as corporate employees throughout California and across the nation, said Linda Marks, program manager at New Ways to Work, a San Francisco organization that studies alternative job arrangements.
"There is definitely an increase in the number of firms that recognize the value of these programs, both for themselves and for their employees," Marks said.
"The idea is to try to give people a chance to freshen up and recharge their batteries. From management's point of view, it makes their employees that much more productive. For the individual, it can mean badly needed time off from the regular working world."
The firms offering such leaves are typically large corporations and law firms that can afford to part with key employees for up to a year and pay them a full salary and benefits. Besides Xerox, some of the other companies offering sabbatical programs include IBM, Wells Fargo Bank, Intel, Kimberly-Clark, McDonald's and Time Inc.
Similar programs have been offered in the last 20 years to members of organized labor, such as the United Steel Workers. Other large unions have been seeking such benefits in recent contract negotiations.
In California, paid leaves are also offered by high-tech firms in the Silicon Valley and other communities, Marks said. Companies like Rolm and Tandem, for example, provide generous sabbatical benefits "to avoid a great deal of the burnout" associated with their kind of work, she added.
The sabbaticals can vary from six-month "personal growth" programs, under which employees can do whatever they want, to "social service" leaves that allow workers to volunteer at a nonprofit community organization for up to one year.
Besides the benefits to individual workers, many firms say they offer sabbaticals to make a corporate contribution to society.
Kim Kellogg, a Wells Fargo Bank spokeswoman, explained that her company allows employees to work for nonprofit community groups because "it's a direct way for (us) to make a direct contribution in human terms to the communities in which we do business."
Each firm has different rules for granting sabbaticals; some allow workers to take a paid leave after four years on the job, while others require 10 years of service. Applicants are often screened by a board of company executives before they are given such a leave.
Whatever the guidelines, many employees who have taken sabbaticals believe they have grown personally from the experience and are now better employees. And their companies agree.
Joseph Wein, managing partner for the Buchalter, Nemer, Fields, Chrystie & Younger law firm in Los Angeles, took six months off and traveled to Europe with his wife and two children. When he returned, Wein said, his attitude toward work had changed significantly.
"I never came back (to the job) with the same intensity I had before. . . . I learned that there was more to life than just practicing law," the attorney explained.
"I came back more relaxed, with a better attitude, a healthier mental attitude. When you come back from these leaves, you realize that you don't have to kill yourself on the job to be effective."