This Tech Company Let Its HR Manager Take 3 Months Paid Vacation for Hiking

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Millions of Americans are quitting their jobs and rethinking what they want when it comes to work-life balance. Companies are responding, responding to the needs of their employees in areas such as remote working, flexible hours, four-day work weeks, compensation and more. This story is part of a series focusing on the “Great Shake-up” and the shift in workplace culture that is happening right now.

Imagine getting your full paycheck while taking three months off to do whatever you want.

It may be an unattainable dream for most, but for the employees of tech company Automattic, it’s a reality. For each period of five years worked, employees benefit from a paid sabbatical leave of three months.

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

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

“I was starting to wonder if I still liked doing this kind of work.”

Lori McLeese, global head of human resources for Automattic, walked the Camino de Santiago during her sabbatical in 2016.

Source: Lori McLeese

She loves the outdoors, so she decided to hike the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrimage routes across Europe. She walked over 600 miles in three months. As well as tackling the Camino de Santiago, she visited cities in France and hiked the tulips in the Netherlands.

“It was the best thing I could have done,” recalls McLeese, who was living in San Francisco at the time.

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

“It helped reset my brain,” McLeese said. “I left completely disconnected, came back, rejuvenated, enthused about my work again.”

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This is one of Automattic’s policy objectives: to allow workers to recharge their batteries. It also gives them time to think about what they want to do.

“It provides a really good sort of reset point for people to reassess their role or their career or what they want to do,” Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg said.

It can also benefit those left behind, as people take on new responsibilities to replace the sabbatical worker.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for other team members to step into leadership roles and get to work on projects they’re truly passionate about,” McLeese said.

Lori McLeese, global head of human resources for Automattic, walked the Camino de Santiago during her sabbatical in 2016.

Source: Lori McLeese

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

Admittedly, Automattic is an outlier. Before the pandemic, only 5% of organizations offered a paid sabbatical, while 11% offered it without pay, according to the Society for Human Resource Management‘s 2019 Benefits Report.

Still, it’s 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.

“Something different happens between a period of two or a week and several months,” he said.

The last two years have been so hard on everyone, and the luxury of being able to have three months and just take care of yourself, it’s just an invaluable experience.

Lori McLeese

Global Head of Human Resources for Automattic

He’s interviewed hundreds of people about their sabbaticals and found that time off gives people plenty of room to do identity work.

“You very rarely have the opportunity to step back and say, ‘What am I doing? How do I approach life? How do I want my life to be?

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 certainly helped Automattic, according to Mullenweg and McLeese. After all, if someone is about to turn five and become eligible for the sabbatical, why not hang around?

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

Additionally, while many companies struggled to hire last year, Automattic onboarded 700 people.

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

“One of the biggest costs … for businesses right now is churn,” Mullenweg noted. “It’s good people leaving, their knowledge coming out.

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

It costs employers the equivalent of six to nine months of an employee’s salary to find and train their replacement, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Still, Mullenweg is quick to point out that the sabbatical is part of a suite of benefits at Automattic focused on employee well-being, which aids in talent acquisition and worker retention. For example, there is no head office. Instead, employees of the $7.5 billion company can work from anywhere. There are currently 1,912 employees in 96 countries.

Lori McLeese, pictured with her mother on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, is about to take a second sabbatical. This time she will be spending time at home with her mother and enjoying the outdoors.

Lori McLeese

For McLeese, the sabbatical is an opportunity worth sticking around for. She is about to start her second in March. This time she will stay home, recover from the pandemic and spend time with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease and now lives with her.

“Caring for her and just dealing with her care and her decline didn’t always allow me time to prioritize my own health,” McLeese said.

His free time will include gardening, hiking, swimming and other things that bring him joy.

“The past two years have been so hard on everyone, and the luxury of being able to have three months and take care of yourself, it’s just been an invaluable experience,” she said.

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