Can Leaving Work for Two Months Make You a Better Employee?

California food and drink company Clif Bar drives employee loyalty by cultivating “happy, healthy people” with programs like its paid sabbatical leave.


Ben Huffmaster, Clif Bar’s senior manager of sales finance, lives in California’s Bay Area, but with a full-time work schedule, he notes that he and his family never had time to spend a whole weekend in San Francisco and really enjoy the city like tourists. That is, until he took the sabbatical that all Clif Bar employees can access after working for the company for seven years. “I ran the San Francisco Half Marathon the first Sunday morning after I started sabbatical in July 2014,” he writes. “We also spent a lot of time with the kids.”

Sabbatical is vastly different from the standard vacation time available at most companies. As Huffmaster points out, “On a two-week vacation, you’re checking emails or thinking about the work you have to do. On sabbatical, you’re not involved with emails and work, and you know that other people are covering for you. You come back feeling refreshed and focused.”

The California-based organic food and drink company has made a name for itself with a healthy product line and by promoting a company culture rooted in employee work-life balance. “We strive for a workplace that sustains our people — one of the Five Aspirations, or bottom lines, that defines our business,” says Clif Bar CEO Kevin Cleary. “Happy, healthy people create good food.”

     Image Courtesy: Clif Bar & Company

In an effort to cultivate those happy, healthy people, Clif Bar offers a number of benefits targeted squarely at promoting wellness and work-life balance. An on-site gym and two-and-a-half hours per week of paid workout time help make health and fitness a priority. An employee childcare facility, flexible hours and telecommuting options provide support in balancing busy lives, while tuition reimbursement encourages lifelong learning. And, in an effort to improve the environment as well, employees are offered incentives to purchase energy-efficient cars and make eco-friendly home improvements. It’s no wonder that Clif Bar was named one of Fortune’s 2015 Best Medium Workplaces and one of Fortune’s 2016 50 Best Workplaces for Flexibility — titles backed up by their low employee turnover rate of around 3 percent, compared to the industry average of 11.5 percent.

In addition to ample benefits within the workplace, Clif Bar not only allows, but encourages employees to fully enjoy their lives outside of work. As one way of making sure they have time to do that, their employee sabbatical program offers six to eight paid weeks off every seven years as “an opportunity for personal growth and renewal.” More than 100 current employees have taken advantage of this perk at least once, and long-time employees can take additional sabbaticals — one 20-year veteran is coming up on her third. Some employees travel the world, while others take the time to catch up on ordinary, everyday life. “There’ve been people who took sabbatical to walk their kid to school every day,” notes Claudia Perkins, Vice President of Human Resources. “I think that’s beautiful. One employee did an internship at a high-end butcher shop. Some take classes.”

Only 3 percent of U.S. companies offer this rare perk, though perhaps more should. A 2010 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that sabbatical reduces overall stress for employees, not only while they’re away, but long after they return.

Perkins — who went to Israel on her sabbatical and had time left over to clean out her garage when she got home — says that the sabbatical program is one of the most popular health and wellness program among Clif Bar employees. She described the sabbatical as a “tremendous gift of time and an opportunity to gain perspective. The regular work frustrations don’t seem as great when you realize that work is just one component of your life.”