Just like professional athletes, employees have to balance high performance with periods of rest. To this end, Shopify Inc. introduced its Intermission program in 2018 to ensure workers aren’t burning out.

“We must feed our mind and body with good input to achieve good output,” says Kelly Dawson, the organization’s global lead for wellness and leaves. “Impact is difficult to sustain over a long period of time if we don’t know when or how [to recharge].”

When Shopify employees reach their fifth year of service, they receive four weeks of paid time off — in addition to vacation days and other forms of leave — to be taken consecutively within two years. This timeframe was extended amid the coronavirus pandemic due to the impact on travel.

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“To have permission to step away for four [consecutive] weeks is key,” says Dawson. “Employees find it very helpful to disconnect and rest, so the overall impact on well-being has been very positive.”

Shopify’s Intermission program by the numbers

1,000 — The approximate number of employees who’ve used the program since its introduction in 2018

4,000 — The total number of weeks off that have been taken by these employees

215 — The number of employees who plan to use the program in 2023

Since the program’s launch, roughly 1,000 employees have taken the four-week leave, for a total of 4,000 paid weeks off. In 2023, more than 200 employees plan to use the benefit, says Dawson, noting she’ll also take her break later this year.

While employees have used the additional time off in a variety of ways, she says all workers who are eligible are very intentional about how they spend the time. Dawson plans to balance her own leave between time spent travelling and at home.

“Deliberate rest looks differently for everyone. A lot of people like to use the time to travel . . . and might take a last-minute trip. Some like to explore their own cities and try out new restaurants, parks or coffee shops. And some people have launched a business on the Shopify platform.”

Sabbatical offerings on the rise

Amid the pandemic, employers have turned their attention to offering additional paid time off as a benefit.

According to Benefits Canada’s 2022 Future of Work Survey, about a quarter (27 per cent) of employers said non-financial benefits — including paid leave, vacation and sabbaticals — were among their top priorities in supporting employee well-being. In addition, a 2021 survey by Robert Half Canada Inc. found 38 per cent of Canadian human resources managers said they plan to offer a leave of absence or sabbatical as a benefit, up from 30 per cent in 2020.

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Programs like Intermission provide employees with an opportunity to recharge and return to the workplace with renewed vigour, says Jordan Cieciwa, a workplace wellness consultant. “What we absolutely know — thanks to sports psychology and psychology in general — is that you can’t ask the human body and mind to perform at a high level all the time, especially in creative spaces. . . . So having that [program] available is brilliant.”

In addition to supporting employee well-being, paid leave programs also contribute to a supportive workplace culture, he adds. “Just offering something like a sabbatical can put someone at ease by knowing [the benefit is available] if they need to step away [from work]. That in and of itself just reinforces [the idea that] employees are cared for and respected.”

Paid leave programs can also reduce benefits costs for employers, particularly those stemming from mental-health support and coverage, as well as minimize the impact of lost productivity due to illness, says Cieciwa. The 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey found 78 per cent of plan sponsors were concerned about the pandemic’s long-term impact on the cost of their health benefits plans. Similarly, 81 per cent of plan sponsors agreed the pandemic will impact the costs of benefits over the next five years, up from 77 per cent in 2021. Within this group, 46 per cent believed the biggest cost impact will come from employees’ claims for mental-health issues.

Read: Survey finds majority of plan sponsors concerned over pandemic’s long-term impact to benefits costs

The survey also found 22 per cent of Canadian benefits plan members said their mental health is generally poor, a percentage that jumped to 75 per cent among respondents who also described their overall health as poor. And plan members in poor mental health (56 per cent) and poor overall health (45 per cent) were much more likely to be experiencing high levels of stress.

“Anytime you reduce chronic stress, you reduce chronic disease,” says Cieciwa. “If you give someone the ability to manage their stress, it’s going to reduce sick time. And if an employee is less stressed, [their] nutrition is better and they have lower likelihoods of certain lifestyle diseases or certain major [health] issues.”

Shopify’s program is also supporting its retention efforts amid a challenging labour market, says Dawson. “For the employees who have been here for a long time, it’s a nice gift. You come back feeling recharged; ultimately, we want to keep top talent.”

Blake Wolfe is the managing editor of Benefits Canada.