When Fidelity Canada’s employees are facing challenges around their work-life balance, the company offers support through a number of absence management programs.

The financial services company provides five weeks of vacation, one paid personal day and two paid volunteer days, as well as a sabbatical program that’s available to employees who’ve been with the company for at least five years.

“It’s not simply that we provide support,” says Diana Godfrey, the firm’s senior vice-president of human resources. “We do it a little bit differently.”

Programs that fit

As part of its sabbatical program, Fidelity Canada allows employees to opt for income smoothing, so before taking the leave, they can reduce their pay and receive the difference during the sabbatical.

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So far, no employees have taken the income smoothing option. Instead, those on sabbatical have chosen to take the leave unpaid and manage their finances on their own. “It might just be the advantage of working for a financial institution that people are good at budgeting, are planful and don’t require this kind of assistance, but we don’t want to assume,” says Godfrey. “We want to make it easy for everybody.

“It’s about fitting our programs into the employee’s situation. We really try and help that employee be the complete person they want to or can be.”

For the first three months of a sabbatical, employees are covered by the group benefits plan. If the leave is longer, they can purchase their own benefits through the same insurer. “We’ve found that this is a way of giving employees relief,” adds Godfrey.

The terms of the sabbatical are flexible. For example, one employee battling cancer took disability leave. Following their recovery, the employee returned to work, but then requested a month-long sabbatical. “In spite of the fact that this individual missed a ton of work due to disability, the whole point is about what’s best for our employees and not forcing them to quit because they need time to recuperate,” says Godfrey. “That’s what we see as the advantage of this program.”

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Along the same lines, the company doesn’t ask employees to provide a reason for requesting a sabbatical. “Really, it’s none of our business,” she says. “If someone is asking, we just need to figure out if we can accommodate the leave.”

Godfrey notes, however, that the very fact Fidelity Canada doesn’t ask for a reason seems to make employees more likely to share. The vast majority of those who ask to take a sabbatical provide a reason to management, which facilitates broader conversations about how the company can further support its employees, she adds.

These types of programs have long been available in the public sector, but haven’t been as common among private sector employers, says Sandra Ventin, associate vice-president at Accompass Inc. “It’s almost like an old trend that might be coming back and, for Fidelity Canada, or other private sector employers, it certainly can be a differentiator.”

Size matters

Small U.S. employers (50-99 employees)Large U.S. employers (1,000+ employees)
Allow most or all employees to take sabbaticals and return to a comparable job12%10%
Allow all or most employees to take extended career breaks for caregiving or other personal or family responsibilities42%27%
Allow all or most employees to return to work gradually after childbirth or adoption57%42%
Allow all or most employees to receive special consideration when returning to work after an extended career break18%10%

Source: National Study of Employers, 2016

Supporting working parents

Fidelity Canada also offers maternity and paternity top-up benefits beyond employment insurance standards, at 100 per cent of salary for 25 weeks.

The organization, which believes six months is an appropriate timeframe, wants its employees to take the leave and be at home with their children, says Godfrey. “We’re topping our employees up to 100 per cent of their salary, so they aren’t feeling financially stressed in any way.”

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It’s also seen an uptick in men taking parental leave. While male employees have always been entitled to take a sabbatical, she says the generous paternity top-up means many don’t see the need to take one.

Recently, one of Fidelity Canada’s financial traders sent Godfrey an email after returning to work from a five-week paternal leave. He said he overcame his initial hesitancy through support from his manager and colleagues. “You would never normally see a trader take an absence like that,” she notes.

Parental leaves are more common at very large employers or in the municipal or public sector, with private employers lagging behind, says Ventin.

However, she notes a gender bias still exists around paternal leave. “On a positive note, it’s a growing trend. But on a more realistic note, the reality is there’s still a cultural stigma.”

Enforcing mental, physical health

While Fidelity Canada’s absence management programs are focused on supporting employees during life changes, they’re also about good mental and physical health, says Godfrey.

Forty per cent of long-term disability claims are related to mental health, adds Ventin. “Perhaps a sabbatical program like this, if people are observant enough or willing to take part to prevent burnout, might help reduce disability instances.”

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Indeed, most large employers offer short- and long-term disability programs, but they could be doing more, says Godfrey, noting sabbaticals and top-ups are good solutions.

These types of offerings also help reinforce employee loyalty and stability and promote a culture of well-being, which is difficult to monetize, says Ventin, though she notes lower turnover rates are financially beneficial to employers.

The Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association grants a designation to Canadian companies it considers compassionate. In 2017, Fidelity Canada was one of the first private organizations to receive the designation, says Godfrey. “It’s something that helps us frame our conversations. And when we can get a designation like that, it tells us we’re doing the right thing.”

Cassandra Williamson-Hopp is a conference editor at Benefits Canada.