As the effects of the coronavirus pandemic reshape the Canadian workplace and employees struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy, Citigroup Inc. is preparing for the future of work by rolling out a suite of paid-leave programs that aim to support employee work-life balance in 2021 and beyond.

To meet the needs of shifting employee expectations, one of the paid leave programs the company introduced earlier this year is a sabbatical, which allows North American employees to take 12 weeks off while continuing to earn 25 per cent of their salaries. Eligible employees can submit a request for the leave, and once their managers review and approve it, the time off is entered into the payroll system and is automatically reduced from their pay for the duration of the absence.

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“This certainly required a lot of thought to design with many factors to consider, but ultimately we all unanimously agreed we needed to do something different and accelerate our focus on what the future of work is going to look like,” says Christine Discola, Citigroup’s director and country human resources officer.

Although the pandemic has resulted in limited opportunities for travel, sabbaticals still have value as the time can be spent refocusing on personal health and well-being. “Over the last year, the changes we’ve all experienced along the way had a lot of people hit the pause button and really evaluate what is important for them,” says Trina Casey-Myatt, regional vice-president for Alberta at Robert Half Canada Inc. “Sabbaticals are a great way to do that.”

Relaxing, rejuvenating and re-energizing

Citigroup’s R3 sabbatical program, short for relaxing, rejuvenating and re-energizing, was designed to help employees do exactly what its name implies — to step away from work to take care of their mental health, pursue hobbies or learn new skills. In fact, Discola says employees don’t have to share their specific reasons behind taking the leave. “We launched it because, clearly, this COVID-19 period has compelled us to think about what we need to be doing differently when things get back to ‘normal.’ And our anticipation is that the employee expectation is shifting.”

As a result, the organization’s thinking around its role as an employer is shifting, too, from not just providing employment but also offering a safety net for wellness by enabling employees to access more time off when needed.

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Traditionally, sabbaticals are unpaid — or at least that’s been the practice in the market, says Discola. The company wanted to provide employees with some level of financial security while they’re away, and so their job is protected, they’re still covered by their benefits plan and they’ll continue to accrue vacation time. “We know that people want breaks and need breaks in their career, but they don’t necessarily want to stop their career.”

Sabbaticals can increase employee engagement and have a positive impact on a company’s culture, says Casey-Myatt, adding it’s the kind of benefit new employees can look forward to using once they reach the required tenure. During a time when employee burnout is more prevalent, if people make the choice to leave, replacing them is often difficult, time-consuming and costly to the overall organization, she says, noting the time away may help employees recharge and prevent employers from having to attract, hire and train new workers. Mental-health issues among employees are increasing, she says, and as the coronavirus crisis drags on, employers must take into consideration anything they can do to positively impact staff health and well-being.

In keeping with its commitment and focus on employee wellness, this year Citigroup also allowed its North American employees to purchase an additional five days of vacation. The program was included in its annual benefits enrolment at the end of last year, and the company saw thousands of employees sign up immediately.

By the numbers

U.S. employers are also changing policies related to vacation and paid time off during the coronavirus pandemic.

67% of employers are allowing employees who haven’t used all of their accrued vacation time to carry it over to future years;

53% of employers said they offer paid floating holidays;

43% offer a paid-time-off bank;

29% reported allowing staff to carry over just five days;

23% are permitting employees to donate leave to colleagues in need;

16% said they’re allowing employees to carry over 40 days or more;

15% are allowing employees to sell excess time off and

6% are allowing employees to purchase additional time off.

Source: December 2020 International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey

Discola believes both the sabbatical and extra vacation time programs reinforce the philosophy and focus on employee well-being Citigroup’s been communicating since the start of the pandemic. “I think employees are realizing that this was not just a short-term set of principles, but a longer-term attitude and philosophy around how we want to support our employees.” Citigroup also recently launched a leave program that enables employees to take two to four weeks to work directly with a charitable organization of their choice and contribute their time, while receiving 100 per cent of their pay. The company has a very comprehensive list of charitable organizations from which employees can select.

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Discola notes it can be difficult for employees to contribute toward a cause while working full time and this program was designed to allow them to do that. Although the program was intended to align with Citigroup’s values and to allow people to take time off, it also contributes to individuals’ overall personal value system and, ultimately, to their wellness, she says.

Casey-Myatt says extended leave programs such as these are beneficial as they allow employees to take time away to decompress and really focus on their own personal health, while giving back to the community. The ability to go do a volunteer program or something like it really changes employees’ mindset, and the hope is when they do return, they’re rested and ready to really start working again, she notes. “Whereas, if they don’t have that opportunity to take that extended period of time away, then certainly [they] may continue experiencing burnout, which is costly in a number of different ways.”

A competitive edge

Discola says employees and candidates are looking for an organization driven by purpose, so these programs aim to help with attraction of top talent. She adds that potential candidates frequently ask about the social issues the organization supports, and she points out Citigroup has a long history of contributing to a variety of social causes, such as the United Way and Food Banks Canada. The giving-back program builds upon an existing company offering that provides its global workforce with a day where employees can get paid for volunteering at a charitable organization.

The pandemic has revealed a shift in some employees’ perspectives that now place a greater emphasis and value on the need for work-life balance, says Discola. She sees this shift as an opportunity for employers to step back and think about how they can offer better support to their staff. More and more companies are starting to seriously consider, or have already, implemented sabbaticals as part of their benefits packages, notes Casey-Myatt. For some employees time off, particularly during this tough time, is worth its weight in gold, she adds.

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Current employees and job candidates are looking for more wellness in an organization, and more focus on community, volunteerism and social justice, Discola notes. “If we’re caring for our employees’ well-being, their mental health, their work-life challenges, allowing them to pursue their personal passions and interests, we’re going to have a healthier and happier workforce, a more engaged workforce and, ultimately, we’re going to have a more productive workforce that will contribute to our overall performance, so I think this is a win-win approach.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.