The idea for CLIF Bar, the popular energy bar, didn't arise in the office. It was on a 175-mile bike ride, when a California baker named Gary Erickson bit into one of a series of energy bars he’d packed for the trip, and became fed up. “Suddenly, despite my hunger, I couldn’t take another bite,” he later wrote. “I thought, ‘I could make a better bar than this!’”
And he did. A few years later, in 1991, Erickson debuted his new product at a bike show, and within its first year of production sales exceeded $700,000. Six years after that, his company’s revenue surpassed $20 million. Along the way, Erickson never forgot where he was when the idea struck him.
With CLIF Bar, which was named after Erickson's father, Clifford, the entrepreneur committed to making the world “a better place to live, work, and eat.” As he built the company into one of America’s best places to work, an early, noteworthy employee perk was the ability to take an eight-week sabbatical every seven years.
The company's leaders instituted the sabbatical program because it wanted CLIF Bar employees to “be able to have that time in their life to take a long trip, or pursue something educational, just to have a break—and a long break—from work where you can pursue things outside of work,” says Jennifer Freitas, the company’s director of people, learning and engagement. “Whatever those things may be that can recharge you: creatively, physically, emotionally, spiritually," she said. "You have that time, stress free, because you’ve got a job waiting for you, and you’re getting paid to have that recharge.”
Americans are spending an increasing amount of time on the job. According to a recent piece in The Nation, one-third of the U.S. workforce logs in 45 hours or more at their jobs per week, and the amount of hours Americans spend at work each year has risen nearly 8% percent since 1979. The statistics partly account for the rise in employee burnout across the country, with two-thirds of workers reporting that they feel burned out at work at least some of the time.
Compounding the problem—frequently described as a crisis—is the fact that the U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world that does not mandate paid vacation time, with its workers comparatively taking the fewest vacation days per year.
This does nobody any good. Downtime and adequate sleep have an abundance of health benefits, and in the context of business, time away from work ultimately leads to greater productivity. Thus, increasing vacation time is something that not only an employee could get behind, but the employer as well.
Trends appear to be going in that direction, with a growing demand for employee perks, including more robust vacation time. Some companies have even implemented unlimited vacation-time policies, under which employees are trusted to take the amount they need.
“Human beings need rest and relaxation to truly recharge,” says Katie Burke, the chief people officer at HubSpot, a business-growth software company, who frequently writes and speaks on the topic of corporate culture. “I view vacation as a vital part of helping our employees live fulfilling lives outside of work. In terms of health benefits, it’s been well-documented that taking regular vacations helps lower your stress levels, increases overall happiness, and ultimately I think makes people more balanced leaders.”
In a piece she wrote for Inc.com, Burke explained that HubSpot’s unlimited vacation policy did nothing to deter people from responsibly showing up to work and being productive members of the staff. She agrees that similar vacation packages are growing in popularity across industries as well.
When advising business owners about paid time off, Burke says that a company’s “policy and approach is only as good as the degree to which [its] leaders live and breathe it.” At HubSpot, for example, vacation time is placed on their list of monthly priorities for the company’s leadership team. “Doing so makes it clear that taking vacation isn’t just OK, it’s actively encouraged because our executives take proper time off to rest and recharge, so any employee at any level should feel free to do so, too.”
Critics of unlimited vacation time say that employees can take advantage of such a policy, and it can even spur unhealthy competition among staff members to take fewer days off than their colleagues. A recent Washington Post story noted that without a clear number of allotted vacation days, when a worker is laid off they may not be reimbursed for unused vacation time as well.
Of course, companies don’t have to go to such extremes with their vacation policies either. There is a middle ground between zero and infinity for allowed vacation days, and many companies have come up with other creative ways to structure time-off employee perks.
Based in Redwood City, Calif., the software-development company Evernote, for example, doubles down on vacation time, issuing a $1,000 stipend to employees who take one week of vacation each year, in addition to its unlimited-vacation policy.
Brad O’Neil, Evernote’s head of people, says the stipend—designed to offset travel costs or to even enhance staycations—has layers of benefits for the company.
“We just use it as incentive to make sure that people do take time away and enjoy their families and do what makes them happy outside of the office,” O’Neil says. “A refreshed, relaxed employee is going to be more productive." But it also helps the company. Ffrom a talent-acquisition perspective, I think it’s something that differentiates us,” he says.
O’Neil calls the Evernote team “close-knit,” devoted to a corporate culture of kindness and helpfulness amid their colleagues. The vacation program is vital in maintaining that vibe, as it helps Evernote with retention, which O’Neil says is important “because the battle for quality talent in the Bay Area is pretty epic.” He adds that Evernote wants its employees to have long tenures the company “in order to keep the legacy of information [in-house], and just to have solid knowledge of Evernote and the products and the people.”
The Denver-based company FullContact, developers of a contact-management platform, similarly offers what they call “paid, paid vacation.” In addition to their unlimited-vacation policy, for workers who take vacation and go entirely off the grid, they get an additional $7,500. (As part of this deal, workers must include in their auto-response, out-of-office emails that they’re deleting any emails they receive while on vacation, and instruct the sender to resend the email when the vacationer is back on the job.)
“The reasoning?” the company asks rhetorically on its website. “$7,500 is enough for a family of four to take a nice vacation to Mexico for a week.” Employees don’t have to do precisely that; the company’s blog post on the topic says workers could use the special paid vacation to do everything from sit around the house “watching bad cable all week” to running around naked at the Burning Man festival.
Mike Nemeth, FullContact’s vice president of human resources, says the policy “encourages employees to re-engage in their personal life,” and points out that the CEO, Bart Lorang, regularly goes “off the grid” to recharge, setting the example.
FullContact’s blog post also asks, “Is $7,500 too much? Too little? We don’t know. It’s a giant experiment. We’ll find out.” Nemeth says of the “experiment,” so far, “It’s an amazing benefit, but it’s unusual, and people don’t always recognize that it’s part of their total compensation package—they see it as a ‘nice-to-have.’ But employees love it, and explaining its value is a good problem for me, in HR, to have.”
Then there’s the eight-week sabbatical at CLIF Bar, which comes on top of a generous vacation policy, work-from-home options and bi-weekly Fridays off.
“We’ve always had this focus on people, taking care of people as whole people, focused on really helping them live the life they want to live, which shows up in a lot of different ways,” says Jennifer Freitas of CLIF Bar.
What do employees do on their sabbaticals? One employee earned yoga-teaching certification, while Freitas used her own sabbatical to travel across Africa. Whatever it takes, she says, to keep CLIF Bar workers from “feeling stuck, stagnant, or stale,” which falls in line with the company’s mission of creating food that “feeds and inspires the adventure in all of us.”
Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.