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Bank of America is giving employees what they want: time away from Bank of America

By Corinne Purtill

Bank of America is the latest company to offer its employees a truly priceless benefit: time away from work.

Investment banking employees who have been with the company at least 10 years will soon be eligible for four weeks of paid leave on top of their regular vacation, once every five years. Those with at least 20 years of service will get five weeks paid leave, and those with 35 or more get six.

“You can choose to spend the time however you like,” chief operating officer Tom Montag wrote in a staff memo published by Bloomberg. Employees, he wrote, could use the time to “go traveling, pursue a philanthropic project, spend quality time with family, or simply take time out to recharge and refocus.”

Bank of America joins a growing list of companies that offer paid sabbaticals to long-time employees—some stipulating that the time off be used for community service, and others leaving it to the employee’s discretion. It’s not just a generous gesture. Giving employees the opportunity to focus on things they find personally fulfilling is an antidote to burnout and, more significant, to the corollary that companies dread: turnover.

By the time an employee has been at Bank of America the 10 years required to earn a sabbatical—or at any of the other companies that stipulate a similar length of service—he or she has built up a store of knowledge, experience, and institutional memory that’s extremely costly for employers to replace. Retaining such employees through benefits and pay raises often is more cost-effective than recruiting and training their replacements.

And workers have been clear on which benefit they value most. In a 2015 survey (pdf) from the Society for Human Resource Management, workers rated paid time off their most-valued benefit, with 63% saying it was a “very important” contributor to satisfaction at work—slightly more than the 62% who ranked health insurance as “very important” to job satisfaction.

The relationship between personal fulfillment outside the office and satisfaction in it is significant enough that even some companies known for intense work schedules have picked up on the concept. McKinsey’s “Take Time” policy lets consultants take five to 10 unpaid weeks of leave between projects. PwC offers newly-promoted senior managers and directors a four-week paid sabbatical.

But like other forms of paid time off, the leave is only helpful if people feel comfortable taking it—and aren’t penalized for doing so. Several investment bank employees speaking anonymously to Bloomberg said they’d be reluctant to request such a sabbatical for fear it would hurt their careers. It’s up to the company to ensure that this “benefit” actually is one.