Blue-chip companies are using sabbaticals to reward loyal staff. Helen Jones reports
"I spent a month in Birmingham eating three or four curries each day," says Di Lowe, a creative director at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. But Ms Lowe wasn't dreaming up a campaign for frozen Indian meals - she was taking a sabbatical on full pay.

Sabbaticals were once seen as the preserve of academe, used by restless professors as a chance to gather their thoughts, write a book or do some research. But industry is catching up: blue-chip companies are introducing sabbatical programmes to reward highly valued, loyal staff and to ensure that they are not heading for "burn-out".

Apple Computer is perhaps at the forefront of sabbatical programmes in the UK. After five years' service it forces its staff to take a one- month break, on to which they can add some annual leave. This is to ensure that staff concentrate on their "personal development" and return to work with renewed enthusiasm.

Jean Balcombe of the Industrial Society, which publishes a report this month on flexible working, says: "A number of companies are looking at flexible working patterns including career breaks and sabbaticals."

The advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers froze pay during the recession but is now in a position to reward loyal staff. "Advertising is a tough business, but a sabbatical allows people to recharge their batteries," says director Peter Warren.

Staff who can take sabbaticals must usually have served a minimum of five years before they are eligible. If you are reasonably happy in your job, the promise of at least a month's leave on full pay can be a powerful inducement to stay with a company.

So what do people do when given the opportunity to take a sabbatical? Ms Lowe, who has been with Ogilvy & Mather for 10 years, wanted to write a cookbook based on balti curries and was given a month off to carry out the research. "I visited three or four restaurants a day, ate the curries and then, because most balti chefs do not write down recipes, I had to go into the kitchens to watch them cook and take detailed notes. I then went home and tried out the recipes to make sure that they worked and to calculate the ingredients needed to serve four people. It was exhausting. I don't know about the concept of a sabbatical as a rest, but it allowed me to do something I really wanted to do," she says. Her book is now a bestseller.

Stephen Doran, market development manager for Apple, recently took a six-week sabbatical, travelling to the Far East. He says: "Information technology is a particularly fast-paced industry. It is competitive and can be stressful, so I needed a break." But what did he get out of it, apart from a suntan and some great photos? "It has changed my perceptions," he says. "It has allowed me to refocus on what is important in life and what is not. It has given me some new, non-work-related benchmarks against which to measure things."

The retailer John Lewis offers sabbaticals, but only to those with more than 25 years' service, who get up to six months' leave on full pay. While this means staff are older when they take their sabbaticals, it has not dimmed their sense of adventure. Recent pursuits have included joining an irrigation project in Peru, learning how to make stained glass and renovating a house in France.

While a sabbatical may sound idyllic, there are some drawbacks for both employer and employee. For employers, there is the danger that disgruntled staff will hang on for five years, take the sabbatical and then resign. For employees, there is a fear that if you are away for long things can move on without you and you may miss out on promotion. A spokeswoman for IBM says: "Staff breaks are available, but not that many people have taken the time off. I think they are afraid that they may lose ground if they are not at their desks every day."

Stephen Doran says that if people can put aside their fears of office politics, then a sabbatical can be just the thing to renew enthusiasm for work - something a promotion may not achieve.