NEW YORK (CNNfn) - John Greenagel, a 15-year veteran of Advanced Micro Devices in Sunnyvale, Calif., got a sneak preview of retirement this summer.
Turns out, it looks a lot like the golf course down the street.
"During the eight weeks I was off, I played golf almost every day," he said. "I went back to my high school reunion in Minneapolis, but mostly I just played golf."
Greenagle, 59, just got back from a hard-earned sabbatical, paid for by chip maker AMD (AMD)-.
The company established the program after acquiring Monolithic Memories Inc. (MMI) in 1987, which already granted sabbaticals to its staff.
"We looked around at the companies we compete with for talent and saw that they all had sabbatical programs in place, and we decided we'd better incorporate MMIs into our own culture," said Greenagel, now a spokesman for the company.
Under the program, all professional AMD employees receive eight weeks of paid vacation every seven years. That's on top of the regular annual vacation time they earn.
"Other than logging onto the Internet to check the company's stock price, I literally didn't think about the company once," Greenagel confessed. "I did attend a departmental luncheon, but it was after a round of golf."
The concept of sabbaticals, or professional leaves of absence, has long been associated with scholars and college professors, who need time off to complete research projects or revamp their course curriculums.
Most universities do, in fact, provide extended leave benefits for professors who have been on the payroll for seven or more years.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that 66 percent of employers in the educational community grant paid sabbaticals, while 59 percent offer unpaid leave programs.
But the term is not reserved for academics alone.
Many large corporations -- 27 percent of those with 1,000 employees or more -- also use sabbatical benefits as a way to recruit new workers and reward those who stick around.
The programs themselves vary greatly.
Some require workers to pay their dues for five to 10 years before they become eligible, and not all companies pick up the tab while the employee is off of work. Other programs are open only to senior level managers.
Those who track corporate benefits say law firms, government agencies, utilities and consulting firms are most likely to provide employee sabbaticals. As of late, however, it has been the high-tech sector that offers the most generous packages.
"The high-tech arena is one of the areas where we are seeing the most growth in sabbatical programs," said SHRM spokeswoman Kristin Accipiter. "The concept has been around for a long time, but it's just crept its way into mainstream employment benefits in the last few decades."
Helen Axel, a management research consultant who studied corporate sabbaticals during her tenure with the Conference Board , said the reason is simple.
"At high-tech companies, the employees often work around the clock on research and development projects, and because they work these odd hours, their employers offer sabbaticals as a form of recognition," she said.
Among the more notable high-tech names offering employee sabbaticals are Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT), Silicon Graphics (SGI), Adobe Systems (ADBE) and 3Com (COMS).
Semiconductor firm Intel Corp., of Santa Clara, Calif. helped blaze the trail in establishing employee sabbaticals and continues to offer one of the most worker-friendly programs in the industry today.
The company allows all full-time workers eight weeks of paid vacation every seven years. If they elect to do so, employees can also tack on their unused vacation time, bumping their sabbatical leave of absence to three months at a pop.
"We've had this program since the mid-1970s and it's really become a part of the corporate culture, not just for Intel but for many other Silicon Valley companies as well," said Intel spokeswoman Tracy Koon. "It's funny because you start to measure things in 7-year increments. If you say, 'I've been here for six years,' someone will always say, 'Oh! One more year till sabbatical.'"
Intel has 65,000 employees worldwide and last year some 2,693 workers went on sabbatical. That number fluctuates based on hiring trends during any given year. This year, for example, 1,852 Intel employees took sabbatical.
Koon said employees are free to use their time off any way they see fit. Some take glass blowing classes, or spend the summer with their kids. And one former military officer recently participated in an economic development mission in the territory he served during the Vietnam War.
Others, Koon said, decide they work hard enough as it is and just "sit in their backyard and read trashy novels."
She noted the program is not just a plus for workplace morale, it also yields an unexpected benefit to the workers left behind.
"The people who fill in for their bosses while they are out on sabbatical really get great experience and more visibility at different levels of the corporation," she said. "It's a good development and growth opportunity for them too."
By comparison, Silicon Graphics offers all full-time U.S. and Canadian workers 6 weeks of paid sabbatical leave every four years. Like most paid leave programs, health benefits remain effective during that time.
Company spokesman John Cristofano said employees "aren't required to do anything during that time except recharge their batteries. It's a huge perk."
Sabbaticals at Microsoft are open to all employees who have been with the company for seven years, but it's not guaranteed.
The Microsoft Achievement Award grants employees 8 weeks of paid vacation and it's up to each division's vice president to determine who is most deserving of the award.
Ups and downs
Over the last few years, corporate sabbatical programs have fallen in and out of favor.
SHRM reports that 24 percent of U.S.-based companies this year offer some type of sabbatical program. That number is up from 20 percent the year before, but down from 28 percent in 1997.
"I think the number one factor impacting these programs is the tight labor market, which is making it really hard for employers to let their workers go for eight to 12 weeks at time," Accipiter said.
Instead, she noted, many employers are revamping their benefits package to include other perks. And some, including Apple Computer (AAPL), are pulling the plug on sabbaticals altogether.
"I think other benefits are being utilized today more often than sabbaticals as retention tools," Accipiter said. "Instead of giving us six weeks off a year, employees are demanding more day to day flexibility, like the ability to telecommute, flex-time and child care or elder-care benefits. Those are the other areas where we are seeing real growth, while sabbaticals are sort of going up and down."
Part of the reason some companies have resisted sabbaticals is the fear that workers might use that time to job hunt, rather than resting up so they can return to work more productive.
"Sometimes, HR departments have had trouble with employees abusing sabbaticals or asking to cash out of the benefit and just keep working," Accipiter said.
To help guard against that Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), a San Francisco-based financial services firm, incorporates a clause into its sabbatical program whereby employees who receive the benefit must indicate they expect to return to work upon completion of the program.
The Wells Fargo Personal Growth Leave program, which provides up to 3 months of paid leave, is open to all but can be quite difficult to obtain.
Only those workers who have been with the company full-time for 10 years may submit a detailed proposal to the sabbatical committee outlining how they plan to use their time.
"It's not the easiest thing in the world to get," said Lance Berg, a spokesman for Wells Fargo. "We really look at the requests and it needs to be extremely detailed. We want to make sure that the people who really have a dream to accomplish some goal get a chance to take advantage of this. We care about our employees and this is one way to show them."
Since it was founded in 1976, 104 workers have taken sabbatical at Wells Fargo.
"We think it's good for the employee and the company," Berg said. "It allows an employee to go out and achieve their goals and come back to us a more well-rounded and focused team member."
Greenagel, of AMD, said the eight weeks off he just enjoyed helped him do just that. (It also helped him drop his golf handicap from 15 to 12.)
"It taught me I'm not ready for retirement," he said. "I learned that retirement wouldn't be too bad. But I'm not ready for it."