When one of his most valued employees announced that she was quitting to hike the Appalachian Trail, Kurt Bleicken felt apang of panic. So Bleicken, the CEO of GreenPages, a Kittery, Maine, computer reselling company with 1998 revenues of$88 million, told the employee she could return to her job after she was done hiking. Several months later, the employeecame back charged up and more productive. "I thought that maybe this isn't such a bad idea," says Bleicken. He now offers asix-week sabbatical, with full pay, to his 125 employees after five years of employment.

Bleicken isn't alone. These days employers and employees alike are thinking more about balancing work and home. Andcompanies conscious of the tight labor market are looking for ways to keep employees happy and productive over the longhaul. While sabbaticals are hardly epidemic -- especially among small companies -- some growing businesses are starting tooffer longtime employees paid or unpaid periods of extended leave.

In 1990, Michael May and his partners left Apple Computer to found Empower Trainers and Consultants, a training businessin Overland Park, Kans., that had revenues of $10.8 million in 1998. None of them had been at Apple for the five yearsrequired to take advantage of its sabbatical policy. May says he regrets missing the opportunity, so he instituted a sabbaticalpolicy at Empower. After three years of service, employees are eligible for two weeks of sabbatical that they can combinewith one week of vacation time, for a total of three consecutive weeks off; after six years, they can similarly combine fiveweeks of sabbatical with one of their vacation weeks.

You might argue that the last thing a growing company can afford is to let staff members go off gallivanting for long stretchesof time. "From an overhead standpoint, it's not cheap," May admits. In his business, "giving someone six weeks off could costyou $25,000 to $30,000 in lost revenue." But refreshed employees, he argues, are more creative employees, and that couldenhance long-term retention and productivity. "This has actually saved us a bunch of people who had totally reachedburnout," says May. Plus, the benefit helps bring people on board in the first place. "It's a differentiator that most firms don'thave," he says. "We have a tough time competing for people if they just want the money."

Sabbaticals can disrupt a company's work flow, so May requires employees to give a minimum of two months' notice. Whatif an employee decides not to return? Both Bleicken and May admit that's a risk. But if that occurs, the reason goes beyondthe sabbatical, May thinks. "If they weren't happy with what they were doing, they probably weren't as good at doing it."