It's one of the enviable perks of the academic world: Professors get several months off, paid sabbaticals, to focus on their own personal and professional development. However in the corporate world, sabbaticals have been relatively rare, no surprise in this down economy. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, paid sabbatical programs are offered only at 5% of U.S. companies.

Yet, nearly 25% of the employers on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2012 offer paid sabbaticals. And, while you might imagine that in today's economy, only the largest companies, the IBMs of the world, would offer such expensive perks, do a little research and you'll discover notable exceptions.

MeetUp, a Silicon Alley-based company that helps people plan meetings, has revenues "just north" of $12 million a year and 75 employees. Yet, last summer, the company--founded in 2002--launched a sabbatical program, open to any employee who has been at MeetUp for at least seven years. Brendan McGovern, MeetUp CFO and a co-founder, was the first to take sabbatical, going on a three-month, round-the-world tour of 20 cities from February until May last year.  Since then, three other MeetUp employees have gone on three-month sabbaticals.

The Pay Offs of Paid Time Off

The program, the brainchild of MeetUp CEO Scott Heiferman, was intended as a way to retain the best employees. "When someone has been at MeetUp for seven years, it means they're a superstar," says McGovern. "The way most folks get a nice, long break from work is they leave their job and then scratch their itch and find a new job. Scott's idea was to give people a break and something new" without losing them for good. McGovern set up a gmail account while he was away and checked it only once a week; MeetUp staff would send him a weekly report, summarizing what happened. But he wasn't asked to call in for meetings, and he says he can't remember ever being drawn into any emergencies. "It was just telling me what happened that week, and I'd read it, with detached interest. Like I was reading the New York Times," he says.

And when he returned, he felt reinvigorated and "as if I had a new job."

In some cases, a sabbatical has literally led to a new job. When a MeetUp software engineer returned from his three month sabbatical in Berlin, he talked about the Berlin Hack and Tell group, similar to the NYC Hack and Tell group, a place where techies share ideas and their work. "He told us he'd love to move back there, and we said, 'Wait a second, let's see how this could work," says McGovern. The employee now lives in Berlin and has opened MeetUp's software engineering office. "There is huge demand for great tech talent here" in the US, says McGovern, noting that while Berlin has lots of techies, there aren't a lot of start ups vying for them in the city, so MeetUp sees this Berlin outpost as a way to bring in some star engineers.

The sabbatical also turns out to have been a good way for employees to stretch. Before McGovern went on his sabbatical, he says he spent six months briefing four members of his team on his work and handing off responsibilities. "It really allowed people to step up and explore new areas," McGovern says. (Want to learn more about what it's like to work at MeetUp? Read the company's tongue-in-cheek comparison of MeetUp to Google.)