Career Breaks Are the New Norm – So Why Are They Still Stigmatised?
June 7, 2019

When we think of career breaks, motherhood tends to spring to mind. But there are many other reasons why people take time
off work, and getting back in isn’t always easy.

Geoff was 44 when he found himself faced with a difficult decision: to leave his 30-year coal mining career behind him and retrain, or to continue doing what he knew best. He was at this crossroads because his 11-year-old daughter was concerned that he was putting himself in danger each day; she was scared of losing her dad. She didn’t know it, but her fear was very much grounded in reality. Mining has the third highest fatality rate of any industry. It now claims the lives of nine workers on average each year, and that number was even higher when Geoff was working in the industry.

With his daughter’s concerns front of mind, he decided to take a leap of faith and retrain as a teacher. Following two years of accelerated study, he found himself in a position where he was entering a new industry for the first time in over three decades.

“It was a really big decision and it was financially difficult. At times I have regretted it. I left right before the mining boom. People were climbing over themselves to get a job in mining, and I was walking away from it.

“But I didn’t know there was going to be a boom. It was incredible – people’s wages doubled. Having said that, a friend of mine got killed during that time, so there are two sides to it all. That could have been me. It’s not all about the money. You’ve got to have your health.”

This story is as personal as it gets for me. Geoff is my dad. As a scared 11-year-old, I didn’t think beyond my own fears. I just wanted him out of there. But now, with the power of hindsight on my side, I can grasp just how huge it was to shift gears in his career. My dad’s story is a lesson that sometimes a career gap is taken for the sake of others, rather than for personal reasons.

Career Break Breakdown

Sixty-four per cent of female and 29 per cent of male workers in Australia and New Zealand say they have taken a career break, according to recruitment company Hays’s recent diversity and inclusion report.

For women, the main reason is to have children (41 per cent), followed by travel (14 per cent). Men cite travel (25 per cent) and study/retraining (21 per cent) as their main reasons for taking time off.

Come time to re-enter the workforce, about two-thirds of both women and men (69 and 66 per cent respectively) find it challenging, with their greatest fear being how to respond to an interview question about the relevancy of their skills following their time off.

“I took a significant pay cut, and now operate in a role that is junior to my qualifications and experience,” said one of the survey respondents.

Another said, “Following my travels, there was little acknowledgement of my past experience. I was perceived as out-of-date for equivalent roles and unable to get past selection criteria that asked for current experience. And I was told I was overqualified for lesser roles.”

The Recruiter’s Perspective

It can be extremely hard to jam your foot back in the door once you’ve voluntarily stepped out of it, and people have different reasons for doing so. They might need time off to care for children; perhaps they’re recovering from an injury; or, like my dad, they might want to set themselves on a new path. Whatever the reason, there’s often some fear surrounding the transition back to work.

“There might be a misunderstanding around what instigated the career gap in the first place,” says Lisa Morris, director SA and NT for Hays.

“There might be fear it could be interpreted as not being able to find a role, or that someone was dismissed from their previous organisation.”

Hazarding a guess, Morris says around 20 per cent of Hays’s candidates are people who are returning after a career break. The most common reason – maternity leave – is the easiest to explain, but she says they are also seeing more people take breaks as they near the end of their careers. “It might be a trial retirement or time to pursue some travel opportunities.”

When she assesses a candidate who is returning to work, she quizzes them about their motivation for coming back into the workforce. She’ll ask, “Why is now the right time to return, and not six months ago?” and “What happened in that time off that has contributed to your growth and development? Where will that take you in your next step of employment?”

The Honest Truth

When a career gap extends to years and not just months, jobseekers seldom feel comfortable sharing the reason behind their hiatus. That’s mainly because the truth is sensitive in such situations and they feel being vague about it – or even creating a distortion or fabrication – might be more appealing to recruiters.

“Because some people are nervous about the reason for their career gap being misunderstood, they don’t give a lot away. From an employer and recruiter perspective, that causes more concern. Your antenna is up,” says Morris.

Joel Clapham agrees a transparent approach is best. In 2016, he stepped away from his role as a general manager of communications and marketing for an industry super fund.

“To be completely honest, I took a break because my doctor told me I needed to put my mental health front and centre. I was at a point where I felt I was one or two more bad days away from walking out to the balcony at work and jumping off. I didn’t want to do that, but I was feeling like it might be inevitable.

“I was unhappy professionally, my marriage was ending and I didn’t like who I was or where I was heading. My GP said something along the lines of, ‘You’ve got all these things that are trying to crush you, so let’s take one of them away so you can focus on the others.’ Work was the easiest thing for me to pause.”

Initially, Clapham thought he might take a few months off – enough time to recuperate and plan his next step. Two-and-a-half years later he’s yet to return to work, and he’s better for it.

A month into his leave, Clapham was still receiving emails from people asking where he’d gone. It all got to be a little too much for him.

“It seems silly, but accounting for my absence from the workforce caused me more grief than taking the actual time off.”

On Clapham’s LinkedIn profile, the period between November 2016 and August 2018 reads: Took an extended break from the workforce to focus on restoring good mental health, and to rebuild myself after a breakdown.

“I wanted to put [the reason for my time off] on LinkedIn because I didn’t want to have a gap there. Particularly at a senior level, when there’s a gap, the natural assumption is that you were made redundant, or you were fired and it took you a whole year to find another job. Not that there’s anything bad about that – it happens – but I wanted to take ownership of my situation. I wanted to claim it and say I made this decision for a very specific reason.”

He is now retraining as a mental health worker. Asked if he feels any fear around having to explain his absence to a recruiter, he says: “I feel no shame in being a human being. My view now is that if anyone has an issue with me taking time off to deal with my mental health, then that’s a red flag for me and they’re not someone I’d want to work with.”

Not all candidates will be as willing as Clapham to speak candidly about mental health. Morris says that job candidates who are hesitant can, in a first interview, simply cite “health reasons”. As the relationship develops, perhaps in a second or third interview, they can provide more detail.

Being Progressive

Some organisations not only avoid judging people with career gaps; they create bespoke recruitment and training programs to entice these candidates. Deloitte, Macquarie Bank and JP Morgan are some which host a variation of a “returnee-ship”.

When Fran Caratti’s sister died, Fran gained custody of her six-year-old niece and her family of five became six. With a new member of the family onboard, Caratti made the decision to take a career break. When she decided to return three years later, it wasn’t smooth sailing. Despite her extensive experience, she didn’t have much luck finding a job.

A chance sighting on LinkedIn led her to EY Reconnect, a 12 week program run by Ernst & Young (EY) offering senior-level training and individual support to women who have been out of the workforce for several years or more.

Lauren Stanton, EY Oceania talent sourcing lead, says the Reconnect pilot program was launched last year and saw 11 of 13 participants offered ongoing roles, with nine moving into permanent positions.

“We knew there were many skilled women globally who were on extensive career breaks, particularly at the middle management level and above. It was a great opportunity for EY to tap into an untapped talent pool and give highly skilled women the opportunity to restart their careers,” says Stanton.

Participants go through the program as a cohort, and each person is allocated a buddy for general daily queries and a counsellor for solid career guidance.

Caratti took part in the program and is now working four days a week as a manager in EY’s markets and business development team.

Assessing Fairly

Sometimes recruiters’ fears are founded. There could be potential red flags attached to someone who has been out of work for years and they need to be aware of them.

Morris says inconsistencies in a candidate’s employment timeline, or a lack of references to back up an explanation for entry and exit in their last role, are causes for concern.

“You can ask questions, indirectly, to get the information you need. I like asking, ‘What did your career break allow you to experience in other aspects of your life?’ Get them talking about the break. That’s when you can start to notice if there’s some hesitancy or inconsistencies in their storyline.”

As career breaks are becoming more common, it’s important those who have taken a break – for whatever reason – are not overlooked in the recruitment process.

“Everyone’s career is on a trajectory. Try to keep your vision on where that person is going and if there’s an alignment with where your organisation is going,” says Morris.

Stanton says that once they’re in, “It’s really important for employers to keep in mind the life experience and knowledge that potential recruits may have gained during their time off. It can be a real advantage to your team and the broader organisation. It’s clear that inclusive teams with diverse backgrounds and perspectives consistently perform better.”

This article originally appeared in HRM magazine’s May 2019 edition.

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