#RememberMe: Thoughts on returning to work after a career break

menopause woman

In 2012 I took part in one of the first corporate returnship programmes offered in the UK, with my former employer, a US investment bank.

Banks were early adopters of this new  approach; a well-intentioned  attempt to address recruitment and diversity challenges that could benefit both the organisation and people returning to work after career breaks. It was a very valuable experience; after five years away from work, I enjoyed meeting others with similar stories, reconnecting with the identity I’d carved over the course of a twenty year career and feeling the “buzz” of intellectual challenge and social connection again.

A 2016 PwC study highlighted the underutilised potential of professional women who are economically inactive because of caring commitments, the significant obstacles they face when returning to the labour market, and a “career break penalty” whereby returners often take lower skilled jobs than those they left, resulting in lower annual earnings of around £1bn. In 2017 Government pledged support to organisations employing parents and carers returning to work after two or more years, and earmarked £5 million to promote returnships.

These programmes are now widespread, helping organisations become more diverse and inclusive, better reflecting their client bases and the wider world. Apart from positive effects on innovation, productivity and competitiveness, organisations can access a broader church of employees from which to select leaders, enabling more diverse executive teams and improved gender pay parity. In theory at least…

So, employers are starting to see benefits to bringing “old” talent back. Good news! But what about the supply side? What should returners consider when making the leap back to work? Here are some thoughts:

Why did you leave?

Were the reasons specific to a stage in your life (for example starting a family) or were there other more pervasive reasons, to do with how well the organisation or job suited you and your needs? Both may have combined, encouraging your move, but, if your reasons included a clash between your values and those of the organisation, have things changed? Think about how to check this out; who can you talk to either inside or outside the firm? Even if there was no ‘noise’ of this kind when you left, it’s worth discovering more about a prospective employer’s values, culture and practices before joining.

Why do you want to return?

What are your priorities and what do you need from work now? Are the drivers financial or is it about participating in working life again, reconnecting with your professional identity and enjoying the many challenges that work offers? Are you keen to become a role model for your children by participating in working life? Think of the infamous ‘elevator pitch’; kids are some of the most challenging interrogators of our career story, and their scorn can hurt more than that of mere grown-ups. Good luck competing with a fire fighter’s story, no matter how intellectual or high powered you might like to think you are!

What’s happened in your life since you left?

Have there been important changes or experiences that have shaped who you’ve become? Have your values and priorities changed? Do you have new passions that you want to include in your working life? Increasingly, people want their working and personal lives to be more integrated, and expect their employer to at least ‘do no harm’ but ideally to promote strong values on issues like climate change and social responsibility.

Many don’t want to work for employers whose raison d’etre is just not compelling enough. Equally, good employers are becoming aware of their potential to play a positive role in society; this is helpful at a time when political priorities are focused elsewhere. Initiatives like B Corps (Benefit Corporation) are helping to make this a tangible concept. Employees vote with their feet and choose organisations who embrace this mindset. For example, Diageo is now offering 26 weeks paid leave to new fathers, recognising the broader societal impact and we should applaud this willingness to ‘connect the dots’. My colleague ’s piece explains more on this: Why is take-up of shared parental leave so low? Learning from parents’ return to work decisions | Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

What does this mean as you think about your next job?

Consider whether the same kind of role in the same kind of organisation will work for you now. Work out what tweaks or fundamental changes you need to make, ensuring your next role works for where you are now. Returnships often come with the chance to try out a role and this can be an excellent way to check this out.

How important will flexibility and balance be; can you work full time?

Are you prepared to take a ‘step back’ to ‘get back on the ladder’, to take a more junior role and/or earn less? If so, is this likely to be temporary?

Will this work for you financially? Be clear on what you need from an offering, both in terms of financial viability and ‘feeling fair’. Make sure that you can live on and with it, and consider whether it might work as a starting point to get back into a job that uses all of your experience.

Know that it’s no longer unusual to take a career break; in fact, it can be an indicator of positive qualities like open mindedness, confidence, and a spirit of adventure! If you have to work too hard to justify your decisions, perhaps this employer is not for you. If, for example, you prioritised raising children or caring for elders you’ve made a contribution to society. Should this be viewed negatively?

If your confidence is low, consider how you can address this. Some returners programmes offer coaching assistance and/or mentors to participants prior to and after return. Seek a network of like-minded people who made the return journey successfully; one positive result of social media is the opportunity to find, connect with and support one another.

Catherine HoganAbout the author

Catherine Hogan is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies

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