Illustration: Kate Hazell 

WORK SMARTER

Is it easy to go back to work after a career break?

Career paths are changing and more of us are considering taking time out from our careers. But, once you do, how hard is it to get back in the swing of things, asks Clare Thorp

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By Clare Thorp on

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If getting back into work mode after a weekend is tough, imagine coming back after one, five or even 15 years away. Nowadays, you might not have to imagine, because a gap on your CV is no longer a career no-no. There might come a time when we all want a break – to try a new career, look after children or take a sabbatical and see the world. Thankfully, employers are now becoming more receptive to people taking time out. 

While the idea of going back into the workplace after a long-term absence may seem daunting, it is important to note that there is plenty of support for career returners these days. Organisations such as Women Returners Professional Network connect experienced professionals with opportunities, and there are lots of forward-thinking companies recognising returners' skills and experience. Many now run dedicated programmes to help employees adjust back into working life.

There are also organisations that encourage companies to be more open to recruiting returners, such as She’s Back. Lisa Unwin is co-founder and she has just published a book of the same name with advice on returning to work.

“It's about being strategic — and using the contacts you have available," she says. "If you had a 15-year career before you took a break, that's 15 years of relationships and networks, and they’re quite easy to pick up again. Job-hunting is hard and you can’t do it half-heartedly. You need to be savvy about how you describe yourself.”

Here, five people who have jumped back into working life give their advice on how they readjusted.

Be proud of your career break and the experience you gained because of it

Ann Rappaport, advisory manager at EY, took a three-year career break to care for her elderly mother and renovate her mother’s home, before returning to work through the firm’s career-returner programme, EY Reconnect.

“For anyone returning after a career break, finding the right role is really important. It might be tempting to apply for anything vaguely suitable that comes up and wonder why you’re unenthusiastic about it, but I found it helpful to reach out to friends and colleagues to explain the type of work I was looking for. A friend told me about EY Reconnect. They accept applicants who have been out of the workplace for two years or more, so the interview process felt much easier because you knew from the outset that the company would be supportive of how much time out you'd had.

"Remember, a career break is nothing to be ashamed of and as long as you can explain a reason for it, don't feel it’s something you have to hide. In my interview, we talked about my project management of the property I renovated, which was a full-time job in itself – but also a really useful experience. 

“Creating a good relationship with the builder so the process went smoothly, networking and using my connections to find people to help at different stages of the renovation, in-depth research and following my instincts were all skills that I could apply to working on projects at EY. Another important transferable skill was recognising the value of my own style of managing to get things done.

"I also think it’s important to remember that readjusting to work the first few weeks is difficult for anyone; just give it time. If you liked working in the past, there is no reason you wouldn’t again.”

A SABBATICAL HELPED ME REALISE THAT I DIDN’T WANT A NEW CAREER – I JUST NEEDED A BREAK

Lucy, an account director for a PR agency, took time off to go travelling.

“Taking time out of my career to travel around Asia was the best decision I’ve made, even if some people thought I’d gone mad, leaving a good career to head into an abyss of uncertainty. Many told me I’d struggle to find a job when I got back, but I used the last three months of travelling to get back into the working mindset. I spent a couple of hours a week researching companies I might want to work for, eventually speaking with one on Skype. I met them in person the day after my flight home and was offered the job a couple of days later. I actually think employers view having travelled as a good thing. As long as you can give a valid reason for why you’ve taken some time out, they respect you for it. Getting back into a 9-5 routine was hard for the first few weeks, but, by the end of travelling, I’d realised I wanted a purpose again, so it felt right. I wasn’t sick of my career – I was just tired and ready for a break.”

REMIND YOURSELF OF ALL YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS BEFORE YOU TOOK YOUR BREAK

Jennifer Chapman, senior associate at f1 Recruitment, took a five-year career break, having previously worked for a publishing company.

“By the time my daughter started school and my son was three, I’d been off work for five years and, if I’m honest, was starting to feel bored. I was lucky, because I saw a job at a website that appealed and they were completely supportive of me and my situation. They saw I had the skill set they needed and, in return, let me work part-time.

"I’m now at a recruitment agency helping others return after career breaks. It is about believing in yourself and reminding yourself that you can do it. If you’re lacking in confidence, write down everything you accomplished before you took time out. Ignore any voices of guilt in your head and don’t beat yourself up too much. Dig deep to find your confidence again and talk to someone who has done it before you.”

IT’S IMPORTANT TO HAVE A GOOD SUPPORT NETWORK AND NOT TRY TO BE SUPERWOMAN

Judith Bradbury, head of management services for a financial-services company, took a 12-year break.

“I took a 12-year career break kind of accidentally. I had my kids, moved to the Middle East for my husband’s job, then returned to a different part of the UK and concentrated on family life for a while. But in the months leading up to my fiftieth birthday last year, it felt like a real now-or-never moment. I’d spent so much time, money and effort gaining experience and qualifications, and I wanted to use them – and my brain – again. Plus, I missed the social side of work.

"After having a few knockbacks from jobs I would have previously been a shoo-in for, I got a role via a company’s returner scheme – an avenue that proved invaluable for me.

"After such a long break, getting back into the mindset of work was hard. It was exhausting, taking in so much new information, and in the first few weeks I’d fall asleep almost as soon as I got home. You find yourself putting on a front in the workplace because you think people are wondering if you’re going to hack it, so it’s important to have a really good support network and people you can talk to. Another challenge was realising that I didn’t have to be superwoman and achieve all the things in the domestic setting that I did when I didn’t have a job. You have to learn to let go a bit."

NEVER, EVER APOLOGISE FOR HAVING A CAREER BREAK

Laura Weston, marketing director at communications firm Golin, took a three-year break to raise her children.

“My advice is not to be apologetic about your career break. Rehearse how you would talk about it in an interview so you deliver the point in a confident, succinct way. 

"When I decided to return to work, a friend suggested a returnship programme called Back2Businessship, which helps build skills and confidence for parents returning to work and connects you with progressive employers. 

"Don’t worry about all the obstacles, like how you’d juggle childcare – once you secure a role and are working, it’s amazing how everything fits into place. Just make sure you have support from your partner and friends. It’s a big transition – I felt out of my comfort zone for a while, but it was definitely the right thing for me.”

@thorpers

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Illustration: Kate Hazell 
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