People take career breaks for all different types of reasons, from dealing with mental health issues or medical problems to taking time out to care for someone in their family. Hitting pause on the climb up the career ladder is something that happens a lot, and the reason why is totally the business of the person involved.
The problem lies in the trouble that person might experience getting back into work after being out for so long, be it down to a lack of confidence, worrying about explaining the gap on their CV or a missing skill set that they feel they should have learned.
Unsurprisingly, women are the most likely to be affected by this. Due to childbirth and care, they are far more likely than men to take a career break – whether it’s for one or two years until their child is in school (thank you, extortionate costs of childcare!) or many years, until their child is grown up. Either way, the career break is yet another obstacle stacked against women trying to evolve their careers (and salaries) at the same rate as their male counterparts.
There are, however, a growing number of places working to combat this. Jobs and recruiting site Glassdoor has recently noted an increase in companies offering 'returnship' positions – job roles which are specifically designed to help people back into work after a career break. They’ve been around in the UK for about five years but right now, there are more on offer than ever.
So how do they work? Well, it depends on the company and how its returnship scheme works. Many run for six months, with a view to the participant applying for a job at the company upon completion. Returnships are, of course, paid and usually run with an open approach to flexible or reduced working hours to help the participant, who may still be dealing with childcare, doctor's appointments or mental health worries.
At the moment, it does tend to be bigger corporate companies that offer these schemes. Sky's programme, for instance, is open to anyone who has had a career break of two or more years for any reason. "Returners are placed on a project or in a team where their skills and experience will be highly valued and utilised," says Simon Keates, recruitment manager for technology, group product and digital at the company. "They also participate in coaching workshops and benefit from focused training and mentoring to support their transition." Other companies that offer returnship schemes include Siemens, Amazon, Capgemini, J.P. Morgan and Deloitte.
"We unfortunately still have a very unequal balance of gender at the top table of UK business," says Jo Cresswell, careers expert at Glassdoor. It's true – a report this year found that there are more Steves, Andrews and Peters running the UK's FTSE 100 firms than there are women in total. "Businesses – and employees themselves – know this is wrong and want to see change," Jo continues, explaining why returnships are increasingly popular. "Businesses are becoming very aware of the fact that to attract and retain experienced talent, they need to offer job roles that fit people’s lives."
"I wanted to go back to work because I was missing something," says Birgit Saul, now a talent management partner at Siemens, who took 10 years out when she had children to care for her family. "I loved my role as a mother but I wanted to again have a professional life, getting acknowledgement outside of my family, gaining a bit more confidence and understanding if I can still have a career as I did in the past." Birgit worried that she wouldn’t be able to do a good job and have enough time for her family and, after so many years away from the workplace, she knew she couldn’t return at the same level she had left, although she didn’t really feel like starting again from the bottom.
"It was a challenging experience," she admits about her placement. But she says she learned a lot about herself as a person and gained much more confidence, alongside the new skills (and job!) she picked up.
While these schemes are marketed heavily at mums, it is only because they make up the majority of applicants; anyone who has taken any kind of career break can apply. Arzhang, who is now a policy and strategy officer at Enfield Council after completing their returners programme, took three years out when she moved from Afghanistan to the UK as a refugee with her husband and son. "In my case, I required a great deal of adaptability not only because I returned to work after a long break but also because there is a massive difference between the context of my work then and now," she told the Women Returners Professional Network (WRPN), an organisation founded to share advice, opportunities and expertise for women looking to get back into work after a break.
Julianne Miles CEO of WRPN says, “Having led the introduction of returnship programmes in the UK since 2014, we are thrilled by the ever-increasing body of evidence demonstrating the success of returner programmes in getting experienced professionals back into senior roles. We hope that this success will encourage many more organisations to access and support this fantastic talent pool.”
Panchali, now a business development leader who also used the WRPN to find her returnship, parked her career after moving from London to Mumbai on a promotion. "The hectic lifestyle was beginning to take its toll on my health. It was time to take a step back." Seven years later, after applying for a returnship at Mastercard, she found herself back in work. "Was the journey easy? No," she says. "But you have to remind yourself that you can do this."
"My advice to those who are on a break from their work, is not to forget the time spent away from work doesn’t make you a different person," says Arzhang. "It may dent your confidence but that can be regained very quickly if you continue to believe in yourself as a professional person."