Changing the mindset on returners

Returner programmes are a way to change how we view people who have had a career break.

Returner Programme


I was at the’s roundtable on returners hosted by FDM Group yesterday. There were some great insights which will be reported in full in a white paper, but what struck me in general was the real desire to share ideas, to learn from each other and to encourage more returners back to work.  Participants spoke of encouraging people – still mainly women – back to work no matter if they did not end up working for their company. It was about changing mindsets for the long term about career breaks, which are likely to become a bigger issue for us all as we retire later.

One participant spoke of addressing a group of young graduate entrants who were a bit turned off to the whole returner issue, considering it as something that they would not have to think about possibly ever or at least not for a long, long time. Three minutes into her talk, they were all looking at their phones so she asked them if they planned to stay in work until they were 70 with no breaks. They seemed horrified by the thought. Many planned, for instance, to travel once they had built up a good bank balance. The participant pointed out that returner issues were indeed relevant to them and that changing the way we think about returners is going to be of benefit to everyone in the long run. And even if they might not take career breaks themselves, they will have friends, partners and relatives who will do so.

There are so many reasons, after all, that people might want to take a career break – whether due to caring responsibilities, ill health, a desire to travel, relocation and so forth. And we already have the precedent of extended parental leave as a blueprint. Many companies now realise that supporting parents back to work – with the big issue being tackling dips in confidence – more than pay off in terms of retention, loyalty and motivation.

Regaining confidence

Confidence is the big challenge for those returning to work. I have a friend who is in this position now. She and her now ex-partner have been running a business together for the last 17 years or more with her doing the paperwork and accounts and looking after three children. She feels deskilled. She feels afraid of going out into the world and looking for a job. “I feel like I’ve been locked in a prison cell,” she said. I know that her confidence will come back as soon as she gets out there. All the returners I speak to say so, but the reason for her low confidence is not just that she has been working in private, hidden from the world, but that she has imbibed the message that what she has done over the last 17 years – both in work and looking after her kids – is not considered to be of any real value.

There must be thousands and thousands of women who feel this way. They include not just those who have taken a career break, but all those who have been forced to take a job that is way below their abilities in order to be able to fit in the demands of work and family life and not die of exhaustion in the process.

This lack of confidence is the result of unfulfilled potential and of failing to value people for everything they are and can be. At one point in the roundtable discussion there was talk of how line managers should be rewarded for supporting returners. Rewarding behaviour ensures it is valued, it was stated. The messages we give people run deep in the psyche. We need to fully value and respect different career paths and different experiences so that everyone has the chance to fulfil their potential.

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