Returning to work after a break: lessons from mums

There was a big focus on getting people back to work in the Budget, with returnerships being a big feature of the offer for older workers, building on the success of returner programmes aimed mainly at parents.

woman looking at office buildings


The Budget has been in the headlines in connection with childcare issues, but there was a big focus on older workers too. One initiative was dubbed ‘returnerships’. It looks like a rebranding of other initiatives aimed at upskilling older workers and getting them back to work. In itself it’s not remarkable, but returner programmes have been something that mums who have taken career breaks have been benefiting for for some time. They started off in the financial services sector in response to concerns about women leaving the profession and about the gender pay gap. However, they have since spread to many other sectors. Some are run by individual employers; some are sector-wide, such as schemes focused on getting back to law, health, social services or teaching, for example. While they tended to be London-based in the past, now there are specific programmes in different regions of the country.

Most recently, Women Returners, which has done incredible pioneering work for returners, has launched a free STEM programme with STEM Returners. It’s a Government-backed programme for women in STEM in the Midlands and North of England and aims to support 100 women back to work in STEM-related jobs. Yet many employer-led programmes are still very small scale, given the number of women who need to get back to work. Going to Women Returners conferences I am always struck by just how many extremely qualified women are in the room.

The use of the label returnerships in connection with older workers is interesting as it is a reference to the earlier programmes which are mainly aimed at mums and is a recognition of their success and how much of a model they can be for those returning from breaks for all manner of reasons. Indeed many of the programmes that have been pioneering for parents – including maternity coaching and gradual return – have relevance for other workers.

The trick is to get this model adopted broadly and by employers across the board. At our Top Employer Awards an SME asked how they could support returners back to work. In the past I have spoken to SMEs who have employed returners and offered them six months or so of extra support to overcome barriers such as confidence – no matter who you are, being out of the workplace for a few years doing something completely different can have an impact on your confidence, but it usually takes only a few weeks to adapt back to the routine.

One of the good things about returner programmes is that the impact of one greater returner can have multiple positive effects. Managers change their view about people who have had career gaps. They see that these are a huge source of talent.

More and more of us will have career breaks as the population ages. It makes sense on every level. More and more of us will need support back to the workplace and also need help to update our skills or acquire new ones for a different sector. And employers will need to buy into all of this because the labour market shortage doesn’t look like it is ending any time soon. It shouldn’t be that employers only pay attention because of labour market shortages, however. Returners have a lot to offer – having been away from the office they have a different perspective and can offer fresh views on processes and practice. Everyone wins.

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