Towards normalisation of career breaks

As prepares to celebrate its 10th Top Employer Awards, Julianne Miles from Women Returners looks back at progress made for returners over the last few years and forward to how far we need to go to normalise career breaks.

Coffee, an iPhone and a small blackboard saying 'back to work'


Geraldine took a career break for six years to look after her partner with a terminal illness.

Arzhang had a three-year break when she came to the UK from Afghanistan as a refugee.

Richard took a two-year break for childcare and relocation.

Claire took a three-year break to manage the medical interventions for her son with Down’s Syndrome.

These stories of returner programme participants may challenge your view of a career returner. Most people picture a mother who has taken a voluntary break to focus on her children until they start primary school. At Women Returners, we’re well aware that the reality is far more complex. We support thousands of returners to get back to fulfilling
suitable-level work, through our Women Returners Professional Network and our partnership returner programmes (open to men as well as women) with over 70 employers.

We find that people take career breaks at different ages and for different reasons. The key driver may well be childcare, but it may also be a variety of other reasons, including caring for sick or elderly relatives, physical health, burnout, relocation or a combination of factors that have made working in a professional job unsustainable. Although 90% of people on caring-related careers break are women, men also take breaks for all the reasons above.

With working lives now extending up to and beyond 70, dual-career couples the norm, and the ageing of the population increasing the need for eldercare, it’s likely that the majority of employees are going to want or need to take a career break at some point in the course of their 50-year career.

Towards normalisation?

Attitudes to career returners are slowly starting to change. The rapid growth of UK returnships and supported hire returner programmes in the last five years is breaking down the barriers to returning to a professional role after many years out. More and more employers are finding that returners bring an impressive range of skills and experience from before and during their career break, together with a high degree of motivation and a fresh perspective.

Despite this, there is still a long way to go to remove the career break penalty. Most recruitment processes are still biased against returners. They’re based on the assumption that successful careers take a linear upward path and that the ‘up-pause-restart’ route of a career returner is a red flag.

It’s great to see the increasing focus among UK businesses on flexible working in terms of when, where and how people work. It’s now time for employers to actively enable another form of flexibility: flexible career paths, recognising that life often doesn’t follow straight lines.

As one simple practical step towards achieving this objective, I’d like to encourage all recruiters to stop and think next time they are about to reject a job application simply because “we have other candidates with more recent experience”.

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