The skills and experience gained from a career break can be just as valuable as those gained from a previous role. So why are they still viewed negatively, and what can HR do to change this?
Career breaks are becoming an increasingly common part of modern work culture as a result of the pandemic. Many people are reassessing their work- life priorities, and looking to travel, discover new opportunities or simply take an extended break to recover from the overwork they’ve experienced over the last few years.
However, even though career breaks are going to become more common, they are often still stigmatised, with research from LinkedIn showing that one in five hiring managers reject people who’ve had an extended period off work.
So what should employers be doing to destigmatise them? HRM spoke with two experts about the benefits of career breaks and how HR can get on the front foot by asking all the right questions during a job interview.
Making career breaks “part of the menu”
In 2018, Dr Juliet Bourke took a six month sabbatical from her former job with one of the big four accounting firms. She moved with her husband and daughter to Italy, where she worked on her PhD, recharged and eventually returned to work with renewed motivation.
“My sabbatical gave me the space to appreciate work in a different way and to re-enter the fray with gusto,” she wrote in an article for BOSS in The Australian Financial Review.
Speaking to HRM, she says this was a less common thing to do back then. Since the pandemic, things have changed.
“There’s a greater need for the ability to take breaks now. It needs to become part of that menu of things that HR can offer,” says Bourke, who is now a Professor of Practice at UNSW Business School.
In a survey of 1018 employees around Australia, LinkedIn found that almost half of respondents (45 per cent) had taken a career break. Of this group, only 13 per cent took extended time off work because they lost their jobs, suggesting that the rest did so voluntarily.
“A [career break] is part of a rich tapestry of someone’s life, in the same way that you might ask them about what they got out of being with a past employer.” – Dr Juliet Bourke, Professor of Practice, UNSW Business School
However, within the 45 per cent, almost one in two believe there is still a negative perception and ongoing stigma around having these sometimes critical breaks from work.
To address this stigma, LinkedIn recently introduced a new Career Break feature to enable professionals to showcase the skills and experience they gained from their time off to prospective employers.
“Parental leave, travelling the world, or taking time off for mental health to reduce burnout shouldn’t be frowned upon, and workers are entitled to take a career break whenever their personal circumstances demand it,” says Prue Cox, Director Enterprise SEA & ANZ, Marketing Solutions at LinkedIn.
An effective flexible work policy can help HR to meet employees where they are and understand how best to support them – whether that is through a career break, a compressed work week, or otherwise.
Career breaks shouldn’t be a last resort
Employers should talk about career breaks when discussing mental health and wellbeing at work, as part of a preventative strategy, says Bourke.
“In the past, I have definitely seen people becoming close to leaving an organisation, then someone pulls out that menu and says, ‘Have you considered working flexibly? Have you considered taking a break?,’” she says.
Career breaks should be more about refreshing than recovering, says Bourke. Tapping into your people’s needs before they reach breaking point can make all the difference.
“We are burning people out faster than we have ever done before,” says Bourke. “The need to have ‘time out’ has increased, and we need to do that before we [experience] burnout. By then, it is way too late, because then you’re just spending your time on sabbatical in recovery mode.”
LinkedIn found that among Australians who’ve taken a career break, 12 per cent attributed it to burnout, and Gen Z was “far more likely” to cite mental health as a reason for taking a break than Boomers (19 per cent compared to two per cent).
“When thinking about flexible working more broadly, the younger generation are also more likely to leave a job if they don’t offer a feasible flexible working policy, with 64 per cent having left or considered leaving a job because of this,” says Cox.
Ask the right questions
A career break can help employees build time management, organisational and networking skills just as effectively as they could in the workplace, says Bourke.
“They can be really great learning moments, which then adds value back to the workplace.”
Cox says when you’re interviewing someone with a career break on their resume, asking the right questions is critical.
“Instead of questioning the career break in a negative way, it’s about framing the question more positively. The life experience somebody can gain from taking a career break can sometimes outweigh simply jumping from one job to another with no gaps,” she says.
Bourke agrees: “A [career break] is part of a rich tapestry of someone’s life, in the same way that you might ask them about what they got out of being with a past employer.
“What you’re recruiting for is that person’s technical skills, judgement, values and interpersonal skills. A whole raft of things, including their life experiences.”
Bourke suggests asking questions such as, “What did you learn during your sabbatical?”, “Did it signify something for you?” and “How will you do things differently at work post your career break?”
Focusing on the ‘what’ was learned during a break, instead of ‘why’ the break was taken, will steer the conversation in a more productive direction, and help reveal if they are the best fit for the role.
“Given there’s a war for talent… there’s this untapped pool of talent in our community. One of those untapped pools are people who have stepped away from the workforce for a while. And that could be for a range of reasons, including parenting, elder care, study or travel. During each of these moments people develop different skills and I would love to see employers value that, rather than just what is learnt in the workplace,” says Bourke.
The power of visibility
Another way to lift the veil on career breaks is to have HR champion the employees who have already taken one, says Bourke. This boosts visibility, gives legitimacy to promises of a flexible work environment, and gives employees more confidence to follow in their footsteps.
“When people see role models that have done it, it opens it up for everyone else. I certainly saw this after I came back [from my sabbatical] in 2018. A number of people took sabbaticals after me,” says Bourke.
HR can profile these employees on the company’s intranet and online, through social media or the company’s website, suggests Bourke.
Cox adds that: “Employers and HR should encourage employees who do take career breaks to include it on their LinkedIn profile, and take them into account when considering new hires and promotions. “
Supporting re-entry into the workforce
While it’s valuable to prepare employees for a future career break, a key moment to prepare for is the return to work after a break, says Bourke.
“That’s actually the risky moment,” she says. “Because suddenly, you’re thrown back into that frenetic flow of work. There’s a real departure between your headspace and where the organisation is at.”
Programs that help people re-enter the workforce after an extended break are important to help people build skills, bridge gaps in experience and regain confidence.
“I found the first year after coming back [from my sabbatical] very difficult,” says Bourke. “It took me a year to enjoy my work again. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought I would just feel refreshed and therefore the enjoyment would come from being refreshed. But that wasn’t enough.
“In retrospect, if there had been stronger conversations with me which asked the question, ‘What could you do differently now? What would you like to do? How can we use these new experiences, rather than putting you straight back into the role you had previously held?’, it would have enabled me to get to a point of enjoyment of work faster,” she says.
Rejecting those who’ve taken extended career breaks is potentially shooting yourself in the foot. With the labour market the way it is, employers should embrace anyone with the skills and attitude to do the job well – especially those who’ve been brave enough to divert their path to do something a little differently.
“Overall, career breaks and flexible working are here to stay,” says Cox. “New additions to the workforce clearly value the personal benefits of both.”