The pros and cons of a career break

Materials World magazine
,
1 Mar 2017

Career suicide or an opportunity to reset the work-life balance? Kathryn Allen looks at the concerns over, and benefits of, taking a career break.

Around 90,000 people in the UK take a career break each year, according to thecareerbreaksite.com. A career break is a period of leave from employment, typically to raise a family, travel or for personal reasons, after which the employee may or may not return to the same position. While a career break differs from a sabbatical, which is a set period of leave in which the employer will hold the employee’s job open for them, these terms are often used interchangeably. However, not all employers offer sabbaticals and their length can vary. Sometimes a career break is the only option, despite having both benefits and drawbacks. 

A career break is often associated with concerns over stigmatisation and negative effects on long-term career goals. Workers may be reluctant to take a career break fearing that they will miss opportunities and promotions, and, particularly in advanced research, will be out of the loop, missing crucial developments. 

There is also the stigmatisation of a gap on your CV, with employers potentially associating it with a loss of skills and professional drive. Economic issues cause further concern, with most career breaks being unpaid, which can add to the pressure of finding a job following the break if the employee does not return to their prior position. 

Workers may find that, on returning to employment, they are working below their skill level. PwC research in conjunction with the 30% Club and Women Returners found that 427,000 women in the UK, including engineers, scientists, researchers and doctors, currently on career breaks are likely to return to the workforce in the future, but 249,000 professional women are likely to move into lower-skilled jobs. This appears to corroborate fears that career breaks devalue a person, preventing them from simply picking up where they left off. It is also thought that career breaks more commonly impact women. 

Yong Jing Teow, author and economist at PwC, said, ‘Although our Women in Work Index for 2016 shows that the UK has made significant strides in improving female labour market outcomes over the years, professional women returning from career breaks are a significant source of underused potential. Some of the challenges these highly-qualified women face include being unable to find high-paying roles that offer flexibility, or they can't get back on the corporate ladder due to the negative bias associated with CV gaps [...] There is a clear and compelling economic case for getting more women back into high-quality work. This is especially the case in engineering careers, where women make up less than one tenth of the workforce, as well as in other sectors that are traditionally male-dominated.’ 

The benefits 

Despite these concerns, career breaks can have significant benefits. A career break offers the opportunity for self-development through new experiences, whether that’s travel, volunteering or raising a family. The benefits of these experiences can be invaluable, offering a fresh perspective and change of routine. Taking a career break to travel, for example, allows the experience of other cultures and develops communication and independence. Volunteering not only helps worthwhile causes but develops interpersonal and industry-specific skills. 

Time out from work offers the opportunity to try a new career or develop a hobby into a career, demonstrating a personal drive for self-improvement. It can also allow those with young children to spend time with them at home and, with high costs of professional childcare, this may be the more favourable option. 

The manner in which career breaks or gaps are presented on a CV can be crucial in finding employment afterwards. Unexplained gaps may be seen as an issue but if travel, volunteering or childcare, for example, are listed and the skills gained during this period are exhibited, they can be seen as a benefit. 

The perception of career breaks appears to be changing. Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, Managing Director and Founder of the thecareerbreaksite.com, said, ‘Career breaks are better received now than they have ever been. They are seen as a “career step” rather than time off [...] Soft skills are much prized by employers these days, and career breakers can develop a whole range of these. They also tend to return with greater confidence and, if they're returning to the same company, increased loyalty [...] One key reason for employers to allow their staff to take career breaks is that it's cheaper than hiring someone new. It's not solely that they don't have to pay an employee while they're off learning and travelling, nor that they have to pay for the skills they're developing – it's also that the employee has built up relationships with clients, colleagues and suppliers that are extremely valuable.’ 

There are various Fellowships available to help those in advanced research get back into work following a career break, for example, The Royal Society’s Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship and the University of Oxford’s Returning Carer’s Fund. Similarly, there are Fellowships aimed specifically at promoting the participation of female scientists, engineers or researchers, such as the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowships. 

Know your legal position 

If you are planning to take a career break it’s crucial to know where you stand legally. As no laws deal directly with career breaks and it’s solely an agreement between the employer and employee, it’s vital to agree and lay out the terms of the break in writing – that is, if you will be returning to work after the break. Even if it is agreed that you will return, this may not be legally binding. Things to agree on include the length of the break, notice period and whether the terms of your contract will continue while you are away. 

Five tips on returning to work after a career break:  

  • Update your skills – this may involve taking an online course, learning new technology or retraining. Remember to add these new skills to your CV.
  • Network – build new contacts both online and in person. It may be helpful to find a mentor, an established figure within the industry that can offer insights into recent developments and personal help adapting to working life again. 
  • Stay current on the latest industry developments.
  • Advertise and exploit the skills you learned while on your break – whether you were on maternity or paternity leave and learnt to multitask and juggle responsibilities, travelling and developed organisational and language skills, or were volunteering and learnt an entirely new skill.
  • Enquire about flexible hours – if you are applying for a new job, remember that employers may be open to flexible working if they think you are a strong candidate. Consider job shares, compressed hours, part-time, or working from home.