The challenges of returning to work after a career break (and what we can all do to help)

We’re not all Jennifer Lopez at 50 years old. Most of us look closer to our age and live a less glamorous life, and for those of us who’ve had an extended career break, we often struggle to maintain the youthful confidence we once had.

Lots of people fall into this category. Parents who take a period off work to bring up their children. Individuals who are made redundant and spend time looking for the right role. People who take time off to care for friends and relatives. There will be many others besides.

These individuals have a lot to offer in the workplace, not least valuable experience from past roles. But getting back into work can be a challenge, and it’s one that doesn’t really get talked about.

Organisations rightly do a lot to cater for the needs of young people starting out in the workplace. Apprenticeships and graduate schemes have both proved popular ways for people to kick-start their careers across a variety of industries. Most organisations also have guidelines in place for re-integrating parents after their statutory maternity or paternity leave. But little attention seems to get given to those returning to the workplace after a longer break.

Having been there myself a few years ago, here’s why I think this is so important.

Return-to-workers’ needs are different

When you’re trying to get back into work after an extended break, your confidence will likely be much lower than it once was, or than it would be if you’d been in work constantly. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, your skills won’t necessarily be up-to-date.  But having been out of the workplace for a long period, it’s hard to know where the gaps are, or how big they are.  These unknowns add to the hit your confidence takes.

You may well have additional commitments your younger colleagues don’t, and will you be able to find a role that fits around your unique needs?

Then there’s the worry over whether you’ll fit in, particularly if the company you’re looking to join has a young workforce and management team.

And finally, the last couple of decades has seen such a focus on companies hiring graduates, that those of us without degrees fear being overlooked when it comes to job offers and subsequent career progression, regardless of our experience.

How organisations can help those seeking a return to work

With an ageing workforce and retirement put back to 67, Government research predicts that by the mid 2030’s, half of all adults in the UK will be over 50*.  So what should organisations be doing to attract older return-to-workers?

One area would be to introduce more return-to-work programmes that quickly identify and fill an individual’s skills gaps, with the aim of fast-tracking them to a role for which they have all the other capabilities and experience.  Someone may have previous leadership or people management experience, but need to learn how to use current industry-standard tools, for example.  Getting these people into suitably senior roles is good for them in terms of career fulfulment and pay, and for the organisation, which fully benefits from their capabilities.  Some organisations will be doing this on an ad hoc basis, but more formal schemes or publicised policies would give prospective employees greater confidence when applying.

It’s fantastic to see organisations doing more to encourage groups faced with systemic biases to come to work for them. Age is one such bias, and I’d like to see it feature more in discussions around diversity and inclusivity, since it’s something that affects everyone, regardless of sex, ethnicity, sexuality or any other characteristic. Many of those seeking to return to work after a longer break will necessarily be older, while also being statistically more likely to fall into other under-represented groups.  Women are almost three times more likely than men to take a career break to look after children, for example.

To help with the above, the views and needs of older return-to-work employees need to be heard at the highest level in organisations. Having people on the management team who’ve had career breaks would be a great way to achieve this. Another would be to ensure employee representative boards, which are consulted by management on key issues, contain people who’ve come back into work following a longer break.

Lastly, organisations should be seeking ways to mix age groups, both professionally and during social activities. This will help younger and older employees get to know each other and improve mutual appreciation for the value the other brings.

How older return-to-workers can play their part

It isn’t just down to organisations to make things better, of course. There are also steps those returning to work (or seeking to) can take to make the process easier – though they do require a level of bravery that won’t come naturally to everyone, particularly in light of the confidence point I made earlier.

I found when I made a conscious effort to get to know more of my colleagues, I started to feel part of something, and realise my age didn’t need to prevent me from contributing meaningfully to the business or enjoying the social activities on offer, particularly as they have become more varied and at times that suit me – I’ve been ice-skating, to the cinema, picnics and BBQs, to name a few.

And on the skills front, going along to free-to-attend events and shows has been a great way to understand where my knowledge had fallen behind and begin to fill the gaps. For those seeking to return to work, I’d recommend attending one of the many talks that are organised through platforms such as Meetup.

So much to offer

Those of us seeking a return to work after an extended break have huge amounts to offer organisations. But with our confidence often having taken a knock by being out of work for so long, the hurdles can seem insurmountable.

I want to help others follow in my footsteps, by talking about these challenges and raising awareness of how we can all work together to overcome them. Because by doing so, we make it easier for those who’ve taken time out to return to a genuinely fulfilling career. And that’s good news for everyone.

*Department for Work and Pensions ‘Fuller Working Lives: evidence base 2017’