Navigating a positive return to work after a career break

Thursday, 31 October 2019  @Business School

In August this year AGSM @ UNSW Business School offered a unique opportunity for professionals looking for strategies to improve their return to work journey after a career break. 

The AGSM 2019 Career Comeback Sponsorship program awarded 30 sponsorships, selected from nearly 300 applicants, to take part in the program that included a three-day ‘Design Your Life’ workshop, consultations with career coaches, and access to AGSM networks and events.  

The successful applicants were all women, from a diverse range of professions, career stages and life stories. Together with expert lecturers, they identified their resources and gaps, connected with their career purpose and values, fostered professional networks, and learned how to address biases on return to work.

This is the first in a series of articles about the Career Comeback program and the issues it addressed.

At certain times in a challenging career, the idea of a significant break is appealing. However, for many highly qualified, ambitious and capable people, a career break turns into a roadblock, making it difficult to return to the careers they’ve spent years gaining the professional knowledge and experience to build. It’s both demoralising for individuals and a waste of talent for the wider economy. 

Having children is a common reason for a career break, but it’s far from the only one. Careers are put on hold to care for a sick parent or to deal with a person’s own illness, or perhaps to return to full-time education, following a partner overseas or interstate for their job or the involuntary career break that comes with a forced redundancy. 

While breaks from work comes in all shapes and sizes, it is clear that women have more of them – and encounter more barriers when they seek to resume their careers.

The Women’s Agenda Ambition Report 2019 was based on an online survey which targeted women, had 1813 responses and was produced with the support of AGSM @ UNSW Business School. Aimed at identifying “the key impediments that may stand in the way of women successfully hitting their goals over the next two years”, the report is a snapshot of how women strive to get their careers back on track after a break. 

“There is no shortage of ambition among women, but for many there is a shortage of support available,” wrote Women’s Agenda editorial director Angela Priestly and publisher Tarla Lambert in the report’s introduction. “In addition to paying women more, we believe these results show a number of other straightforward fixes employers can aim to introduce – including by immediately addressing discrimination that may be occurring during the hiring and promoting process due to a woman’s current circumstances (be that her age, caring responsibilities, returning to the workforce, background or something else).”

The survey found that 47 per cent of respondents had taken a career break of three months or more for childcare commitments in the past decade, 37 per cent were looking to earn more in the next two years and 51 per cent believe ‘confidence in my abilities’ could hinder their career ambitions.

The challenges of wanting to return to a career, rather than a job

The aim of the inaugural AGSM ‘Design Your Career Comeback’ workshop was to help participants build their capacity to reach their leadership potential, providing accelerated leadership, business, commercial, and strategy development for those returning to work after a career break. The program equipped participants with frameworks and tools to help them transition back to their previous career, or to identify new opportunities and pathways for their comeback. 

“If you aren’t surrounded by a sense of community it can be a very lonely step back into work,” says Rosamund Christie, a member of the adjunct faculty with AGSM @ UNSW Business School. Christie – whose work focuses on adaptive leadership and executive coaching for first-time CEOs – led the group across the program. “The women in the Career Comeback program saw that there are many other capable, confident, career-oriented women in the same position as them, and they developed a terrific network through the course.”

Christie suggests that professionals trying to establish community after a career break should be proactive. “Build a LinkedIn page to attract a community of people in the same situation as you and create your own network,” she says. “There are all sorts of problems with social media, but there are also opportunities to use it in a positive way.”

Applicants to the AGSM Career Comeback program were asked to share their main challenges returning to work in their chosen field. Here’s a small sample of responses reflecting common issues:

  • “I believe my knowledge remains current and certainly I have made efforts to maintain my networks, however I am not as ‘visible’ as I was and that may prove challenging in relation to being front of mind for people. Also I believe there is a perception among some people that parenting somehow diminishes my capacity, which I will need to address.”
  • “The most significant issue for me is confidence. Not only am I returning from a career break but also a period of time working out of the Australian market. I haven’t had the smooth return that I expected which has had a further impact on my confidence, not a good outcome in an industry which is largely male dominated.”
  • “Acknowledging that I have two children 13 and 15, I would like to feel purpose and joy in my work.”
  • “I think employees view my career break as a negative and would prefer a candidate who is currently working.”
  • “Although I am bringing with me a good number of years of knowledge and experiences, I am finding it hard to start a career again. This is frustrating because I know I have a lot to offer.”

A missed opportunity for employers

A career breaks often sees a re-energised person return to their profession. As one applicant to Career Comeback wrote: “There is a perception that taking a career break indicates a lack of career drive. I couldn’t recommend a career break more highly and feel that it helps put work issues into perspective and prioritises challenges.”

Employers who work on pathways to help people return to work after a break will be rewarded with a more diverse workforce. It goes way beyond doing ‘the right thing’, there’s a compelling bottom-line benefit.

Making the business case, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA)quotes from a 2018 McKinsey & Company report: “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 per cent more likely to experience above-average profitability” and “executive teams that were high-performing had more women in revenue-generating roles”. 

The punchline: “The findings also indicate that companies with low representation of women and other diverse groups were 29 per cent more likely to underperform on profitability.” 

Innovative approaches across the workplace

Workforces encompassing diversity of thought, background and lived experience are essential for companies operating in today’s fast-shifting business landscape. To attract and retain top talent, it’s incumbent on organisations to proactively propose ways to improve the balance for all employees.

One idea is to recognise work done on the daily commute, knowing that in the always-on digital age, all sorts of tasks are bleeding out way beyond standard working hours.

A 2018 study by UWE Bristol found that more than half of the workers surveyed were using the free WiFi offered on trains to send work emails or read documents. “If travel time were to count as work time, there would be many social and economic impacts, as well as implications for the rail industry,” said one of the researchers, Dr Juliet Jain. “It may ease commuter pressure on peak hours and allow for more comfort and flexibility around working times.”

Christie is a strong advocate of companies shifting their view of commuting time and suggested it to Career Comeback participants as a negotiating point as they return to work. 

“In a perfect world, companies would offer that work hours include the tasks that get done while commuting to work,” she says. “Many people spend a long time getting to work – an hour or more is increasingly common – and often they’re working during that time. If this arrangement means an employee can arrive later or leave work earlier, that supports families in innumerable ways. Such policies must of course extend to all staff, and the happier your staff, the more positive your company culture.”

Christie also advises that those who feel disempowered in negotiations when they’re returning to work after a career break should remember that they are “negotiating on behalf of the role, not themselves; once you establish neutrality and take the personal out of the negotiation, it’s easier to make the case of what the job is worth.”

Noting that the Ambition Report identified lack of support as an issue, especially in returning to senior roles, Christie posits a bold idea for discussion.

“When two parents are working and a child is sick, it’s a huge stressor,” she says. “My idea is that there would be a list of three or four properly vetted people who could look after a child if they need to stay home from school or childcare. It would immediately take the stress out of those days when you have important things on at work but no one to look after your child. Clearly, it would reap rewards for companies, too.”

The cost of parental leave when it’s only the woman taking it

The gender pay gap is exacerbated by the fact that it’s still mostly women taking parental leave. The Workplace Gender Equality Authority’s insight paper ‘Towards gender balanced parental leave’ looked at Australian and international trends. 

The data shows that for the years that women balance paid work with unpaid caring responsibilities in the home, the gender pay gap widens considerably, according to the paper. 

Among the research quoted in the paper was that raising children accounts for a 17 per cent loss in lifetime wages for women and that many women move into so-called  ‘mother-friendly’ occupations and/or return to work part-time following parental leave. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 82 per cent of mothers return to work after children to work in part-time roles.

Such decisions to work part-time or not at all to look after children have, the insight paper stated, “a negative impact on women’s financial situation and future career opportunities”. 

Gender-balanced paid parental leave is a positive step to improve the financial security of women and support their return to the workforce, but Australia has a long way to go to make it the norm for both sexes to share the load and take the career break.

Progressive parental leave policies in several European countries were compared in the insight paper, including Sweden, the first country to introduce parental leave, replacing maternity leave. 

Per the WGEA insight paper: “In Sweden, parents are entitled to 480 days, or about 16 months, of paid parental leave on the birth or adoption of a child. Parents can take the leave by month, day or even by the hour up until the child turns eight… Since 2016, three months of leave are allocated to each parent and cannot be transferred to the other parent. This means that parents who are not sharing the parental leave will lose three months of parental leave payment. Parents who share the parental leave also receive a tax-free daily bonus for a maximum of 270 days...  [now] Sweden has the second highest rate of men using parental leave across OECD countries and, along with Denmark, Sweden has one of the highest female workforce participation rates at 76 per cent (Australia’s participation rate is 69 per cent).”

Childcare costs come from the family budget, not the mother’s earnings

In August, the WGEA with KPMG Australia and the Diversity Council of Australia, launched its latest instalment of She’s Price(d)less: the economics of the gender pay gap. The gender stereotypes around the roles women and men play in paid work and caring are enduring, the pay gap remains at 14 per cent, which means that women work an extra 59 days a year to earn the same as men. 

Christie is passionate about this topic and says that unconscious bias is rife surrounding it and that it has broader implications. 

She argues that if women get stuck on the idea that it is their salary paying for childcare and decide that it’s not worth returning to work, “they are losing even more time in their career development, losing the stimulation of being at work, and losing the opportunity to build their superannuation”. 

“If a woman is going back to work after having a baby, and the child or children are going into paid care, she must shift her mindset and never see the cost of childcare as coming out of her salary. Unless she’s a single parent, the cost of childcare comes out of the collective family budget.”

The reason it’s critical to change this narrative, says Christie, is that “women going into less well-paid jobs sometimes wonder why they are bothering if they look at it from the point of view of the cost of childcare versus what they’re taking home. That means that very capable women are coming to work in a demotivated state. Now, you can’t measure motivation, but we know what that means ultimately for productivity. So there are very real consequences for individuals and organisations.”

Step away from apology to proudly own a career break

For whatever reason a person takes time away from work, Christie advocates not shying away from it. She says that individuals must avoid phrases of apology, such as ‘I've just been on maternity leave’ or ‘I've only been doing…’.

“Develop a mindset that is not apologetic but rather is ready to own it,” she advises. “Come at your return from a positive point of view: ‘I have done a remarkable thing during my time away from work.’ Whether it’s been caring for a sick parent, having a baby or dealing with an illness, own it. Show you’re prepared to return to achieving for the organisation and to manage whatever changes have taken place in your life while you’ve been away from your job, and don’t shy away from how impressive that is.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Supporting Working Parents is a resource for employers and employees returning to work after parental leave. It covers such things as flexible-work arrangements and many of its tips apply equally to workers coming back after any career break, and their employers.

Career Comeback participants felt strongly about the need for employers to step up to the challenge to make it easier for parents to return to work. “I believe that organisations can and should be looking for more creative arrangements that suit both the organisation and working-parents, such as non-core working hours and job-share arrangements,” wrote one in her application.

Keeping current during a career break

“It’s said that the life of a skill today is five years – if that’s true, then it’s important to keep bridging your skills,” says Christie. 

Several Career Comeback applicants expressed fears they had fallen behind with their skills, another factor hampering their confidence. Wrote one: “A major challenge for me is having to pick up the pieces again to be able to gain updated skills…” 

AGSM is a strong proponent of lifelong learning and sees microcredentials as a growing trend across industries.

“Thirty or 40 years ago people thought, right, I’ll do my university degree, then I'm done and dusted with learning,” Dr Stephanie Fahey, CEO of Austrade, told the audience at the CSIRO Data61+ Live conference in Sydney in October. “That’s not the future. People have to increase their learning as they get older. It’s a change of mindset.” Fahey spoke about the importance for both companies and individuals to invest in continuous learning, and acknowledged the role microcredentials are already playing in this shift.

It’s something for individuals to consider as they prepare to end their career break. “Identify if you are feeling anxious about a particular area – a knowledge or skills gap – and be proactive,” says Christie. “Do a course, get some coaching to close that gap – see it as a building block in strengthening your agency.”

Personal agency is a leading theme for Christie, who encouraged the Career Comeback participants to be deliberate about their choices. 

“When you’re on your break, you might want it to be a complete break or you may want to maintain a connection, by reading articles and company newsletters, listening to podcasts, even attending a company event or seminar. There’s no ‘should’ in this, but it’s so important to be mindful about however you want to handle it. Be the agent of your own considered decisions.”

By taking this and other empowering mindset-shifts on board, the path is set to return to a career, not merely going back to work.

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