A long leave of absence from the workforce can affect your employability in a number of ways, especially if it’s been a year or more since you stepped into an office. Maybe you’re struggling with your confidence to transition from unemployment, or worried your employer is going to judge you too quickly.
The good news is there are ways that you can address your absence and come out the other side without compromising your professionalism. The fact is, career breaks happen—whether you’re a new parent, travelling the world, caring for a family member or struggling to find employment, there are times when a long absence from work is unavoidable.
Let’s go through some of the steps you can take to re-enter the workforce after a long absence:
Step 1: Get yourself mentally prepared
If you haven’t worked for a long period of time, returning to work may be more of a challenge than you expect. You’ll have new responsibilities, a new routine and new people to deal with on a daily basis. It’s important to set time aside to mentally gear yourself to re-enter the workforce. You can complete relevant training or a course to improve (and validate) your existing skills, attend seminars on your industry or chat with your former colleagues about the work they’re doing. This way, you can get into the right headspace even before you get to the interview.
Step 2: Set up a new routine
When you are unemployed, it’s easy to get stuck in bad habits like sleeping in, staying up too late, eating bad foods and avoiding the job boards (even though you know you should be applying for jobs like crazy). If you want to have a smooth transition, it’s important to eliminate these bad habits one at a time. Give yourself tasks to do during the day that will force you to get out of bed, set up an alarm in the morning and switch off early at night. Every day should be purposeful: make lists, complete chores, apply for jobs or work on your resume. At the end of every day, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself if you take steps to build your confidence.
Step 3: Work on your resume
So, do employers raise an eyebrow at a gap in your resume?
Life and career coach Kristen Franey says; “I would weigh up the other employment. If all the jobs on a CV were varied or for short periods of time, I might feel that someone was less committed to the work, and this would raise red flags. If, however, the candidate had worked for relevant employers for significant periods of time and then either stopped or had a break in between, fewer red flags would be raised especially if the candidate addressed this directly”.
Franey encourages candidates to mention any ‘extra curricular’ activities in their resume, such as church groups or volunteering, as this showcases your community engagement. Career and recruitment expert Nina Mapson Bone agrees saying, “to communicate your absence from work it's best to have something on your resume.”
Karen Stephen took an 8-month career break from her job in finance to focus on travelling. She says it hasn’t been a problem for her and she was able to return to work; “as long as it is explained well, it does not hinder the candidate’s chances. Sometimes, it is even seen as a positive as they have taken a break and chosen to come back to this career”.
Step 4: Prepare for the interview
No matter how impressive your resume is, there’s one question that’s going to come up time and time again:
“Can you explain the gap in your employment history?”
Some reasons for taking a career break may need less explanation than others, such as becoming a new parent. Many new parents take time off to look after their kids during the first critical years of their life.
However, if your reason for a career break is a touchy subject, it can be tough to talk about especially if it was an unpleasant or traumatic experience. For example, if you had to take time off to take care of an ill family member who passed away. If this is the case, do not feel obliged to talk about it in great detail. Simply tell your employer that you were taking care of a loved one but that you are now ready to go back to work.
If your career break is a result of wanting to take a break to travel or explore other pathways, this is where you may need to go into more detail about how you’ve spent your time. Some employers may need to better understand your situation before deciding whether you’d make a good fit for the team. This can work to your advantage, especially if you have learned many skills in the time you spent away from the workplace.
“As long as it’s clear in the resume what [the break] was for, it can be explored in the interview”, says Mapson Bone. Whatever the reason, make sure you have one and that you can explain it in a way that you feel comfortable.
Franey says “I would follow up with questions to determine if the candidate had any learnings about themselves during this time. So, if it was for taking care of a child or travel questions such as, ‘give me an example of how you effectively managed your time?’ Or, ‘what did you learn about yourself during that time that you think would be important for this role?’”
Your employer is mostly interested in what you did during your career break to prepare you for the role you are applying for. What did you learn? How did you cope with the challenges?
You can also talk about taking part in volunteer programs, doing freelance work, completing a few courses, attending seminars—anything that you did during that time that gives some insight into your goals. Hiring managers don’t necessarily want to judge you, but they want to see how you make use of your time and whether you’re a goal-oriented person.
“As long as you can own the decision and show that you have developed during this time then it will be seen as an admirable experience rather than a negative one,” says Stephen.
Here are a few extra tips to help you handle the interview:
- Own it— be upfront and don’t try to hide it. It’s only a problem if it is not sufficiently explained.
- Don’t apologise—being overly apologetic is a sign of low confidence.
- Be clear about what you want—an interviewer is more likely to hire you if you are direct and clear about the direction you are headed in. If you act unsure, or use words like “maybe” or “I hope” it can give your employer reason to doubt you.
- Don’t feel guilty about it—the last thing you should feel is guilty for taking some time away from work. Life is about so much more than just your career. Even if your time away wasn’t what you expected, take it as part of your journey and stay positive.
- Reassure your employer that you’re ready to go back to work—it’s very important to communicate your eagerness to start work again.
Ultimately, a career break can be a great thing and it’s a lot more common than many of us realise. “A lot of millennials are taking time out for travel or study and people are becoming more open about leave for recovery from an illness as our society focuses more on health and well-being”, Mapson Bone says. Stephen echoes this sentiment saying, “people are expected to work for longer periods of their lives. Therefore, they take breaks during their career rather than waiting for retirement”.