Returning to work after the birth of my second son, I was insecure. After seven months in a baby bubble, so much had changed at the publishing company that employed me, and I felt completely disconnected and irrelevant. A restructure had given me a new boss and it felt like they didn’t know what to do with me. Sitting there in a planning meeting, my usual confidence was replaced by a rabbit-in-headlights expression that I just couldn’t hide.
That expression is a common sight in workplaces across the UK among the ‘Interrupted’ – people whose careers have had to take a temporary back seat while they attend to big changes in their lives. Babies, bereavement, chemo, divorce, surgery, burnout or caring for a sick family member are all common causes – and now, of course, a global pandemic. The Interrupted are often to be found desperately trying to look calm while screaming on the inside… You may well be one of them.
In recent weeks, studies have shown that it’s women’s careers that are bearing the brunt of the Covid pandemic. They are more likely than men to face job losses, and the bulk of extra childcare and homeschooling responsibilities.
For Jo*, 55, the impact of lockdown has meant her career stalling for a second time. ‘I went freelance in 2016 when post-surgery side-effects made long days at my job as a PR executive intolerable. But last year, missing the camaraderie of office life, I went for a maternity contract with a charity. I thought getting a permanent job would be easier after this long-term role, having proved myself employable again. But a few weeks into lockdown my contract was terminated, which was just heartbreaking. Heading into a recession, what hope will I have to find another full-time role in a competitive and often ageist job market?’
While the coronavirus has sharpened the problem, women wondering, ‘What now?’ after a career break is nothing new. A report by Bupa shows that around half of working age women have had to take a long-term absence at some point, and all too often they find their careers derailed in the process – in many cases permanently.
Victoria Burt, 41, was a full-time teacher and part of her school’s leadership team when she took nine months off to ease her three newly adopted children into her family.
‘I’d given up my job as head of maths so I could go back part-time, but things had moved on in my absence,’ she explains. ‘I used to know everything going on and loved my job, but suddenly I felt left behind. As my confidence went into free fall, I struggled to manage my team. I felt completely lost.’
Social media and online support groups are rife with stories of disillusioned women who felt unsupported on their return to work after a necessary break. While most employers make all the right noises about helping staff to reintegrate, too frequently they fail to understand the impact of time off on employees’ confidence – or simply don’t back up their assurances with action.
For Marsha Powell, 41, it was a bereavement that forced her to take a break from her job in HR. ‘After my mum’s death from cancer, I took four weeks off to focus on my children. As a single mother, I’d relied on Mum to help bring them up while I forged ahead in my career in the financial sector, so suddenly losing her was devastating for them as well as me. When I went back to work there was no easing back in as I was at the forefront of the change my company was going through – but I just couldn’t connect with it. With Mum’s death my whole world had tilted on its axis and I felt overwhelmed.’
A compassion bypass is usually not, of course, intentional. Deadlines need to be met and bottom lines considered, never mind the additional business challenges posed by a global pandemic. But it’s clear that when something difficult happens – as it does to most of us at some point – many bosses don’t take the time to ease staff back in, and those rushed meetings to ‘bring you up to speed’ can sound like they’re in a language you no longer speak, especially now they’re more likely to happen remotely than face-to-face.
The returnee is often too terrified to admit she can’t manage everything smoothly – I know I was. According to a 2019 report by TechPixies, a social enterprise that helps women to upskill with social media, 24 per cent of women feel that a lack of confidence is their greatest stumbling block after a career break. And for some, a break can mean the end of their career as they know it.
‘Women who are stepping out of the workplace from necessity often find there isn’t a clear path back,’ says Sinead Sharkey Steenson, of career coaching company Generation Women. ‘Many of them find themselves underemployed, going back at a much lower level than they deserve to be.’
According to The Return Hub , a recruitment firm specialising in career breakers in the financial services sector, when women find themselves back on the job market, many have to battle misconceptions that they will only want part-time hours, or will be less committed. As a result, there’s a whole potential workforce out there that isn’t going back to work, or is returning in much lower numbers because they can’t see a route back to a good career.
What often ensues for the disillusioned ‘What now?’ brigade is retraining to do something that fits with their life better. For me, that meant co-launching Audrey, an online platform that helps midlife women make a new start. A large number of our growing community are women who turned their back on past careers and had a total rethink, and they tend to do so with great gusto – because they’ve been left feeling devalued and badly want their mojo back.
‘Employers’ often poor attitude to women returning from a career break is feeding the entrepreneurial world,’ says Sinead. ‘It’s why so many women go into self-employment or launch businesses. Companies are missing out on all their skills and talent because they just mishandled their return to work.’
While it’s not without its own challenges, for many, the decision to strike out alone can be game-changing. For Victoria, it was only a matter of time before she left her teaching job, and she now runs three businesses, including Coffee, Cake and Calculations, giving curriculum advice to parents of schoolchildren.
Similarly, after a discombobulating 18 months back at her old job, Marsha left the world of corporate finance behind for good. ‘Since leaving, my feet have hardly touched the ground. I’ve launched a charity called BelEve UK, running workshops and events to build girls’ self-esteem to navigate their way to success. I couldn’t be happier.’
For me, the sting of redundancy after a year of struggling on in my old job was followed by a brand-new start as a self-employed copywriter and press consultant – 14 years on, I’m still loving it, in spite of the ups and downs. Right now, I can see a whole wave of women dealing with their own unexpected career interruptions, and wondering what to do next. My advice to them? Don’t let your ambition be thwarted. The rise of the virtual office makes resilience, experience and people skills as vital as digital ones, so get busy building and reconnecting with your network. And if you’re thinking of a fresh start, now’s the time to retrain or launch a side hustle that could turn into a whole new opportunity.
Ask yourself what else can you do with what you can do?
*Name has been changed
How not to let an interruption derail your career
Communicate your needs
If you require time off, have a clear and frank discussion with your boss before you leave. ‘While it’s a good idea to have “keep in touch” points during your career break, sometimes it’s vital to step away 100 per cent to focus on your own needs. Clearly communicating what works for you is important. Keep talking so your employers know how they can best help and support you,’ suggests Sinead from Generation Women.
Reach out to others
‘Rebuilding your confidence [when you’re ready to return to work] is important, and a buddy or mentor in your company can help enormously. Ask if there is a coaching programme to help you build resilience and remember your professional self. Re-engage with your professional network and old colleagues through LinkedIn. And don’t forget refresher courses in key skills,’ says The Return Hub’s founder Dominie Moss.
Consider a brandnew career or sidestep – your priorities and interests may have changed. Go to audreyonline.co.uk for expert advice, inspiration and support from like-minded women, or for flexible and part-time opportunities, see CapabilityJane, Daisy Chain, Time Wise Jobs, or check out the womenreturners.com network. To learn a new trade, try gov.uk/apply-apprenticeship, or shadow an expert via ViewVo. Some companies offer training in specific areas, such as Digital Mums and Now Teach, or choose from a range of short courses through Lynda.