Mind the gap: getting back to work after an extended absence
Whether it’s time off to mind children or travel the world, rejoining the workforce needn’t be too daunting
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook: in her book Lean In, she wrote that 43 per cent of highly qualified women with children “are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time”. Photograph: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
Getting back to work after an extended absence can be daunting.
While recruiters say that gaps in a CV are not the end of the world, how worried you feel might depends on the reason you took time out in the first place.
If it was because of a serious illness, you might end up questioning your whole life, including your job.
“Beforehand you may have been quite career-driven. But the value you place on work may have changed,” says organisational psychologist Allison Keating of the BWell Clinic.
“Sometimes time away from work can really change your sense of who you are. Your identity can come up for question. After a big life-changing event, you might feel like you don’t fit in at work anymore,” she says, adding that therapy and talking to your employer can help.
Going back to work after travelling or taking a voluntary gap year is a different thing entirely and will probably lead to a straightforward re-entry into the workforce, Keating says.
A CV gap for those reasons does not worry Ian McGowan Smyth, managing director of HR Ireland, at all.
“What I generally find with young people and students, as a HR manager, is that I’m happy if they’ve already done their travelling bit. It’s better to get them at the other end of the loop.”
In her book Lean In, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wrote: “43 per cent of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time.”
Hilarie Geary, managing director of Executive Connections, says her recruitment firm welcomes mothers who want to return to work. They are often so enthusiastic to attack the job, many of them end up doing a full week’s work in four days.
“They achieve a huge amount in lesser hours . . . When you surround yourself with people like that, it’s motivational for everybody in the company.”
But going back to work is not always easy for mothers, despite the enthusiasm. Finding the right work/life balance can cause internal conflict.
“I think women lose a lot of confidence after having a baby,” Keating says. “On a deep level, they can feel like they’re failing on all levels. It can be a difficult experience for women to go through.”
But Geary says that insomuch as that difficulty is related to confidence in their own abilities, mothers who want to go back to work do not have much to worry about. And as a recruitment executive, she speaks from experience.
“I would strongly urge any female getting back into the workforce not to be fearful of it. It’s a very difficult decision to give up work, and it shouldn’t be that difficult to get back to work,” she says. “We’re talking about people out of the workforce for a year, two years, even three years. How dry will your skills go in that time?”
She says your level of commitment and determination is much more important than the gap in your CV.
Regardless of the reason for your absence, there are things you can do to stay marketable during your time off.
Barbara McGrath, director of Brightwater Recruitment Specialists, says that if you want to stay in the same field after your break, it is important to keep your professional online profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook up to date.
She says keeping in touch with your university and going to conferences in your field is also a good idea.
Geary encourages people to keep on top of developments at their companies and make an effort to join social events at work.
If you do not keep up to speed and go out of the market completely for a few years, you might have to retrain, depending on your field.
In some areas, skills do not atrophy that quickly. In other fields, like software development, the landscape can change dramatically in a short time.
“We’re in a fast-paced life now, and things are moving at a huge rate. Every business has changed to a certain extent. An accountant is still an accountant, but the tools they’re using are different,” she says.
“We’ve got a very educated workforce now. People are constantly upskilling themselves. To give yourself the best chance possible to get something you really want, you’ve got to research it, and you may need to upskill.”
When updating your CV, Geary advises: “You don’t have to say, ‘I’ve been at home rearing children’ . . . It should not matter to a potential employer why you took the time out.”
Instead of focusing on the gap, highlight the skills you acquired in your time off.
It also helps to meet with a recruiter before the big interview to work on skills you feel you may have lost over time. “How you market yourself gets you heard,” she says.
While people need to do their bit to get back into the workforce, employers can also do things to ease the transition.
Many companies have buddy systems that help people catch up with what they missed while they were absent.
McGrath says a lot of companies have options for people returning to work, including job-sharing and flexitime. “If an employer values you, they will work with you” to find a good fit.
The consensus is that you should talk to your employer about the options available. That is exactly what Aileen McCarney did when she decided to go back to work last year.
She is a career person and felt ready to return to work, but it was still daunting. Her solution was to be really well prepared.
First she got her kids ready. She explained what she was doing, who would be minding them and how things would change.
She met with her manager and “really talked about the options available” at her company. They offered flexi-time to help people transition back to work, with the option of staggered hours or a temporary three- or four-day work week.
The company paired her up with a mentor, which made a huge difference.
“I found that when I came back a lot had changed. Just to have someone you can go to even for the simplest things [was helpful].”
It took her about three months to get settled in but six months to really find her feet. “The first quarter back was the hardest,” she says.
Melrona Kirrane, an organisational psychologist and lecturer at DCU Business School, says people should be easy on themselves after they go back to work.
“It takes a while to adjust to an environment, even if it’s one you’ve known. It’s important not to panic and take things slowly and logically and rationally and give yourself time.
“Adjust your expectations and be gentle with yourself . . . as opposed to being impatient and intolerant. Any major change can knock the stuffing out of you, even if the change is good.”