The rules of ‘returnment’: how to get back to work after a break

·6-min read
Juliet Turnbull: ‘It’s important that employers offer compassionate leadership to returners’ - Dan Stevens
Juliet Turnbull: ‘It’s important that employers offer compassionate leadership to returners’ - Dan Stevens

Returning to the workforce in midlife can be daunting. Regardless of whether your career break was voluntary or not, the biggest anxiety facing many older returners is a lack of confidence. After time away from work, perhaps after a period of furlough or unemployment, returners often ask questions like: “Why would they hire me? Am I good enough? Can I keep up? Will I still be able to get home to my children? Are my skills good enough for today's fast-paced world?”

As the founder of 2to3days, an organisation striving to advance gender equality in the workplace through flexible working, I’ve heard these questions countless times from anyone who’s had a career break. I started the business in 2015, and experienced first-hand how difficult it can be to re-enter the workforce. I started my career as a chartered surveyor, and I was subject to a lot of sexism in the industry. I left because I wanted to have a family, and for a number of years I was a self-employed career coach. In 2012, I burnt out and suffered from depression, and when I launched my own business, three years later, it was terrifying. Nobody returned my phone calls because I was dismissed as “just a housewife”, and I felt incredibly lonely. Whether you’ve been out of work for 18 months or 18 years, “returnment” can be challenging – but it’s not always as difficult as it might seem.

That’s why it was promising to hear about Rishi Sunak’s Plan For Jobs, in which he’s announced a new £500m drive to get older people who lost their jobs or were furloughed during the pandemic back into work. As part of the plan, unemployed people aged between 50 and 64 – the age group that has seen the second biggest fall in employment during the pandemic – will be given “more intensive, tailored support”, such as retraining courses, to help them return to work. It’s key to accelerate the pace of getting returners back to work, but on terms that work for them. The Government needs to incentivise companies to take on returners and provide the mentorship that these individuals need.

Many of these returners will be experiencing the same worries as my clients, a high percentage of whom have more than 20 years of work experience, and some of whom lost their jobs during the pandemic. Often, people worry that younger workers will outperform them, and this can be a problem when employers don’t respect flexible working. One lawyer I know had a career break from law, and returned to the profession in her mid-50s; by this point she was being measured against hungry young professionals in their late 20s and 30s. These younger employees were prepared to work until 3am or all weekend, but she had three children who needed her attention. She ended up leaving, and has now gone client-side, where she’s allowed flexible working.

It’s important that employers offer compassionate leadership to returners. Often, returners’ anxieties are scarier than the reality; we often read of return-to-work stories that have gone wrong, but when I speak to companies and recruiters, they’re all hungry for returners and realise that they need to support their wellbeing.

Employing returners is something that many companies are more open to because they just can’t find the talent. There’s so much that returners over 50 can bring to the table that other applicants might not have. They’ve got years and years of work experience, and it’s like riding a bike; you don’t forget your knowledge and the skills you had in previous jobs.

Older job applicants have emotional maturity and wisdom, which only life can teach you. If you’re coming back to work after a career break, you’re also bringing a positive attitude – you’re coming back because you’ve got the energy and the desire to work.

Many companies operate “returnships”, internships designed for people – usually women – returning from a career break. They’re typically six-month programmes whereby returners are paid and given on-the-job training, coaching and mentoring. But there are only about 50 companies in the country that offer returnships, and you’re not always guaranteed a job at the end. Other companies might offer a ‘supportive hire’ scheme, where returners are hired as individuals rather than part of a programme, but it’s like having an invisible green L plate on your back – you’re not just dumped into the organisation with nobody knowing you’ve had a career break; you’re offered coaching and mentorship.

When I advise returners on applying for jobs again, I tell them that they should be really clear about what they want to do. I always advise them to have a LinkedIn profile, which should work in tandem with their CV. A LinkedIn profile shows what you want to be doing; your CV is a summary of what you have done.

The bit on the CV that tends to cause angst among those who have had a career break is how to frame the gap between jobs. It’s completely fine to put ‘career break’, but if you have achieved things that demonstrate your professional advancement – whether that’s being a trustee of a school or volunteering at a hospice – definitely say that.

I’d also advise older applicants to do work experience and internships – anything that shows you’re hungry, keen and willing, because that shows you’ve got attitude and are prepared to give things a go. Employers want someone who’s got a bit of gumption about them, no matter how old you are.

And returning to work in later life doesn’t necessarily have to mean returning to the 9-5 or full-time employment – you can always launch your own business or become an entrepreneur, which I have found to be rewarding.

As told to Claudia Rowan

Women Mean Business Live is taking place on October 20 2021, as a virtual event. It will bring together business leaders and entrepreneurs for a day of action, debate and networking to overcome the barriers that all too often prevent female-led businesses and professionals within the workplace from reaching their full potential. Speakers will include NatWest CEO Alison Rose, Kate Bingham, Anya Hindmarch and Julia Gillard, as well as the Telegraph’s Lisa Armstrong and Camilla Tominey.

For more details and to buy tickets click here

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