Have we broken career breaks?

Yesterday I liked and commented on a post in LinkedIn where the author explained they’d been unsuccessful for a role because he’d taken a 2 month career break.

2 months.

It’s barely a blip in the scheme of our 40+ year careers, yet it was enough to make him uncompetitive for a role he seemed completely qualified to do.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates in my career. The ones who hands down always had the most interesting story to tell were those who’d taken career breaks.

Without fail candidates taking career breaks had done something courageous.

A couple stand on top of a caravan holding hands. It's dark and stars shine in the sky. One person shines a torch into the darkness.

They’d sold their stuff and gone backpacking for a year, they’d dedicated 6 months to building an orphanage in a developing nation, they’d represented their country in their chosen sport for a season, they’d tried to turn their side-hustle into a lucrative business, they’d caravanned across the country with their young family, they’d enrolled in a course they’d always dreamed of doing, they’d taken time out to give IVF one last go, they’d cared for dying relatives and friends.

And here’s the thing.

Every single one of those experiences changed those people.

Taking a step off the highway to traverse a bumpy dirt road takes guts and determination. It’s on those uncharted and unpredictable roads where people’s character is formed.

I can’t recall anyone who simply took a career break to sit at home eating TimTams and watching daytime TV. And even if they did, whose to say that in itself wasn’t transformative for them in some way?

What I found bland was the endless line of candidates applying for a new job that was almost identical to the one they were already doing and having no compelling reason for why they even do that job. They couldn’t articulate what it was about the job that captivated them. What motivated them to get out of bed even if they knew the day was going to be a bit shit. How the job aligned with their personal values.

It felt like a tick the box exercise.

Career breaks are freeing. They allow you to get out of the daily grind and begin to assess what you really want to spend your time doing; what you feel passionately about, what your hidden strengths are.

Career breaks give you the ability to articulate your interest in applying for a role not just because you can do the job, but because the job actually means something to you!

A few years back a friend of mine lamented she wished she could access 'me-ternity' leave. She was in her early 40s and hadn’t had the chance to have kids and so hadn’t accessed parental leave; but she’d seen many other women who had. What she yearned for was the ability to step out of her role with a small amount of financial security to try some new things and find out who she was; just like a lot of women (and some men) get the chance to do during extended parental leave periods.

I love that idea. I wonder how much more productive our economy would be if people had the headspace to figure out what truly floats their boat and do that, instead of just doing what they’ve always done?

When I worked at Immigration, they introduced a Gap Year program where employees could sign up to have a portion of their pay deducted each fortnight over 4 years so they could access a paid year off at year 5. How good is that?!?

Sadly I wasn’t there long enough to see this program hit the 5 year mark so I can’t attest to it’s efficacy, but I can tell you when we spoke about it at recruitment people’s eyes lit up.

I mean, stop and think about it for a second... What would you do if you were paid to do whatever you wanted for a year? The possibilities are almost daunting!

For all of the quirks at Immigration, someone somewhere had vision with this program! The potential benefit to employee engagement, retention and talent attraction was pretty huge.

Sure, there’s likely some people who’d take the leave and opt not to return, but so what?? Maybe they determined they weren’t the right fit for the organisation anymore. Maybe they chased a passion that became wildly successful? Maybe they had a total life epiphany and decided to change direction?

Whatever the circumstance, the employer provided the time and space for people to engage in that reflection and make those decisions and the employees are bound to be grateful for that experience regardless of whether or not they return.

And look, I should probably disclose my bias here. I love me a career break!

Looking back, I guess my passion for career breaks came from my own gap year experience.

All through High School I wanted to be a Lawyer, or more accurately, I wanted to get into Law School. But once the offer letter came through I realised it wasn’t the path for me; partly because the high school sweetheart who broke my heart was heading to my chosen uni (that’s a WHOLE other story) and partly because I realised I couldn’t see myself working in the law.

So I opted to study Beauty Therapy for a year.

(I did work in a Pharmacy through school so it wasn’t quite as random as it sounds!)

And once I got my Diploma I spent a few months at a day spa on Mt Buller and then packed my bags and moved to the UK at the ripe old age of 19.

It only took 10 months working in the UK for me to realise a career in Beauty wasn’t going to meet my academic needs. It also cemented my passion for people leadership. Working with some rubbish salon owners made me determined to learn how to be a better boss.

So I packed up, came home and enrolled to get my Business/HR degree.

Unlike all my friends who chopped and changed their majors over a number of years, I was totally focused. I loved my degree from start to finish. Why?

Because taking those 2 years out allowed me to learn stuff about myself I had NO chance of knowing at just 18 and 19 years old. Developing that knowledge enabled me to make clear choices about what I did and didn’t want to do.

‘But’ I hear you say ‘you were a kid and gap years are really common’.

Yeah, they sure are! I firmly believe having an opportunity to find yourself is invaluable; yet it seems that that's only okay for employers if you’re 18 and on the Heathrow Express?

Why don’t we embrace the value of career breaks for adults? If we acknowledge these experiences build character and help set direction for young adults, why don’t we ascribe the same value to them when people take time out later in life?

Further disclosure, I have had career breaks in later life.

In late 2018 I embarked on a new career break to welcome my darling son into the world. And what a bloody learning curve that was!

I developed a whole new skill set; my patience has improved, I honed my research skills, I learned to trust myself and my intuition a lot more, I saw that I could build amazing relationships really quickly and I became way more adaptable and flexible. And as much as I enjoyed my 18 months as a full-time mama, that period also showed me how important my career is to me and how much I value driving positive change for people within organisations.

But before I could scamper back into the office from parental leave, I was made redundant and my next ‘involuntary’ career break occurred.

Never one to sit idle, I decided I’d start my own business as a sideline until my dream job appeared. 11 months later and sadly no dream job has appeared, so I’ve been working my butt off on Zest. It’s been so damn tough and yet so damn rewarding.

I’ve learned things I would NEVER had the opportunity to learn in a corporate role; I’ve learned about marketing, strategy setting, decision making and the power of networking. My communication skills have improved, I’ve become 1000x more confident on camera, I’ve learned that I’m an engaging facilitator, an amazing connector and relationship builder and I’ve adapted super quicky to unfamiliar industries. Ohh, and I’m persistent as hell!

Despite having not ‘working’ in 11 months, I’m more of an asset to an organisation now than I was this time last year. Because I’ve been forced to detour off the smooth career highway onto one of those bumpy old dirt roads to who knows where.

That's the true power of career breaks.

Imagine what talents and passions could be unlocked in your team if they had the time and space to have incredible new experiences… without the fear of becoming an untouchable recruitment candidate as a result.

What would you do if you could access 12 months paid leave to invest in yourself??

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