Taking a break

People take career breaks for a variety of reasons. Some, for example studying for an MBA, are related directly to career development.

But the majority arise from personal motivations such as having children, world travel or even stepping right back from the working environment to review career direction and life options.

Whatever the reason behind it, the decision is not one to be taken lightly. Any break will have significant financial implications.

Even those who are not totally committed to reaching the dizzy heights at the expense of all else would be well advised to plan their break well in advance – and to do this in the context of a long-term strategy. All too often, whatever planning there is concentrates on the break itself, and it is rare for sufficient thought to be given either to the ultimate return to work or to what can be done during the break to facilitate that return.

The first question you need to ask yourself is whether, when the break is over, you want to return to your existing employer. An increasing number of organisations operate formal career break schemes which allow employees to take extended unpaid leave on the understanding that they will then return either to their old job or at least to a position at a similar level. Such schemes may also offer short periods (usually one or two weeks a year) back at work to help you keep in touch with the organisation.

Even if your own employers does not have a formal scheme, it may well be worth taking the initiative and asking if they would consider either setting one up or making an arrangement in your case. Any such approach must, however, be thought out carefully in advance and address your employer’s needs as well as your own.

The longer the break, the more important it is to take active steps to facilitate the ultimate return to work. You should keep up to date technically, satisfy CPE requirements, learn new skills, keep abreast of business developments generally, and the dynamics of the job market in particular, and prepare well in advance for either return to your existing employer or the search for a new job.

Keeping up to speed

A career break survey by Women In Accountancy showed keeping up to date to be a hit-and-miss affair, with most career breakers relying almost entirely on reading technical journals. While attending courses run by commercial organisations can be expensive, lower-cost options may well be available through district societies or regional Women In Accountancy groups. Similarly, new skills in areas such as IT can often be obtained at subsidised rates through local further education facilities, while for those whose problem is that responsibilities tie them to their homes, distance learning offers a wide range of options.

Where the purpose of the career break is to spend time with young children or dependent relatives, it may still be possible to undertake a limited amount of part-time accountancy work, which will not only look better on your CV than a complete gap of several years, but will also enable you to keep your hand in and earn some useful cash.

Part-time work, or brief spells back at your old organisation under a formal career break scheme, also help to maintain your confidence – an issue which should not be underestimated. Professional people tend to depend heavily on their jobs for their self-image and can therefore find their confidence all too easily becomes eroded when they are perceived ‘only’ as carers or parents. To avoid loss of confidence, keep in good physical shape and health, maintain existing social contacts – or develop new ones – and find time to keep up to date with business and professional matters.

As your break progresses and the return to employment gets closer, it is important to reconsider the plans you made at the outset and re-assess your options. It is not at all uncommon for people’s attitudes to change during and, indeed, as a result of a career break. Think carefully about how much responsibility you want, what hours you wish (or are able) to work, and how much travel is feasible for you. Then consider whether you actually want to return to a full-time, career-driven job or whether you would prefer to go for part-time work, job sharing, contracting through an agency, self-employment or some other form of more flexible working arrangement. It is worth checking what help with advice on career options and job search techniques is available from your own professional institute.

This may include a telephone helpline, job search seminars or a one-to-one session with a career counsellor.

What to do on the way back

Those who do not have the advantage of being able to return to their former employer will need to consider how, when applying for jobs and attending interviews, they are going to present their reasons for taking a career break in a positive light, and show that they are both technically up to date and really committed to the kind of role they are now seeking.

Where a break has been taken in order to have children, there will also be the problem of childcare. Arrangements will need to be put in place before a commitment can be made to a potential employer and, since even apparently ideal childcare arrangements can all too easily come apart at the seams, it is sensible to put in place back-up plans as well. Working parents will also need to possess, or develop, first-class time management skills if they are to balance the demands of work, their partner and children and still find room for their own leisure interests and social life.

Working parents are not the only ones who may experience difficulties in settling back into a working environment which they probably previously took for granted, however. Those returning to their previous employer are likely to find that new faces have appeared and new relationships have been formed during their absence. They may feel they no longer fit in as they used to. MBA graduates may miss the intellectual stimulation of business school and find it hard to adapt to the less-rarefied environment of the average office. Those who have been travelling overseas may find that their values have been changed and that they no longer feel comfortable with the prevailing culture.

Even where such factors do not cause major problems, there will almost certainly be a need to update skills and knowledge, to gain the respect of new (and old) colleagues, generally to get back up to speed, prove your effectiveness, and regain your confidence. Only when these challenges have been successfully overcome can you turn your thoughts to the future, and to re-establishing your career progression.

Graham Perkins ACMA practises as a career counsellor and writes on career management issues

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