Do you dream of hitting the pause button on your career? You don’t necessarily want to hit stop but you want just enough time to pause and reflect without the day-to-day pressures of a demanding career. But how many of us are willing to take a career break and at what cost?
About 90,000 people take career breaks in the UK every year, 60% of whom are women. Recent surveys have found that while the reasons for career breaks are similar across both genders, the imbalance has a clear reflection on the current and future talent pipeline. According to a 2013 YouGov survey, 58% of women take career breaks to care for children or elderly family members and 9% use career breaks as an opportunity to travel. This contrasts with the reasons men cited; 11% opt to pause their careers for family and 29% for travel.
If more women take career breaks, is it right to assume that we look forward to them? According to the results of a recent survey by London Business School, the simple answer is no. Of the over 2000 female survey participants, 70% stated that they felt anxious about taking a career break. It turns out that the bad and the ugly aspects of career breaks can lead women to opt out altogether.
Embracing the Good
Taking a step back from our careers means that we are able to see challenges and opportunities from a different perspective, which indirectly drives innovation. The skills we develop while on career breaks – learning a new language, working in a different culture, raising another human being – all contribute to our wider personal development, making us more rounded and experienced employees when we return.
Organisations that offer career break programmes realise direct benefits, including talent retention and increased productivity. According to the Great Places to Work Institute, 34 of the “100 Best Workplaces in Europe” in 2007 offered sabbaticals. Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” in 2012 found that almost 25% of the companies offered fully paid sabbaticals. Formal career programmes, such as that recently introduced by Morgan Stanley, clearly contribute to an organisation’s attractiveness rating and companies benefit by attracting top talent.
In the US, 24% of small businesses and 14% of large businesses allowed their employees to take career breaks of 6 months or more (paid or unpaid). However, the 2014 National Study of Employers indicates that since 2008, organisations in the US have reduced the number of provisions in place for enabling extended time away from work; down from 64% to 52%.
If there are net benefits to the employee and employer, why are we seeing this downward trend?
The truth of the matter is that career breaks are still seen as “interruptions” rather than continuums of self-development. This misperception is directly shaping the global workforce.
Dealing with the Bad
McKinsey’s 2007 Women Matter report stated that today’s model “presupposes a linear career path, with no space for career breaks” when in fact 58% of the survey participants stated their careers would not be linear. Company leaders need to recognise this in the way they shape their workforce initiatives.
45% of the women reported in the survey cited “need more time for the children” as the reason for their career break. Despite wanting to return after the break, only 74% successfully got jobs and only 40% found full time work. Sylvia-Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce found that 5% of mothers wanted to return to their previous employers, however barriers such as perception mean that they are not always successful which in turn leads to reduced retention.
Views such as that expressed by a UK politician earlier this year – that women who take time out of work to have children are “worth less” to their employers than their male colleagues – are clearly barriers for returning mothers.
Eliminating the Ugly
The ugly reality of career breaks, mainly the manifestation of “the bad”, is that there can be a direct impact on earning power and career progression.
A 2004 study found that “for each year of interruptions to employment for childcare and family care work, hourly wages decrease by 1% (again, in addition to missing out on the 3% gain for each year of full-time employment)”. Despite picking up new skills and demonstrating the ability to work with multiple demands, returning mothers are recognised as financially less valuable than their peers who have chosen not to take family-related career breaks. Another study, based on work by Waldfogel, found that the “family penalty”, a 10-15% reduction in income for women with families compared to those without (and therefore fewer “interrupted work histories”), exists for women but the opposite – a “marriage premium” – exists for men.
These consequences of career breaks have a direct impact on the talent pipeline and need to be addressed by company leaders and policy makers. While policy changes such as maternity (and more recently paternity) leave entitlement in the UK, have provided more options for returning mothers, there is much more to be done to improve gender representation at executive level.
We need a shift in attitudes towards career breaks; rather than seeing them as interruptions, they should be seen as an opportunity to shift focus and develop addition skills which build our careers.
Employers: This is not just a nice to have so don’t get left behind. The 2013 “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers” required applicants offer at least one fully paid week of leave to new mothers. In many cases it can be an enabler to a firm’s strategy; for example SAP, the global software company, launched a formal Social Sabbatical Programme in 2012 which provides employees with global opportunities but also enables SAP to meet its emerging markets strategy. Not only do such programmes provide structure, they drive a change in culture and perceptions across genders.
Employees: Some of you will see a career break as an inevitable part of the professional and personal growth, so planning ahead for the break is critical. It is important to clearly articulate the case to your employer (what skills will you be gaining during your time away), identify a mentor and also identify those who will make up part of your support network during your break.
Encouraging career breaks is a long term strategy; to think differently and become more innovative we need a change of scenery. As Albert Einstein famously stated: Insanity: doing the same thing over & over again & expecting different results.” Why then would we not encourage our people to do things differently?