Victoria Smith-Douglas
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Geographer, writer, educator.
  • A career break is time deliberately taken out of the workforce or away from a regular field of employment.
  • Pros of taking a career break include the ability to rejuvenate professionally and personally, the opportunity to expand your network and the space to visualize the future of your career.
  • Cons of taking a career break include a potential gap in your career progress, immediate financial loss and the adjustments you'll need to make when you return to the workforce.

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A growing number of people are taking career breaks. Taking a break for maternity leave is nothing new, but there are now many reasons that women and men choose to take some deliberate time out from work. 

With lay offs putting over three million people out of work in March, and a national lockdown requiring children to transition to virtual learning at home, working parents face a unique challenge to balance work and life that compromises the two.

So, in response, is it OK to take a career break? For many of us, yes! However, you’ll need to carefully consider if and when a career break is right for you. The key is to make a good plan for transitioning into and out of your career break, and then it has the potential to be an extremely valuable experience.

What’s a career break?

A career break is a deliberate time out of the workforce or away from a regular field of employment. Sometimes called the “adult gap-year,” it’s the opportunity to expand your horizons and do something different. 

Some people are able to take a sabbatical and return to their jobs after an agreed period, while others quit and explore new avenues. At certain times, you might be forced into taking a career break, either by loss of a job or by other responsibilities, such as having to care for young children or elderly relatives. If time out is forced upon you, don’t panic. Make a plan and turn it into a positive as far as possible. 

How many people take career breaks? 

Statistics on the numbers and types of people who have actually taken a deliberate career break are sadly lacking. In the past, Harvard Business Review found that 37% of female “highly qualified professionals,” and 24% of males, left their career at some point, most with the intention of returning. However, the number is likely to continue to grow with the large percentage of millennials in the workforce, for whom the idea of a career break is much more normal than for previous generations.

6 pros of taking a career break

Ensure a career break is right for you before diving in. An alternative possibility is the mini-break, which lasts for less than a month but is more than just a vacation. You might also consider a career change, exploring alternative working arrangements or part-time study. Here, we’ll help you weigh the pros and cons of a career break.

1. You have time to rejuvenate.

A change is as good as a rest, they say, and a career break gives you the ideal opportunity to replenish your energy, focus your mind and refresh your motivation. These are things that are essential for our wellbeing, yet long work schedules can make them extremely difficult. If a weekend or week-long vacation just isn’t enough anymore, a career break could be great for your health. 

2. You can gain a new perspective...

Taking time to do something different can give you a whole new perspective on your career or your field. Whether generally broadening your horizons, gaining specific insights from another job or just having the opportunity to reflect, career breaks can be the perfect catalyst for recalibrating your point-of-view. This can benefit anyone who’s spent a long time in the same line of work or the same company, and there’s a good chance you’ll return to your old career with new ideas, or maybe find a completely different route to take.

3. ...and new skills!

Many people take a career break specifically to gain new qualifications and skills. Some volunteer, some pursue formal education or training programs and others take on paid jobs outside of their regular field. If possible, choose opportunities that’ll give you the best preparation for your return to work.

4. You have time to expand your network.

If you’ve worked in the same area for a long time, a career break is a great time to refresh and expand your network. Even for those who hate networking, doing something new or joining new organizations or communities will usually offer a very organic way to meet people. One of your new contacts might even lead to a new career!

5. You'll achieve personal fulfillment.

Ever dreamed of writing a novel, traveling the world or starting your own business? If so, you’re not alone, and many of us dreamers have found that a career break is the way to make it happen. If you’ve tried and failed to fit your passions around a full-time job, it might be time to consider a well-planned career break as a means to accomplishing those things that are too important to save for retirement.

6. You have space to determine your future direction.

A career break gives you that time away from your regular demands and routine to figure out what you really want to do with the next part of your life. It can be difficult to make those decisions while fully engaged in a career. The distance and perspective offered by a career break, as well as the opportunity to try out other employment options, allow you to effectively re-evaluate.

6 cons to taking a career break

1. You may halt your career progress.

This can be enough to scare many away from the idea of a career break. For women in particular, who so often have to work harder than their male counterparts to earn a promotion in the first place, it can be daunting. 

2. You may lose touch with your field.

In certain areas, particularly professional careers, you’re required to keep up to date with the latest research, practices and developments. If this applies to your field, and you intend to go back to it after your break, ensure you have strategies in place to allow you to keep in touch or to catch up once you decide to return.

3. You might experience significant financial loss.

If you’re accustomed to the security of a regular paycheck, it’s a daunting prospect to step away from that. You should also make sure you’re aware of what effects your career break will have on your pension and other benefits. There’s no denying that not everyone has the option to stop working, but make a plan to see if it’s feasible, save what you can, then look at working part-time in another field during your break.

4. You may lose touch with your colleagues.

Unless you have strong friendships with colleagues outside of work, it’s easy to lose touch once you no longer see each other every day as part of your job. You may experience some social isolation if you’re not working or studying at all.

5. You'll have to adjust back to work.

It can be jarring to have to adjust to the full-time working schedule again, and especially if you find you have to put extra effort into a job in which you had previously been proficient. Investigate the possibility of returnships, which are offered by an increasing number of companies to help returning workers get up to speed before being hired permanently.

6. You'll need to explain your career break to future employers.

This can be another big reason people are put off career breaks. The need to maintain a full and progressive resume has been drilled into many of us. But times have changed, and more and more employers are open to viewing positively time spent on personal development.

How long should a career break be?

Most commonly, career breaks fall within the six months to two years bracket. Less than a month would be considered a mini-break. How long your career break should last depends entirely on your personal circumstances and what you aim to get out of it. However, be aware there’s some evidence that the longer the break, the bigger the impact on getting back into work. If you’re spending your break gaining a qualification that will help you move ahead, two years may be perfectly acceptable. If you’re taking time to refresh and reset, six months to one year may be enough. 

How do you explain breaks in employment?

Employers are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of career breaks. That said, we can’t pretend that every potential boss you come across will automatically view a break favorably. The most important thing is to show that you have a positive attitude about your career break, and you’re aware and confident of the benefits it brought. 

On your resume, you have the option to list your career break activities and outline the experience and skills you gained. Alternatively, you may find it better to organize your resume into a skills-based format to de-emphasize the chronological gaps. Give a clear and concise explanation of what you did. 

In a cover letter, be brief but impactful. Pick out the key skills or qualities you developed, and focus on the benefit that this will bring to the company. Save the fuller explanation for the interview. Above all, don’t be shy or apologetic about your career gap.

Of course, certain circumstances are more challenging to explain than others. If you were forced into your career break, it’s a chance to show how you responded to the challenges with which you were faced. Be sure to highlight the qualities that saw you through, and if possible be ready to tell a great story about how you turned the negative into a positive.

The decision to take a career break is a major one, and one you’ll need to consider carefully to determine when, where, and how long it should be. But once you’ve decided to take this leap, you’ll have an opportunity to revitalize both your professional and personal life. If you’re armed with a solid plan for what you’ll do during your career break, as well as how you’ll re-enter the workforce later, a career break can be a great experience. Good luck!