At some point in your career, the likelihood is that you will take a career break. Whether you’re a cocky young know-it-all having achievement issues (read ‘fired’), a mother on maternity leave, a burned out thirty-something asking if this is all there is or a middle-aged breadwinner made redundant, a few months or a few years away from work could be on the cards.
For some, even just the thought of it is hard. ‘If I’m not working, where does my worth come from? How do I define myself? When someone asks what I do for a living, am I going to have to say, “Unemployed”? Doesn’t that admission then lead straight to the assumption of unemployability?’
It might. Some people are so wrapped up in the sense of a job as their self-identity that the idea of not having one is akin to death. But if that’s the case, retirement is going to come as an awfully big shock, no matter how far away it is.
But is the career break a career killer? Or is it just the jumpstart your career (and maybe even your motivation) might need?
Michaela# was already disillusioned with her job when she found out she was pregnant again. After she’d had her first child, the entry level position as an office administrator had seemed perfect. It was close to home, it wasn’t too demanding, and her boss seemed to understand the untimely break-up of her relationship so soon after having a baby would require a little flexibility.
A few years later, her boss moved on. A new office manager was hired against her recommendation, even though she’d been asked to be part of the interview process. He was young, unmarried, without children and completely uncaring about the work/life flexibility many parents working in the business needed. He gave Michaela more and more responsibility, meaning she started earlier and finished later, but there was no overtime or time in lieu.
By the time her daughter was ready to start school, Michaela was engaged to be married and then she discovered she was going to have a second child. It seemed like the perfect confluence of events to justify moving to part-time hours. She was frequently tired from the strain the pregnancy put on her body. She wanted to be able to take her daughter to school in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon. And when she came back from maternity leave, she wanted to continue as a part-time worker. Making the transition now would give the company and her boss plenty of time to adjust.
She worked part-time for six months before giving birth to a healthy baby boy. She spent eleven months on maternity leave, returning a month early to help out when the company desperately needed someone to fill an unexpected vacancy in the accounts payable and receivable team.
‘I thought I was doing them a favour and that it would be remembered. I couldn’t have been more wrong.’
When Michaela’s maternity leave ended and she discussed her return to the office administrator role, she was shocked to discover that the office manager expected her to work in a full-time capacity, not the part-time hours she’d negotiated and performed for six months before her year away. ‘I was told I could accept the full-time job or they would consider my non-acceptance to be a resignation. I was devastated.’
She wasn’t the only one. Many of Michaela’s co-workers encouraged her to contact Fair Work Australia, convinced that what was happening wasn’t legal. It wasn’t. But she didn’t want to go through a protracted legal battle.
‘I was lucky because out of the blue I received an offer from a direct competitor of my employer. They were looking for someone for their accounts payable and receivable team who was already familiar with the industry, they knew I’d done a month of emergency work for my current employer so they knew I could do the job, and they were happy for me to work part-time.’
Michaela never returned to the office administrator role. It’s been three years and she is now a team leader in the accounts payable and receivable department.
‘There were a few weeks when I thought my decision to take maternity leave was going to result in me being unemployed but instead it has been the reason my career has taken off. I’ve been happily employed ever since.’
I don’t know why or how exactly but I always seem to end up working in jobs where one or two days away from the office results in total chaos. No one else knows how to do my job (regardless of what that job is), no one else knows where is (or can be bothered looking for) that file that they have to have right now, no one else knows how to use that software (and they have no interest in learning).
In a job I had a decade ago, I took a day off to go to my great uncle’s funeral. The next day, my first task was to head out and purchase a new coffee maker because no one had remembered to turn it off before going home the previous night. It had smoked away and finally blown sometime in the early hours. Turning off the coffee maker was normally my job. I guess we were lucky the whole building didn’t burn down.
In a more recent job, I got the flu. Not a cold, because I can cope with a cold and still be at work. This was the knock-down, flat-out, can’t-get-out-of-bed flu. But we had to meet a client deadline. And nobody else could finalise the project. So I trudged in to work with my Sudafed and a box of tissues, wondered why my skills were so unbelievably specialised that I was literally the only employee in a thousand-person organisation who could do it, yelled at a senior manager for holding up the final piece of information we needed to include, then spent the morning finishing it up so it could be delivered to the client, before going home and collapsing. I didn’t go back to work for four days.
When I am fit and healthy, which pleasingly is most of the time, to prevent mini disasters, I usually end up spending eleven months working continuously. No mid-winter breaks in sunnier climes for me. No, the only time I take leave is when everyone else is on leave as well and the business is essentially shutting down.
Given these not-uncommon (for me, at least) work experiences, I don’t think it’s surprising that when I get to the point of finally resigning, the last thing I want is to head straight into another job. No, I want a break. I generally need a break. To refresh. To get my motivation back. And to think about where I would like my next job to be.
Before taking on my current consulting role, I was five months into my latest career break after six-and-a-half years in my previous job. Before that, I took a four month career break when I finished up a three-and-a-half year position. And ten years ago, I spent four months between finishing one role and starting the next. Clearly, I’ve now developed a work/career break pattern. And it suits me just fine.
Should you take a career break?
Obviously, the career break is not for everyone. If you’re deliriously happy in your current job, then good for you. You have my deep, undivided envy. If you’re supporting a family, it might be more of an indulgence than your living expenses can bear. But apart from the hit my superannuation takes whenever I’m not working (more than a year out of the workforce when you add it up) and the delicate reorganisation of finances that is a necessity for surviving on your savings, I can’t think of a single reason not to take a career break if and when you need to. In fact, maybe if more people did, we’d hear less about work stress and more about how people are enjoying their working lives again.
After all, it’s not like a career break means you sit around in your pyjamas all day, watching soap operas and checking for Facebook updates. In my case, I’m a writer. I’ve written this article and several others during my career break. I’ve also finished one novel, started a second and begun planning for a third.
My sister, during a two month PhD break, developed her passion for sewing into a short but full-time career break filler. The floor of her spare room is constantly covered in threads but she now makes all her own clothes and writes a sewing blog. And she’s found the motivation to return and finish her PhD.
But if you’re not someone who can bear the idea of the amount of time spent alone at home that writing and sewing entail, there are plenty of volunteer and travel opportunities that also look great on a CV. And they might just be a stepping stone to the best job of your career.
#Name changed for privacy reasons
*First published on LinkedIn 8 September 2014