When it comes to working conditions, the COVID-19 pandemic changed many people’s perspectives. Many workers quit their jobs because of low pay, lack of advancement opportunities, or disrespect at work. The newfound flexibility of remote work showed employees that working from home was a perfectly viable — and for some, preferable — option.
But while the Great Resignation made headlines, another trend brewed beneath the surface: career breaks. Women led the charge, temporarily stepping back from their careers to tend to their families or meet other personal obligations.
This movement grew to such an extent that, now that they’re coming back to the workforce, LinkedIn thought it necessary to accommodate career breaks on their platform. This helped normalize work pauses for the rest of us and is the start of career breaks no longer carrying a stigma.
But you do have to be careful — you can’t just quit your job when you’re starting to feel stressed. You’ll need a clear plan, and hiring managers may still want a justification for the career gap in your resume. If you do it for the right reasons, you can easily justify your time away. Here’s what you need to know.
What is a career break?
A career break is when you leave your industry or the workforce for a certain period of time. Often, it’s a chance to pursue other interests or responsibilities. Just as a student might take a year to travel between school and their first job, you might take time to write a book or live in another country. That’s why some people call it an “adult gap year.”
You might want a career break for any number of reasons. Sometimes college professors go on sabbatical so they can complete their research, and mid-career lawyers might leave their firm to freely help low-income clients.
Under different circumstances, you might not have a choice. You might have been fired from a job and need time to decide what’s next, or an elderly parent might be sick and require your full-time care.
Or you might just need a break to manage your stress and recover from burnout.
Regardless of your reason, it’s up to you to decide whether taking a career break makes sense for you. This can be a great opportunity to dive into other parts of life and personality, leading to surprising new discoveries about yourself.
When to consider a work hiatus
How do you know it’s the right time to take a break from work? It’s a deeply personal decision — and it’s an easier choice for some than others. Here are some common reasons for taking a leave of absence.
1. Prioritize your mental health and well-being
Chronic stress takes a toll on your mental and physical health. By the time you notice the symptoms of burnout — like irritability, chronic fatigue, or sleep problems — you’ve likely been stressed for a while. If it’s interfering with your ability to function, you can ask for a stress leave from work. This would give you the space you need to properly recover and perform at your best.
2. Childcare or other caregiver duties
It’s normal to take time away from work to welcome a child into your family. When they’re expecting a child, 70% of women take some kind of parental leave. On average, they return to work after 10 paid weeks off. Fathers usually only get one paid work week of parental leave, and 76% of them use even less than that.
But some new parents will quit their jobs temporarily so they can spend extra time with their newborn, sometimes right up until their first day of school.
It’s also hard to balance a full-time job with caregiver duties. You may need to step away from your career to care for an elderly parent or a disabled loved one. In these cases, you may seek out a part-time role to devote more time to them. Or, if you can swing it financially, you can forego the job entirely and be a full-time caregiver.
3. Seek higher education
Going back to school can be a great way to learn new skills, raise your salary, and/or transition careers — all important things for your career development or a career change. Many professional university degrees offer night courses, so you won’t have to interrupt your workday to attend.
But, depending on the program, you may need to devote yourself full-time. You also have to be ready to front the cost. Before committing to attending, make sure you can protect your financial wellness.
4. Pursue other interests
You’re a multi-dimensional human being. As such, you may have interests aside from the career that you want to pursue. Life is too short not to indulge in your passions, but some projects take time. If you want to write a book or try running your own business, you’ll need to commit a substantial number of hours to the project. A short-term sabbatical can help you do that.
Make the most of your time away
Some types of career breaks are more demanding than others. Higher education and parenting can feel like a full-time job, even if you’re not going to an office every day.
But if you’re on stress leave or you were recently laid off, you might have more opportunities in your free time than you think. Here’s what you can do to maximize your days:
- Take care of yourself. Whether this break was involuntary or not, it’s an opportunity to adopt healthy habits. Make sure to stay hydrated, eat healthy food, maintain good sleep hygiene, and exercise.
- Reflect and learn from the experience. Time away from your career can give you a new perspective on it. Make time for journaling, meditation, and other types of self-reflection.
- Acquire new skills. From volunteer work to online courses, there are countless small ways you can learn new skills during your time off.
- Expand your network. Do your research and connect with people you admire. Invite them out for coffee. They can offer valuable mentorship and insight into your current situation. And who knows — it may even lead to a new job.
Watch out for these pitfalls
Of course, taking a career break involves some risks. Removing yourself from the regular stresses of life can be great for your physical and mental health, but you should be mindful of these pitfalls:
You may need to explain yourself to future employers. During the pandemic, more people left their jobs to take care of themselves or their families. This helped normalize the practice to an extent. But when you rejoin the workforce, employers may be skeptical about your post-career break resume.
- Your career progress may pause. If you’re away from the office, you may not hear about important opportunities for advancement. This can impact your chances of landing that promotion you’ve been pining for or otherwise obstruct your progression on your career path.
- You may lose touch with your field. It’s hard to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and practices if you’re not immersed in the industry all the time.
- Your bank accounts may take a hit. Career breaks can be expensive. If you decide to travel the world during your gap year, you’ll have to pay for food, lodging, and plane tickets. Even if you stay home during your leave, the bills add up. Make sure you can cover your mortgage and feed your family before stepping back from your career.
If you’re okay with these risks, a career break could be exactly what you need to feel excited about work again. Then, when you’re ready, you can prepare for your return.
Coming back from a career break
Re-entry into the workforce after a long break can be intimidating. If you’re going back to your previous job, you may be worried about whether you’ll still perform at your best. Or, if you’re looking for a new career, you may have concerns about how you’ll justify your employment gap to prospective employers.
But as with all things, framing is everything. The trick is to focus on how your career break will benefit you in your role. In your job interview, talk about the new skills and perspectives you gained while away. For example:
- If you’re a new parent who is a manager, you’ll now have more empathy for employees who also have kids
- If you left on stress leave, you could discuss your renewed focus on work-life balance
- If you have traveled the world or lived in another country, you now have experience working with different cultures
Your career break isn’t a mark against you; it’s a new addition to what you can offer your employer. You just have to convince them of that.
Take your break in peace
Career breaks are an acknowledgment that you’re a complex person. You have passions and dreams outside of your day job, and it’s okay to make time to pursue them. This is a great way to achieve your personal goals, whether that means starting a family or writing a book.
Of course, not all career leaves happen by choice. But even if you experienced a layoff, this can be an opportunity to reconnect with yourself, learn new skills, and expand your professional network. You might not have planned for this, but an involuntary break can be your first step toward a more fruitful and balanced life.