Literature provides direction for meaningful exploration.....
Much has been said and written about the benefits of a mid-career break. Born out of necessity and at other times will, a mid-career break can be extremely beneficial. More common is the notion however that career breaks are career suicides, especially for women.
A somewhat dated study found that only 40% of qualified women return to work, and when they did a quarter take pay cuts, part time roles, fewer management responsibilities etc. A newer study among HBS women alumni found that women aren’t really opting out or ratcheting back voluntarily, as much as they are being indirectly forced to, because of unfulfilling roles and stalling careers. To break or not to break, that is the question.
A few years back a couple of folks I knew well passed away. One was my husband’s close friend. Another was a cousin. Both dropped dead, quite literally, of a heart attack. One collapsed in his driveway and another in his kitchen. Both were 36. The events, as sad and depressing as they were, hit close to home and served as a reminder to not take life for granted and to live each day to the fullest. Life lessons apart, the incidents also stirred up nascent entrepreneur feelings and parental instincts in both my husband and me.
I spent hours researching the net about mid-career breaks. No one needed to sell me on the benefits, but I was genuinely anxious about what such a break would mean for my career. Would I have to settle for a lower paying job, a lower title, fewer responsibilities? How do you truly utilize such a break to your advantage? The case for organizations to better structure their culture and policies to support women on breaks is one in progress. Till such time as we see the changes well rooted in organizations, the burden is on women to make well informed and calculated decisions on taking and managing a career break.
From the counsel of many senior/high achieving women (who very graciously imparted their wisdom and donated their time), there are a few key considerations when evaluating a break.
Financial freedom: By far, this is the most critical factor to consider when taking a break. Life still needs to happen on a break and if you don’t have the money don’t take the break. The tentacles of financial stress creep into the even the most well intentioned plans and puts them in disarray. If you aren’t financially comfortable maintaining your chosen lifestyle for the duration of your break, you end up desperate and settling for less on your path back into the workforce. That beats the purpose of a break.
If you are intent on taking the break, plan carefully to ensure financial comfort during the break. If a change in lifestyle is needed to accommodate it, make it very consciously. Constantly regretting giving up the premium medical insurance plan does nothing to put you in the right frame of mind to plan forward. Build a buffer – if you plan to take a break for six months, ensure financial comfort for nine. Good jobs take longer to find, products take longer to build and startups take longer to incubate than expected. So, plan for it.
Management seniority: The higher up you are, the easier it is to take a break without your career derailing. I talked to a few VP this, Sr. Director that who comfortably took a few months or more off to explore, and came charging back where they had left off or even ahead. Meanwhile analysts and managers were finding it difficult to get back, and if they did, were compromising with lower pay or fewer responsibilities.
Senior women have already proven themselves in their careers and built their credibility. So, they don’t have to put as much effort into explaining their break. Life happens, everyone understands that. It is brutally less forgiving earlier or lower in the career track. Senior women also have the experience and serious chops to parley their break into a story that ties in better with their career goals. Better access to resources outside work. Better volunteer opportunities. Better networks. These aspects are critical on a break. Perhaps consider pushing out taking the break after the next promotion, if career advancement is a desire.
Solve for future career outcomes: A break is a wonderful time to evaluate what you want out of life and a career. If you have taken the break to escape an unfulfilling role or a stalled career, now is the time for introspection. A stress-free state of mind away from the 9-5 is truly a blessing and a terrific opportunity to fire up the creativity kilns. Understand what you want from your career and use the break to start preparing for it.
If it’s the next management level you want, understand what it takes to get there and how you can creatively get there off the beaten path. If it’s a change in career function, understand what steps can be taken to get there. It’s impossible to do this well in the confines of your home, so build and keep your network active. Shore up your knowledge base – read, attend workshops, pursue meaningful consulting opportunities that align with your goal. Build your brand – tweet, write blogs, contribute/volunteer with professional societies. Keep moving forward so you have the right story to tell. Use judgement to decide the length of your break.
Disrupt Yourself: Whitney Johnson’s best seller “Disrupt Yourself” provides context and prescription for pursuing disruptive innovation i.e. pursuing a non-traditional path to career success and fulfillment. What better time than a break to evaluate if and how to plan your disruption strategy. Like the foundations of a successful business, step one is evaluating disruptive strengths one can offer to meet needs more effectively. Step two involves careful introspection to build a somewhat fluid plan, consciously considering various paths (even stepping backwards) to go after a larger outcome. The key is to stay motivated and dedicated through the break to stay on the disruption journey.
Have fun: The best part of a break is the flexibility and time it affords you to pursue interests and passion. Be it spending time with kids/family, taking art classes, volunteering at the shelter or travelling, now is the time to do it. A break is relaxing, builds perspective and makes you more aware of your priorities and boundaries. Exploit that to the fullest.
One of the things that’s so hard about getting back from break is the need to give up many treasured activities. Yes, there’s never going to be time to pursue all the fun things but you can continue to pursue an activity or two albeit at a lower frequency. Plan your time carefully to make space for these. Things. It will remind you of a happy time in your life and keep you fulfilled. A break is also a time to inculcate good habits that can carry you through your personal and professional life. For example, mindfulness and exercise (even for a few minutes) are good habits to start on a break to incorporate in daily or weekly routines.
A break can be just the right medicine the doctor ordered. It is a privilege and a gift and should be treated as such. A break calls for a different kind of work, more fun kind of work. One woman I spoke with went back, with a promotion to Chief Legal Counsel of a Fortune 500 company, after a four-month break. Another went on to start a very successful financial consultancy business after a year’s break. Still another launched a non-profit after three months off. All planned their breaks carefully and had a wonderful time on their breaks.
It can be done, so aspire higher!
Of course, all the above applies only if you want to ensure your break doesn’t end up causing an irreparable dent in your career. If you want to hang up your boots for good, go forth and vacation!
Pamela Stone’s research on women opting out of the workforce can be found here and here
Whitney Johnson’s book on Disrupt Yourself (which makes for a fascinating read)
Here is an insanely good article on becoming insanely well-connected.
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