I plan to have a second child and this time would like to take more than the statutory maternity leave entitlement. I’m hoping to take off one year or two. But how damaging is a career break like this? Can I return at the same level and should I expect to take a pay cut when I do? RW, Dubai
People often worry that a break in their careers will stunt the progress they have worked so hard to achieve. There are various reasons they decide to take time off from the mundane working life; to travel, to spend more time with their children in the formative years or to check something off their bucket list, such as forming a rock band or backpacking across a continent. I have a friend who took a career break from a high-powered corporate role to spend a year working with children who had learning disabilities in the UK. He describes his experience as both profound and life-changing, and feels he is more effective in his career because of what he learnt and experienced. Even if this resulted in a slight career backlog, his new perspective on life accelerated him forward in many other ways and helped him acquire a senior position in the insurance industry.
In this stressful and fact-paced sprint to reach the top, the fear of being left behind if we take a stopgap can be daunting. Yet for many, like my friend, it’s just what they need to put things into perspective and help them realise what is not only the critical truth of life, but also their careers. Difficult clients or challenging projects don’t feel as stressful as they used to. Also, as you are lucky enough to have already had a first child, you will know there is nothing more maturing and perspective-shifting than parenthood, and your experience does not compare to what you may gain at work.
If we look at things purely from a corporate ladder perspective, it depends on where you are in your career and how much you have achieved thus far. It could be that you have 10 or 15 years’ experience in a particular field or industry and that a one or two-year break is only a small chip in an otherwise well-established armour of corporate experience. On the other hand, only four years’ experience with a two-year break will mean that you fall behind your peers who you left at the same level. This is not necessarily to say you have to wait until you have 10 or 15 years’ experience to have a child. However, it’s something you need to take into account when you are planning your leave entitlement.
I would also suggest discussing your plans with your current employer. If you have a good relationship and they value you, they may be able to offer you a similar role for similar pay when you return. Even after a break of a year or two, they should still want to keep you rather than losing you to the competition. Play the long game and let them know of your intention of returning to work.
Now let’s look at things from a broader perspective. Career breaks are very common, especially in women. Research shows that 50 to 60 per cent of working women take some sort of career gap, and yet more than 70 per cent of them feel anxious about their decision and the potential hit it may take on both their careers and their confidence when they return to the office. The reasons vary, but spending more time with children is one of the most common. The time mothers spend with their newborns is irreplaceable. I was lucky to have spent my early years around a lot of my family, and that has resulted in the strong bond we share today. So even if you do not return at the same level or are forced to take a pay cut after the break, it is in exchange for something far more important and you will easily move up the ladder again.
Many people often worry that a break in their careers will stunt the progress they have worked so hard to achieve. The experience you have gained over your career will be important, but the growth and contribution you can make to your family outweighs any stopgap you may face if you take a one or two-year career break. Experience and maturity are gained in different ways, and taking time off to do something you love will change your perspective. This knowledge you achieve will be helpful at work when you return. Remember why you go to work every day in the first place and this decision should be easier to make.
Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on any work issues.
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