Returning to the Workforce After Being a Caregiver

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by Harvard Business Review.

Over the last 18 months, more than 3 million women have left the workplace. Given that women tend to take on the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, be it childcare (including overseeing unanticipated homeschooling during the pandemic) or elder care — or both — many found it untenable to maintain both work and home responsibilities during the pandemic and, therefore, opted out of the workforce. This increased caregiving burden is reflected in a recent study of women faculty members with dependents at Stanford. The study found that 50% of these respondents reported spending four additional hours of caregiving a day, leaving significantly less time for professional pursuits.

Now that schools are open, some people who left the workforce for caregiving responsibilities may now decide to go back to their careers that they temporarily put on hold. Sadly, research has shown that there has historically been a caregiving bias in recruiting against women, as well as against men, since their caregiving violates gender norms. Regardless of gender, re-entering the paid workforce from a full-time caregiving role can feel daunting. And even a short time out of the paid workforce can leave one feeling a lack of confidence or unsure of themselves — it’s like trying to merge onto a fast-moving, busy freeway when you haven’t driven for a while.

Here are six strategies to make the re-entry process less intimidating.

Show yourself some compassion.

While it’s currently a candidate’s market, any job search can be challenging and invariably has its ups and downs. Taking time out of your career for caregiving is a selfless act. As Kristin Neff shares in her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, recognize your common humanity in having to deal with taking care of a loved one. Others will likely show you compassion as well. When my father was dying, I had to pause my client engagements. I was blown away and touched by how understanding my clients were. Since I work mostly with C-level and other senior leaders, many of them had had to care for an ailing parent at some point, so they were very understanding of my situation.

Sally Thornton, CEO and founder of Forshay, an executive recruiting and on-demand consulting firm shared that she is seeing more disclosure in the interview process, and as early as in the first interview. “Disclosing more about your full life and when you’ve had to make trade-offs, and why you might not have been working, is no longer viewed as not being dedicated or ambitious,” she said, noting that this bias was more prevalent pre-pandemic.

Wanda Cole-Frieman, senior vice president of talent acquisition at CommonSpirit Health, the largest faith-based health system in the U.S., concurred, sharing “If there ever was a time in our attitudes around work and people taking time out, I think this is the time of all times to be able to say, ‘Hey, I had to take care of kids. I had to take care of elders. I had to take care of myself,’ without there being any stigma.” She also shared, “We are coaching our team [of 150 recruiters] to be empathetic. And we’ve been in the trenches. We understand what it’s like. In the past, I think there were a lot of people who would take time out, where it was this strategic thing, ‘When do I tell you? Do I wait until I get the interview?’ I just don’t see that being such a barrier anymore.”

Be transparent.

The first thing a recruiter or hiring manager will see is your resume or LinkedIn profile. Make sure these are up to date and that your dates of employment are accurate. You don’t want to say that you’re still working someplace when you are not or stretch the truth in any way. “A lot of people I see are writing in italics, ‘Time out for caregiving,’” Cole-Frieman said. “It’s on their resumes or discussed when they’re having those initial conversations with their recruiter.” She continued by saying that she and her team would welcome this disclosure. She also shared that if someone prefers to leave it off their resume, it’s important to have the dates of employment be accurate, and in this case, “it’s appropriate to bring up in the first interview. You’re saying you want to be back in the workforce; you took some time out. I think it’s totally fine.”

Share what you’ve learned.

Make it clear that this was time out — not time off. You likely were just as busy and faced with many challenges. Share what you learned during this time. You might even discuss what you learned reflecting on your decision to step back from paid work, which may have been either very difficult or very easy for you. There is power in both. It shows you can put others’ needs before your own, which is a quality of a good team member. Perhaps you had to make high-stakes decisions, weighing short-term and long-term consequences that would impact others’ lives, or even had life-and-death implications — decisions that have a lot more at stake than a product launch or website redesign.

You can also elaborate on the range and complexity of the responsibilities you managed, which may have been significant and have relevance for a job you are seeking. For example, you might share on both your resume and in interviews, that you coordinated your child(ren)’s academic, sport and social schedules, booked regular medical appointments, aligned end-of-life decisions amongst three siblings for a parent, oversaw hospice care, served as financial custodian and settled estate matters. Discuss what was involved and how it ties to the role for which you’re applying, if applicable. “I always want to know, now that you’ve had some time out, what did you learn and how would you apply this to your strategic goals in what you have to do and deliver, and what would be different now?” Cole-Frieman said. “Really thinking about how would you use that knowledge and that learning to bring it forth to a new organization, and how would you apply it? I think that’s really key.”

Don’t dwell on the gap and don’t apologize.

While there’s much you can share about what you’ve learned during your time out of the workforce, don’t dwell on the gap in employment and don’t apologize for prioritizing your family. Cole-Frieman shared: “I don’t think you need to dwell on it. I think be matter of fact about it. It shows a lot of who you are, and the character that you bring to an organization as well. So I think there are positive things, also, from taking time out… If you’re authentic about it and it’s real for you, I think that’s going to come through.”

Further, you still have years of work experience to draw upon. Don’t lose sight of that. If you find the recruiter or hiring manager is too focused on when you were out of the workforce than when you were in the workforce, tactfully shift their attention to your prior work experience. You might say something like, “I’m ready and eager to re-engage with work and would love to share with you some examples from my prior job that I think will help me to be successful in this role. For example…”

Check for a values match.

At the end of the day, a company that is not understanding of your taking time out of the workforce for caregiving responsibilities is probably not a place where you’d want to work. Any job interview is a two-way interview. Have questions ready that will help you assess if the values of the organization are a fit for you. Thornton shared that she is seeing that candidates are now making more values-based decisions. “The candidates are testing executives more than executives are testing candidates,” she said. “And candidates are testing for ‘How are you going to handle this when I throw you this curve ball? What did you do in Black Lives Matter and does that align with me?’ They’re looking much more holistically at ‘What team am I joining?’ than they were before.”

Looking for companies that have returnship programs or other return-to-work initiatives is also a good screening mechanism and a potentially good way to rejoin the workforce. CommonSpirit Health has launched a Boomerang campaign targeted to people who have left the workforce during the pandemic and is trying to get them back into the workforce, whether it’s full-time, part-time or some other flexible arrangement. Likewise, Goldman Sachs has both a traditional returnship program for people who have been out of the paid workforce for two or more years that it pioneered in 2008. It has more recently launched a separate Covid-19 Career Relaunch Initiative for people who left the workforce after March 2020 due to the pandemic.

Get support.

Conducting a job search is invariably full of challenges, which can feel even bigger after taking an extended leave. Working with a coach, therapist, job search workgroup, or all of these can be a good source of support, beyond family and friends, to help you deal with the challenges you will likely face along the way. These may range from addressing questions of identity that may arise, managing frustration and gaining momentum when you feel stuck, or handling more tactical job-search questions. Cole-Frieman said, “I encourage people to have that group of people you can go to when you get to that point where you say, ‘Oh, this isn’t working,’ so you can get that pep talk to get back in the ring and try again, because it can be hard.”

Returning to the workforce after taking time out for caregiving doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might otherwise be. Using the six strategies above can help you merge back on the career highway more smoothly and get the results you’re looking for.



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