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Why returning to work is not as easy as it should be

Why returning to work is not as easy as it should be
Emily Luscombe wide crop

By Emily Luscombe, Chief Client Officer

Returning to the issue at hand…

News from across the channel last week was dominated by what apparently came as a surprise to Emmanuel Macron: the French don’t fancy postponing their retirement, and won’t be told to by a politician. Obviously this comes as no surprise to anyone who paid the slightest attention in French socio-political history lessons; nevertheless, it’s interesting insight into how a universal challenge is playing out beyond our own borders.

Jeremy Hunt’s recent Budget was equally, albeit more British-ly, consumed by rhetoric about “getting people back into work”. More specifically, the over-50s (most of whom, the BBC went on to discover, don’t actually want to go back to work…) and “young parents” – solved, he tells us, by a plethora of flimsy commitments around childcare costs and pension tax breaks.

What I find intriguing in this debate, driven by the very solid and looming crisis of worker and tax receipt shortfalls, is the apparent absence of any reference to employment-age “returners”. The swathes of professionals, often but not always female, who amass several decades of qualifications and experience in the business world, only to take a brief sojourn to have a baby – and then disappear forever. Where, I ask Mr Hunt and Mr Macron, is the policy to bring them back?

Thousands of these highly professional, high-earning, high-tax-payers are lost from UK plc every year, not because they don’t wish to work or can’t afford childcare. They are lost, because it turns out that investing a decade-long career break in Britain’s future deems you “out of touch”. And that, for all the protestations about diverse, non-biased, recruitment, a hiring manager doesn’t look kindly on that sort of gap on a CV.

Helping women and working parents get back onto the career ladder

I was privileged to be at a recent event run by Back2Businesship – an initiative set up to address this very challenge a decade before the politicians clocked it. It supports women back into the workplace following extended career breaks, through coaching and connecting them to potential employers.

The calibre of the 2023 cohort of “returners” was extraordinary. All had held senior comms roles, in multinationals, networked agencies, or run their own business. They heralded from tech, finance, and media. They had worked across the globe. Each had a unique story as to why they were there, but they were united in one thing: the challenge of getting back on the career ladder.

How is it, that in a world where talent is more hotly fought over than ever, these credentials cannot score you an interview? Where we profess commitment to DEI and unbiased recruitment, yet very apparently are not?

I spent my child-bearing years at a traditional corporate and financial PR firm, built in the City’s private members’ clubs. At seven months pregnant, I was promoted to a leadership role. The delight of having smashed a glass ceiling (I went on to discover there were several) was only mildly hampered by the CEO of the time congratulating himself (not me) on promoting a woman “when heavily pregnant” and then inviting me to “waddle up to stage” to shake his hand. And we wondered why my predecessors hadn’t attempted the return.

Fast forward a decade, and clients have started to vote with their feet. They want diversity in their advisors, to represent their diverse audiences. And they’re right: no game-changing creative strategy ever came out of an echo chamber.

As an industry, we have made some strides – with flexible working policies which no longer eliminate the possibility of being both a senior leader and a working parent. But when I hear from those inspiring “returners” about the insurmountable challenge of getting back into work, and clock the notable gap in our Government’s proposals aimed at this most attractive of an employee base, it’s clear there’s a huge amount of work still to do.

The starting point needs to be attracting the talent in the first place. We talk about a desire for diversity – but are our recruitment ads or interview policies inadvertently deterring the “returner”? What’s your gut reaction when you see a ten-year career break on a CV? Is the CV the very problem – and we all need to get a bit more innovative with the hiring?

A culture of inclusivity is key – and the need to reward and recognise individual talents at a senior level, not only among our bright young things. Sure, a senior colleague who has been out of agency for a prolonged period may not be au fait with the latest digital monitoring tools, but they will bring priceless professional and life experience to feed strategic problem solving.

And speaking to clients about what makes the ultimate agency differentiator, this is right up there.

Read Emily’s account of returning to work after long-term illness

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