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Viewpoint | 20 May 2021

People returning to work need our help – our economy depends on them

Supporting those who want to return to work after a career break is not just the right thing to do, it makes business sense, says Helen Lamprell, General Counsel and External Affairs Director, Vodafone UK. But it takes planning and effort.

When people take a career break, for whatever reason, we need to support them when they want to return to work. If we don’t, we risk losing a huge pool of talent and experience. And we also risk damaging our reputation as caring and supportive businesses.

So the business case for this is as compelling as the moral one.

If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything it’s that we need to be – and can be – much more flexible in our working practices from now on. We have the technology now to enable people to work anytime from anywhere pretty much. And people’s expectations about what they want their working lives to look like are changing accordingly. So we need to adapt.

On a human level, it helps our people live more fulfilled lives

While starting a family may be the most common reason for taking a career break, there will be a growing number of other reasons we may want to do this as we live longer and our working lives extend. Businesses need to expect this and plan for it.

Supporting returners helps organisations bridge skills shortages and improve retention and diversity. On a human level, it helps our people live more fulfilled lives; it helps their families and communities. And it helps the economy, too.

“Why do returners need support?” some might ask.

Well, learning from the experiences of the estimated 1.2 million people who seek to return to work in normal times, we know getting back to work isn’t as easy as it sounds. People often lack confidence and undervalue themselves. Their skills may be out of date. They may have forgotten how to apply for jobs and write a good covering letter.

Returners will clearly need as much help as we can give them

So imagine how much more help returners will need in the aftermath of this devastating pandemic which has disrupted so many people’s working lives. Huge numbers have lost their jobs, millions have been furloughed, and many others have had their working hours drastically reduced.

On top of this, the enforced switch to working from home has come with the extra burden of home-schooling and childcare responsibilities. This has put a major strain on family life and has affected people’s mental wellbeing, as many reports have revealed.

Returners will clearly need as much help as we can give them.

Removing barriers

Our reportLost Connections: Supporting returners into the workplace in 2021 and beyond – concludes that the barriers facing returners affect women in particular, as they are more likely to choose to take a prolonged break to start and raise a family and take on the role of unpaid carer in their household.

Over a third (37%) of those returning to the workplace after a year or more away from work experience a loss of confidence in their own ability. And this loss of confidence is almost twice as prevalent for women as for men, with 42% of women experiencing it compared to 24% of men. Balancing work with caring responsibilities was also a concern for 41% of returners, again felt far more keenly by women (45%) than men (30%).

We really must make the most of the talent we have

These findings echo our previous research which identified that of the 77% of respondents who reported sharing caring responsibilities, women were more than twice as likely to do the larger share of caring. Paying for childcare is a perennial concern that often puts women off from returning to work.

And when women do return to work, three fifths go back to lower-skilled or lower-paid jobs than they previously held, research shows. So failure to support returners simply exacerbates pre-existing inequalities facing women surrounding pay and their seniority in the workplace.

This clearly has a knock-on effect when it comes to attracting women into senior management roles.

A friend of mine whose career was progressing brilliantly and who I’m sure could have reached a very senior position, took a break from work for a few years to have children, and started to think that she could never return at the same level she’d been at when she left. It put her off trying to go back to work at all.

I’m sure we all know people like that.

How we can help

Vodafone’s ReConnect programme is just one example of how businesses can attract talented and experienced people who, for whatever reason, have left the workplace for at least a year. We offer digital skills training, networking and advice.

And our report makes recommendations on how businesses and government can help with flexible working, skills training, and improved parental leave policies that challenge ideas that caring is a ‘woman’s job’.

None of this is easy, but if we are to emerge from this pandemic and revive our economy, we really must make the most of the talent we have. We can’t afford not to. It will take planning, commitment and lots of practical support.

And if you haven’t thought much about this, now’s the time to do so.

More from Helen

Caring for carers: How to retain talent in the workplace

How we’re helping families with home schooling during lockdown

Promoting women in the workplace: Lots achieved, lots more to do

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