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After taking a career break, I couldn’t get a job. And it pushed me to the brink

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I worked as Head of Europe for HR for a three-billion-dollar American corporate, looking after 11 European countries.  It was a demanding role – I had weekly team meetings at 4am, and my average days would start at 8am and often end between 8pm and 10pm.

But I got divorced when my daughter was eight and the majority of her school fees fell to me, so that was tough as a single mum. However, when she reached 18 my options opened.

My role had completely exhausted me and I got to the stage of thinking, ‘There must be more to life than this?’ So, I decided to take ­– what was intended to be – a year’s career break.

 

Expectation Vs reality

The break was fabulous. I made a bucket list and did everything on it – wrote a book, travelled around Finland, did cattle-ranching in Montana and took up long-distance running. However, trying to get a job again was much harder than I thought, and my one-year career break turned into three-and-a-half years of unemployment.

I started applying for a new role three months into my break, thinking it would probably take at least six months to find something. However, I applied for more than 500 jobs and had just two interviews in that entire time.   

It was an emotional rollercoaster – I felt despair, frustration, anger and an overwhelming feeling that I was on the scrap heap, despite having so much more to give. I remember going out one day and it happened to coincide with everyone going out to work. I remember sitting there, watching this stream of all different types of people and thinking, ‘What is it that they have in common that means they can get work and I can’t?’ I felt completely hopeless as I knew I had the skills – I’d worked successfully in HR for 28 years by this point, and I knew I interviewed well, it was just getting there that was the problem.

 

Age discrimination

I also know I was penalised for my age. In fact, I said to one recruitment consultant, ‘Be completely honest with me – is the problem my age?’ And he said yes, that was part of it. I did everything I could to counteract this during the application process and obviously didn’t put my date of birth on my CV, but you need to put your degree on there, and it’s not difficult to guess your age from that.

It had a huge impact on my mental health. It was so bad at one point I felt suicidal. I had got through my entire life savings, was struggling to support my daughter and had to sell my house. Essentially, nothing was working and I’d run out of options of what else to do.

Fortunately, I met someone who mentioned ‘returners programmes’ to me.  A lot of companies now run returners programmes as a diversity and inclusion initiative, with the aim to get those who have taken an extended career break (which is mainly women) back into the workplace.

I applied for a role via a returners programme at a large corporation, and the process was rigorous – there were 360 applicants for just eight positions and I had three interviews. But I was offered the role and now work as a management consultant. Being offered the role felt so good and was such as relief. Apart from anything else, it meant I wasn’t going to go bankrupt and was a validation that I still had something of value to offer.

 

On reflection

It’s been almost a year now and going to work has given me a sense of purpose and sense of belonging to this anonymous community of ‘people who work.’ That has been surprisingly important to me.

I don’t regret taking the break – I needed to do something for myself, after spending the previous 10 years taking care of everyone else’s needs apart from my own – but I do understand now how soul-destroying unemployment is.

My advice for anyone going through something similar would be: it is so important to hang on to who you were before that period of unemployment. Remind yourself on a regular basis – if you had a great sense of humour before or if you are loyal to your friends, or work really hard etc, you still have those things. You haven’t essentially changed – everything that made you you still exists. Whilst this doesn’t directly help with issues of putting food on the table or paying the mortgage, losing your sense of self doesn’t either and makes the experience of being unemployed even more corrosive.