Women represent 75 percent of caregivers and are three times more likely than fathers to leave their job at some point to care for their family. When they return, they face the same challenges as all people reentering plus the weight of the "mommy penalty", which is the host of negative behaviors and attitudes that women typically experience in the workplace after having a baby. A curated research report by the Gloria Cordes Larson Center for Women and Business (CWB) at Bentley University aims to change that by providing recommendations for both organizations and individuals.
"A more holistic approach to the leave and reentry process benefits both employees and employers," says CWB Senior Director Trish Foster. "This means starting conversations before employees leave, discussing how to stay connected during the leave, and talking about the type of support needed for reentry."
The report, "The Workplace Journey: Caregiving, Career Breaks, and Reentry," identified the challenges employees face when they reenter the workplace after any type of long-term leave. First, they have to deal with emotional and psychological barriers including a lack of confidence; a fear that their knowledge base and technical skills have eroded; and a less robust professional network. An added challenge is that potential employers often view gaps in resumes negatively and may not be willing to bring workers up-to-speed.
When it comes to caregiving, women bear the brunt of the pressure. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Center for American Progress, mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to say that they had personally felt the negative impact of child-care issues on their careers. Women of color are disproportionately impacted by caregiving challenges, finding it more difficult to take leave or being judged more harshly for doing so.
"For employees, the key is collaborative planning before the leave, including a reentry plan, staying connected during the leave, and establishing expectations for their return," Foster explains. "Employees who adopt this approach will find themselves making better decisions about the leave period itself and feel more prepared to return."
For those returning after an extensive leave – whether for caregiving, military service, or medical needs – the CWB report offers actionable strategies that include:
Consider working as a contract employee, a consultant, or a volunteer both to boost skills and to enhance your resume.
Utilize flexible hours or a phased reentry, especially for those returning from medical leave.
Think about using a professional career coach.
Determine whether you want to pursue a returnship program, an internship that typically combines temporary paid employment with mentorship and training.
Renew professional connections that might have languished.
Be transparent about your hiatus, acknowledging your work break and why you took it, so that employers don't make a wrong and often negative assumption.
The report also addresses employers' blind spots related to caregiving and how it impacts workers. Only a quarter of employers think caregiving has a negative impact on their employees. Few gather information on the care profiles of their workforce and most do not measure or see the need to measure hidden caregiving costs, such as the negative impacts on productivity and well-being.
For organizations, the CWB report emphasizes a strategy that centers on a culture of care:
Create a culture that supports caregiving.
Create a culture with flexible systems and strategies that actively support employee leave and reentry.
Create a culture that takes a holistic, long-term approach to the leave and reentry process.
Ensure support at the top of the house.
Foster advises, "Organizations that follow this path – creating a culture of care – better understand their employees' needs and are able to retain valued workers, all of which is better for the workforce and the bottom line."
Read the full report for additional details and specific recommendations.