Many UnHappy Returns – why the marketing and communications industry needs to rethink the employee experience for staff who’ve taken a career break

My 25-year career in comms has been punctuated by several breaks. Some were my choice – two spells of maternity leave and a sabbatical after my dad died. Others were circumstantial – redundancy and furlough.

But what was consistent every time I returned to work was the truth in ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’.I was gagging to get back. Of course, there was the self-doubt that comes from ‘being out of the game’ for a while.But I also felt a renewed enthusiasm, an appreciation of the value and purpose of work, a greater curiosity and desire to learn where possibly I’d become a little stale and complacent, and a willingness to add value and make a difference.

Fortunately, attitude was equalled by opportunity. Although the search wasn’t easy, I’ve been lucky to have landed great roles after each career hiatus, especially as I’ve edged ever closer to 50 in an industry that bows down at the altar of youth. Occasionally I feel conspicuous by my cultural out-of-touchness among a team of mostly 20-somethings, but on the whole, I’ve felt challenged, stimulated, valued, and fairly compensated for my contribution. My voice is listened to and I’ve continued to grow. So, it makes my heart sink to read new research that suggests that for many women returning to work after a career break, the journey has been less positive.

According to the recent survey of Returners by the BacktoBusinessship programme, more than half (52%) of respondents say they took a more junior position and lower salary compared to their last role before their career break.I can understand this might be through choice, and there’s a lot to be said for finding your feet and building back your confidence and technical skills before pushing up a gear. It’s more worrying to think that brilliant, talented women aren’t being seen as suitable for senior roles.But by opting for less senior positions, it’s no surprise then, that 44% feel overqualified and able to take on more responsibilities.

Depressingly, 45% say they have experienced ageism at work. This surfaces in lots of ways. Some say their managers are threatened by older, experienced staff members or choose to work with younger people. Returners feel they also battle a misconception that they lack commitment, pace, relevant up-to-date skills or want too much flexibility. More than half (53%) feel they must work harder to prove their value.

At a time when employers are doubling down on their diversity commitments, it sits uncomfortably that returners aren’t valued and appreciated for their qualities and are even being discriminated against, either in the recruitment process or on the job itself. With caregiving being a primary driver for career breaks, it’s fair to say there’s no candidate better positioned to take on more and ‘get shit done’ with a healthy dollop of empathy and humour, than a parent. Employers are clearly missing a trick here.

We formed the Experienced Practitioners Network at FH to give a voice to the older employee cohort and drive a conversation around the value of wisdom and lived experience.We feel strongly about supporting not just each other, but anyone else navigating a world that isn’t wholly friendly to our kind.I expect to work for another 20 years, but I don’t see many 60-something women in agency life right now to feel confident there’s going to be a place for me, so I see it as my personal mission to create that space.Not least as I represent the voice of an affluent, engaged consumer demographic that marketeers continue to ignore.

That’s why we’re thrilled to support and host the 2024 BackToBusinessship program – a two-week re-orientation bootcamp in March for marketing, sports marketing and communications professionals who have taken 3 or more years out of their careers for caring reasons. Now in its 11th year, the programme, powered by f1 recruitment, has helped more than 350 professionals build their skills and confidence to get back into their careers. A number of FH-ers will be running sessions on topics such as AI, influencer marketing and inclusive communications.

We’re also hosting a webinar on Monday 8th January to discuss the BacktoBusinessship research findings, with panellists including our own Ian Williams, who founded the Experienced Practitioner Network, to explore what more employers need to do to create meaningful, rewarding roles for returners.

We need to kill the misconception that Returners aren’t ‘all in’ like younger employees, due to other priorities and commitments, or that their need for flexibility sits in conflict with team and client needs.If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that returners with carer responsibilities don’t have the monopoly on wanting flexible working arrangements and better balance.It’s something we all desire, regardless of life stage and experience.

You can join the BacktoBusinessships webinar on 8th January at midday at this link. Applications for the 2024 BacktoBusinessship bootcamp are open now.

For more info go to