Embracing a career break: Much like a tree shedding its leaves in autumn

Written by
Prakriti Singh

In a culture that evidently prioritises productivity over well-being, it’s no surprise that sleeping less, working weekends, sacrificing leisure for work, and writing and reading books on how to be more ‘productive’ are things that we boast about. Hustle has become the norm. Job descriptions now expect us to be a ‘ninja’ who is constantly available and is always up for going ‘beyond the call of duty’, and why not? We are a generation of people who have grown up admiring the hustle shown in movies like The Intern and Devil Wears Prada, but at the same time, we also want to seize the day like Laila in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

Maintaining a balance has been hard for most of us, but while some have opted to run towards their goals as fast as possible, there are also the ones who have chosen to take a pause to rest, travel, become a parent, be with family and friends, or just to be. This pause, which looks glorious in books and cinema, is extremely messy and full of anxiety and self-doubt in real life. The leap of faith, where one trusts their instincts to focus on something else for a while and not work, requires a ton of privilege but also the ability to let go.

Is financial privilege a flex (or not?)

In the last few weeks, I have had several conversations with people who feel burnt out, especially after living through the pandemic and desperately wanting a break but not able to take one because of a lack of financial cushion. Prashant (name changed on request) has been working in corporate jobs for five years. He said, “I enjoyed working in a corporate at the beginning of my career, but now I dread going to the office. There is no time to process anything because you are constantly supposed to move from one milestone to another. I want to leave and take a break for a while to figure things out, but the thought of not receiving the ‘salary credited' message on the first day of every month scares me.” Prashant also talked about peer pressure and how LinkedIn updates of people getting promotions and new jobs keeps him on his toes, and he still needs to figure out how to let that go and find a pace that works for him.

Despite having financial privilege, often, people find it difficult to leave a job because of the prestige and safety that comes with a certain designation and salary. Issac John was the marketing head of Puma when he decided to take a break. He believes that anxiety and self-doubt is inevitable, especially in the initial days of a break. But one can prepare well in terms of getting the finances sorted, having a routine, and sparing some time for physical activity during the break. He is in his third career break at the moment and has a checklist now on how to navigate these breaks in a more self-assured way. Issac has also documented the experiences of many professionals who took a career break in his book Reboot: How to Manage Career Breaks and Return with Greater Success. While talking about the perception of a break, he said, “The first time I took a break was in 2011, when I gave up my job without another offer in hand. My second break was in 2015, and now I have taken a break in 2022. The perception towards a break has definitely changed over time; in 2011, the concept of a ‘voluntary’ break didn’t exist, people assumed that you must have been fired. There was a lot of stigma in 2015 as well; however, today, employers are more accepting of a career break. I think one of the reasons for this change is also that now people in senior leadership are themselves taking a break, which earlier was completely unheard of.”

Career breaks can sometimes be due to gender-roles or health conditions, too

The conversation around mental health has also encouraged more people to pay attention to their individual needs. Aakriti Anand, a freelance writer, realised she didn’t want to continue with a full time job because a freelance life allows her to work at her pace and is more conducive to her ADHD.  “People find it easier to digest when someone’s been on a break because they lost a job, and not because they needed to take time off,” she said when asked about the acceptance of career breaks among employers. “It can be hard to suddenly adjust to doing absolutely nothing for a little while. But over the years, I’ve learned not to rush to fill up the gaps immediately. The gap is what the break is for,” she added.

While men take a break for myriad reasons, caregiving is still a major reason behind career breaks among women. Vanita Bhatnagar, Staff Writer, The Ken, is eight months pregnant and is stuck in a dichotomy of whether she should take a career break or not. She spoke about how growing up, she never imagined taking a break from work but is now wondering if she will be able to manage current hours and handle work pressure with a tiny new member coming in. On being asked about what can be done to make this process easier, she said, “In India, the entire responsibility of maternity leave is borne by the employer, which is very difficult for smaller organizations when they are struggling to pay basic salaries. At a policy level, the government needs to be a contributor if we want better participation of women in the workforce. Being a tax-paying citizen, it troubles me that I have to ask for maternity benefits from my employer rather than the government. Why is the tax money not directly used for my benefits? Also, there needs to be a mandate where both men and women get an equal number of parental care leaves to ensure that women are not discriminated against at the workplace and at the same time men are also involved equally in taking care of the child.”

The conversations I had with people for this piece have all been quite insightful. But I always keep going back to something that Atharva Pandit, a Mumbai-based writer and a South Asia Speaks Fellow,  said while talking about the career break he took at 26 to write a book. “I am around people who are in their forties and fifties and are dissatisfied with life because they wanted to do certain things when they were young, and they couldn’t because of different reasons. This really affects them today, and I didn’t want to be like these people. Even if it doesn’t work out, at least I will have the satisfaction that I tried.”

While the conversation around career breaks will continue to evolve, what we all can agree on is that taking a pause to rejuvenate is a fundamental need for our well-being, even the most magnificent trees take a break in autumn!

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