After Yahaira Castro gave birth 15 years ago, she went back to her job in higher education while her husband stayed home with their new baby. After all, her job offered better health benefits, she said.
But while her return to work felt like a logical decision, it proved more emotionally difficult than she had expected. “I don’t think I accounted for how hard it would be when I went back to work,” said Castro, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Working remotely during the pandemic, she said, allowed her to spend more time with her husband and now-teenager — and she felt that she was making up for lost time.
Castro started going back into the office twice a week last fall, she said. But when she learned she and other staffers would eventually be expected to return to work in-person more often over time, Castro “decided that I couldn’t go back” to office life, she said. In February, she quit her job.
Soon after, she added a new entry to her LinkedIn profile: “career break.”
“After more than 16 years in a higher education setting, I’m exploring new opportunities to work remotely or hybrid to balance my family responsibilities,” Castro wrote underneath the entry.
“Career break” is a feature the platform introduced last month with the goal of “recognizing that your time away from work is just as important, if not more so, than traditional work experiences,” according to Camilla Han-He, senior product manager on LinkedIn’s profile and identity products team.
With the feature, LinkedIn users can classify their time away from paid work as one of 13 “types” of career breaks — including bereavement, career transition, caregiving, full-time parenting and health and well-being — and add details about what led to the career break and what they’ve done during the break.
Normalizing time off
LinkedIn suggests the new feature could be a boon for women, pointing to data the company collected from a survey of nearly 23,000 workers and more than 4,000 hiring managers that found that nearly two-thirds of employees had taken a break at some point in their professional career, and that 68% of women surveyed said they “wanted more ways to positively represent their career breaks by highlighting skills learned and experiences they had during a work pause.”
To Castro and other LinkedIn users and experts, the new feature is a promising first step toward normalizing time away from paid work and recognizing how those experiences can prove relevant once people return to paid work. But the experts also caution that the burden remains on employers to reevaluate the qualities and experiences they consider most important in employees — by valuing caregiving as skilled labor.
“I think the message needs to be: Employers need to step up and create pathways for people to return to the workforce,” said Tami Forman, the founding chief executive of Path Forward, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that supports caregivers seeking to restart their paid careers. “There is still a lot of bias around what makes someone an ideal worker … We have to recognize that part of this is a stigma about caregiving.”
Part of how that stigma manifests is through what researchers term the “motherhood penalty,” which can result in mothers being passed over for jobs, being paid lower salaries and facing other biases in the workplace.
Castro saw that stigma even as a young woman, she said. “The message that I got for years was, ‘You can’t take a career break,’ ” she said. “It’s such a damaging message to people that you have to always be on — that’s not life.”
Destigmatizing career breaks
But mothers are not the only workers who face penalties for taking time out of the paid workforce. A 2018 study published by the American Sociological Association found that only 5.4% of stay-at-home fathers and 4.9% of stay-at-home mothers received callbacks after sending in résumés for potential jobs, compared with about 9% of unemployed applicants and about 15% of employed applicants overall.
And a 2020 study published in the research journal Demography found that workers with the most employment gaps experience up to 40% lower wages later in life, compared with workers without those gaps, with women across racial groups, Black men, people with less education and people living in poverty by age 22 most likely to have unsteady employment paths during their lives.
The stigma against career breaks was part of why Valdas Sirutis, a former investment adviser in Vilnius, Lithuania, initially hesitated about putting his career break on his LinkedIn profile. He is using his time off to spend time with his newborn daughter, in addition to volunteering and thinking about his next career moves, he said.
But, ultimately, he concluded that “this is who I am, and this is the part of life that I’m going through right now, and why be ashamed of it?” he said. “If a company really believes in me and my skill sets, the fact that I took off … [a few] months is not going to be a hurdle in them hiring me.”
Since the start of the pandemic, many workers have similarly renegotiated their relationships to work, seeking career changes and demanding better pay and perks from employers. Many women dropped out of the workforce to manage child care and remote learning after mass closures of schools and day-care centers. There are still 872,000 fewer women in the labor force than in February 2020, according to a recent analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. Women with disabilities, women ages 20 to 24, Black women and Latinas face the highest overall rates of unemployment, according to the NWLC analysis.
For parents who return to paid work, it’s not always a default to consider the ways that their caregiving experiences can prove relevant to their jobs, according to Anna McKay, the founder of Parents Pivot, an online platform that provides coaching to parents seeking to return to paid work.
In her coaching, she uses an acronym — D.E.P.T.H. — to remind parents of how their caregiving experiences equip them with qualities that can be assets in the paid workplace. Those include drive and determination, energy, prior professional and life experience, thought-provoking questions, and innovation and heart.
“People who have paused for caregiving responsibilities really have that ability to … be agile for companies,” McKay said.
Not just for parents
Childless adults also report strengthening some of those qualities on their career breaks by practicing another kind of caregiving: self-care.
Eric Cooper, a project manager in Boston, took a five-month-long career break last year — which he has since added to his LinkedIn profile — to focus on his mental health after becoming burned out from working self-imposed long hours and years of frequent job changes, he said.
“I was not able to perform in my job,” he said. “I was so sick and so exhausted, so tired … I couldn’t so much as send an email without having an anxiety attack.”
But taking time off, Cooper said, “truly taught me how to rest and reset” — which has since allowed him to work more effectively in his new role at a financial company, he added: “I’m changed, I’m grown, I’m healthy … I’m killing it.”
For New York City resident Rebecca Wessell, her current career break — which she began in February after leaving her job as head of operations for an app — consists of focusing “on my health, hobbies, and rest,” according to her LinkedIn page.
She sees adding details of her career break to her profile as “destigmatizing it for myself, and hopefully for other people as well,” she said.
But she’s also wary of the new feature’s limits: “I like that they formalized it — that formalization gives it recognition — but there’s still a lot of structural problems in the U.S. to solve before it’s an option that’s meaningful and viable for a lot of people,” Wessell said. “Employer stigma, health care, paid leave — all of those things make it difficult for [a career break] to be attainable for a lot of people.”
Han-He, the LinkedIn senior product manager, agrees that there’s a need “to start recognizing that life experiences are part of our work experiences,” she said. “In a lot of cases, it’s your ‘off-résumé’ experiences that get at the heart of your passions and your strengths.”
Castro is nurturing some of her passions: She’s working on her writing and taking a certificate program in instructional design.
And she says she has no regrets about making her career break public. “Who I am now is the true version of me,” Castro said. “All of the things I’m doing now are really important to me, so I figured I’d rather present the truest version of me than not.”