The Road Back to Wellness and Work: Relaunching After an Illness
In the last ten years, the dialogue about the value of the relauncher talent pool has shed a bright light on the fact that many talented, competent people take career breaks at various points in their working lives. This conversation has led to a long overdue legitimization of the reasons for these breaks: to care for children, elderly parents, ill spouses or partners -- or even to write novels or pursue world travel. Resourceful relaunchers know that they must put a positive spin on the reasons for their career breaks in marketing themselves to prospective employers. But for those who step away from the paid workforce to manage their own illnesses, relaunching may involve challenges that are more complex than those faced by people who’ve stepped away from their careers for less private or sensitive reasons.
In my work in the last ten years as a coach and career counselor, I’ve had the privilege of supporting many who have temporarily exited their careers to deal with breast cancer, Lupus, MS, diabetes, alcoholism, mental illness, and other issues. The courage and strength of many of these relaunchers is awe inspiring. In reflecting on the parts of their journeys that I’ve witnessed, I see that, while every relaunch path is as unique as its traveler, there are certain common questions requiring the thoughtfulness and focus of those returning from a career break after illness:
Am I Ready to Return to Work?
Whether you’ve battled and recovered from a temporary illness or will continue to live and work with a chronic condition, this question is an enormous and highly personal one. Don’t answer it in isolation. Get the input of family, friends and medical professionals who can help you decide whether relaunching is a good idea based on objective information about your health. Answering this question also requires deep introspection and honesty with yourself. It’s hard to know how you will handle the demands of a job after a career break until you are actually in the job; this is especially true after recovery from an illness. For some, taking smaller transitional steps like volunteer, pro bono or contract work and building up to a part- or full-time job might make sense.
Denise*, an attorney-relauncher who recovered from breast cancer after chemotherapy, mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, thinks her decision to relaunch quickly into a demanding job at a law firm was ‘not rational’. At the time, however, she wanted (and needed) to go back to work. “Illness can compromise your decision-making abilities…” she told me. Her first year back included dozens of interruptions for oncologist appointments, MRIs, and ultrasounds. Looking back, she told me: “I needed more time.”
Should I Tell My Employer About My Illness, and If So, How and When?
If you’ve completely recovered from your illness and have made the decision to return, you’ll need to decide what to say to employers about your career break. One possibility is:
“I took two years off to manage a personal [illness/issue] which thankfully has been fully resolved and is entirely behind me. I am feeling great and completely cleared to return to work.”
Keep it simple. Don’t overshare or provide unnecessary details. Talking about your illness can be highly emotional, so practice saying this with a friend so you can avoid emotional leakage in your networking or interviewing conversations.
If you’re relaunching with a recurring or chronic illness for which you’ll need either employer flexibility or a legal accommodation, one option is to wait until an offer has been extended to raise it. This precludes any possibility that the employer will hold your condition against you in its hiring decision (as illegal as that may be). Alternatively, raising it during the interview process, after you’ve established trust and rapport with the employer, shows that you’re honest, actively managing your illness, and that you genuinely want to work with the employer to position yourself for success in the role.
My Illness Changed My Life. How will that Impact my Relaunch?
About to begin her relaunch, Christine* is returning from a 2+ year hiatus from a thriving career in finance to manage a life threatening and physically impairing condition. When I asked how her illness will change her relaunch focus, she said that she is now “aware of a bigger picture” like never before. Her illness has made her feel strongly that she “can’t skip the ‘Why?’” How Christine will process her experience with illness and translate it into a relaunch journey that reflects her changed outlook remains to be seen, but she’s proceeding thoughtfully.
Like Christine, many relaunchers returning after illnesses describe having a different life perspective. As a result, it may follow that their targeted areas for employment shift, or they want to make a difference in the lives of other people, or they simply want a less stressful job following the stress of illness. Perhaps none of these changes will follow. Regardless, it is important to take the time to seek support and process what‘s different for you and about you after illness and how your relaunch journey will acknowledge that, in big or small ways.
* The names of the relaunchers described in this post have been changed.
Carroll Welch is a career, executive and leadership coach who supports professionals in all industries on issues involving career and leadership development, transition and reentry. Carroll has extensive experience and expertise supporting relaunchers in planning job searches and anticipating obstacles as they seek to return to the paid workforce after a career break. Carroll serves as an Affiliate Coach for organizations and programs that support relaunchers; she was also a director of New Directions, an attorney reentry program, for several years.
Prior to becoming a coach, Carroll was a practicing attorney at two major law firms where her work included the representation of management on employment law issues. Carroll received a certificate in Executive and Organizational Coaching from New York University, and is a member of the International Coach Federation and holds their Associate Certified Coach credential. She is a Forbes Coaches Council Member and Contributor and credentialed in the GetFive job search methodology platform. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law. She serves as a mentor and member of the board of directors of Campus Bound Scholars, a nonprofit that supports first generation college bound students.