Take a Career Break, but Stay in the Game
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Take a Career Break, but Stay in the Game

Lay the groundwork for a return to work when you want by networking, setting boundaries and getting recruiters to come to you.

By RACHEL FEINTZEIG
Tue, Mar 15, 2022 11:39amGrey Clock 4 min

You got burned out. Your kids needed you. You became a crypto millionaire overnight.

Whatever the reason—congrats. Welcome to your career break, length TBD.

Time off by choice can be wonderful if you can swing it, a chance to recalibrate your priorities and detox from the stress of the working world. It can also be a kind of limbo. How to keep your edge without getting sucked back into corporate overwhelm? How do you know when it’s the right moment to job hunt again? And what comes next, anyway?

“It’s the ‘I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up’ kind of feeling,” says Tami Forman, the executive director of Path Forward, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people re-enter the workforce.

Those on work breaks can flounder, unsure what to do once they’ve stepped off the corporate conveyor belt that for years powered their careers, she says. And hiring managers, flooded with job applicants and their own work, often opt for the easiest choice: picking someone who’s currently doing the same job somewhere else.

Don’t be cavalier about what it will take to get back into the workforce, Ms. Forman advises. Start looking before you’re ready.

Carve out five minutes every morning to send a relevant article to two former colleagues, saying why it made you think of them. Ask that parent on the sidelines of the soccer game, the one with the cool job, if they have time for coffee. Explain that you’re on a break and not looking yet, but you’d love to learn more about their role and experience.

“People will be much more open to talking about what’s going on at their company if they don’t think you’re going to say, ‘Can you put my résumé on someone’s desk?’ ” Ms. Forman says.

Brett Delgado, 37 years old, stays in touch with former co-workers via Instagram comments, Discord video chats and online gaming. He left his job at a professional-services firm in the Los Angeles area last April, moving in with his parents in Lake Havasu City, Ariz.

Working 80 hours a week in L.A. while studying for his CPA exam had left him exhausted and anxious. He decided to take a year off to focus on passing the exam, improving his health and connecting with his parents.

So far he’s lost 60 pounds, passed three of the four exam sections (he takes the final one this month) and thought about where he might want to live next. But he won’t start looking for a job until his CPA certification comes through.

“It’s easy sometimes to become preoccupied with, what’s the future going to look like?” he says. “I’ve been trying really hard to take things day by day.”

Even if you’ve been craving funemployment, it’s normal to have some pangs of, “What have I done?” after handing in a resignation, says Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Michigan.

“We like to know that we have control of things and that they’re certain,” says Dr. Kross, the author of “Chatter,” a book about the internal messages we give ourselves.

If you’re feeling adrift, talk to yourself as you would a friend, addressing yourself as “you” or by your name as you dispense advice. Think about how you might view the situation in six months or 10 years. Will you wish you obsessed more over the next entry on your résumé, or spent time with family? And set boundaries from the beginning of your career break, rehearsing how you’d react if someone, say, offered you a freelancing assignment.

Kristen Witte, 32, left her job with a healthcare software company last June after her younger daughter was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the lungs. She pulled her older daughter out of daycare, and is thankful for time spent colouring and moulding Play-Doh at her Houston home. Still, when LinkedIn job alerts land in her inbox, or she hears of others in her field receiving lucrative offers, she sometimes has second thoughts.

“Am I missing out? Is this the right time for me not to be working?” she wonders.

Taking on a 10-hour-a-week contracting gig in January has been “freeing,” she says, helping her feel as though she’s keeping one toe in the professional world, while still staying flexible for her girls.

If you’re open to jumping back in for your dream job, set up your LinkedIn profile to do the work for you, says Omar Garriott, who previously worked for the company and co-authored “Linked,” a book about using the social network.

The brief description right below your name should match your ideal job title, even if you haven’t held it yet, he says. For example, you could write, “aspiring product manager,” “future product manager,” or “taking work hiatus—seeking product manager opportunities.” In the longer “About” section, include a list of your skills, especially ones that are being used as key words in the job descriptions that interest you most, so the algorithms can find you.

Recruiters will start coming to you, Mr. Garriott says. They’re used to people saying no, he adds, so it’s fine to open your profile for them to search even if you don’t think you want a new job anytime soon. Just make sure to reply to their messages with a yes or a gracious no, and let them know what opportunities you would consider.

Blake Lawson, of Costa Mesa, Calif., initially turned down a job offer he got from a tech company in December. A few months into a career break prompted by burnout and the desire to try something new, he was intent on learning improv, earning his pilot’s license and laying the groundwork for his own consulting business.

Then the hiring manager came back with a 19% pay bump from the initial offer, plus the opportunity to learn skills that Mr. Lawson was eager to expand. He said yes.

He started the new job, leading a product team, in January, and likes having more structure in his days. But he misses the time and freedom that came with not having a 9 to 5 and says he’s intent on seeing his side hustles through.

“There’s been a little bit of sadness in knowing what I left behind,” he says.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: March 14, 2022.

 



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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