How to explain your break from work

Taking extended time off from work can often mean having to deal with some tricky questions from employers or co-workers. Understandably, it can be tough to answer these queries, especially if you’ve had to take leave for very personal reasons. If you’re armed with the right preparation, it is possible to make not only a smooth transition back into the workplace but also tackle it with confidence.

Be upfront from the beginning

In order to avoid an employer jumping to their own conclusions, it’s important to address any potential concerns from the beginning. David Wurth, the founder of Wurth HR, always advises addressing any outstanding anomalies on a resume in a cover letter, and that includes extended periods of leave.

If your leave was due to illness, Wurth recommends you name the type of illness, explaining that it required you to take some time off to recover but that you’ve now been given a clean bill of health and are excited and well-prepared to join the workforce again. However, know that it is completely up to your comfort level and your personal circumstances when it comes to how much you choose to divulge.

How to explain your break from work

What to say during an interview

How you deliver a message will often influence others’ reaction. Wurth suggests practising your interview questions and answers in front of someone else to gain feedback on your delivery. This will help you to pinpoint things that may need tweaking, such as your tone and your body language.

You want to ensure you look confident and not evasive, while keeping honest and quite matter of fact in your responses. If you have to address an illness as the reason for your extended absence Wurth suggests saying something along the lines of, “I was diagnosed with a specific illness 12 months ago, and my treating doctor said I needed some significant time off work”.

Follow this by stating how long you had time off and how you’ve now been given clearance to return to work.

Talk up your return by using affirmative phrases such as ‘launching yourself back into the workforce’, says Wurth. You want to make sure that you sound enthusiastic and poised to go back to a professional environment. To help further present yourself as a qualified candidate, be sure to mention any study or part-time work undertaken during your extended time off. Not only can you talk about your formal qualifications, you can also take the opportunity to discuss your journey and the positive things you have learnt about your character and skill set.

What to say to your manager and co-workers

If you are returning to the same role, try and meet with your manager and also some trusted co-workers first to address any questions or concerns they may have. This is a great way to pave the way for your return, and also to ensure that the narrative that gets relayed to others in the company is accurate. 

Returning to work after extended leave means people will naturally be curious to see how you are, and how you’re finding being back at work. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and try and see this as thoughtful rather than scrutinising. When faced with these questions Wurth suggests saying something appreciative but professional e.g. “Thanks for asking. It’s certainly a change from the last 12 months but I’m really enjoying getting back into it – it’s great to be here.”

Whilst it may be hard at times, it’s important to present an upbeat attitude to those in the office. If you are positive, people are more likely to respond in the same way.

Show your confidence

An extended absence from work can sometimes dent your confidence in your abilities. If you feel capable, you may consider doing some research on what’s been going on in your industry, or undertaking further study to brush up on your skills and boost your confidence. This will also give you something proactive to talk about when you’re asked about your absence.

Being confident to talk about your absence requires you to be prepared. This might mean having prepared responses about your extended leave and also any possible follow up questions to avoid floundering for answers. Consider writing a script so you can ensure you have every scenario covered and envision yourself landing that role!

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