Karen Dankers Q&A

Career breaks- Returning to work after a break can be a daunting experience. Read our interview with Karen Danker, Head of Coaching at Career Returners to find out about options available to career returners.

1. Why is it so important to help people who have taken a career break to return to work?

Career returners are experienced professionals who have taken a career break for childcare, eldercare, health, relocation or other reasons. Although career returners can be any gender, around 90% tend to be women who have taken caring-related breaks.
It’s important to support returners back into suitable level roles because they face both personal and recruitment barriers when they want to return. Personally, the vast majority of people on career break experience a major loss of self-confidence, in particular a loss of ‘professional identity’, their sense of self as a highly competent professional. They also become disconnected from their working world, losing their networks and concerned that the working world has moved on without them.

Structurally, they hit daunting barriers when they apply for jobs through traditional recruitment channels. There is a high level of bias from recruitment agencies and employers who often screen them out because they have a gap on their CV, falsely assuming that their skills and experience are no longer valuable.

These barriers lead to a huge waste of (mainly female) talent, to the detriment of individuals, business, society and the economy. Many returners return to much lower level jobs, feel they have to retrain or don’t get back into work at all.

ONS data (2021) shows that due to caring responsibilities, women across the board are still 7 times more likely to be economically inactive than men. In their 30s, the difference is even more striking, with 1 in 10 women aged 30-39 years old being out of the labour market, compared to just 1 in 100 men.

Our mission at Career Returners is to remove this Career Break Penalty, dismantling the barriers that experienced professionals face when they try to get back to fulfilling and rewarding careers after an extended break. We want career breaks to be a normal part of a 40 to 50 year career. It’s essential for inclusion and for the future of work. As we all work longer, most of us are going to want or need to take career breaks or scale back our careers at some point and non-linear career paths need to be normalised.

PWC research demonstrated the huge economic gains of addressing these career break penalties– in the UK, it could add £1.7billion to the economy.

What has been the growth of returner programmes and are there enough/ good spread across the UK?

Returner programmes offer supported routes back to professional jobs, with coaching, training and mentoring provided to smooth the transition back to work. Returner programmes include returnships – professional level 3-6 month placements with an intent to hire at the end if the placement is successful, and supported hiring, where a returner is hired straight into a permanent role with the same wrapper if support.

A decade ago, in the UK, career returners were not on the agenda for business or Government and there was no supportive community or positive role models for returners. Today, in 2023, the landscape has changed completely. Over 180 leading employers have targeted returner initiatives, across a range of sectors including financial services, professional services, legal, media, telecoms, tech, construction, engineering and the public sector.

The greatest proportion of returner programmes are run in London and the South, but we also run many programmes in Scotland, the Midlands and the North of England.

The UK and Scottish Government have provided funding to provide large-scale support to reach returners in certain parts of the country. In 2023 the UK Government funded ‘Stem ReCharge’, a return to work readiness coaching programme to help support returners based in the North and the Midlands of England to return to careers in tech and engineering. The programme also included training to employers in the area to encourage the growth of returner opportunities in tech in the region.

Does being a ‘returner’ mean that you go back to doing the same role or work that you did before?

Being a returner means that you are returning to professional level work after an extended career break. Returners may return to their former role and sector, but equally they may choose to pivot to something slightly different (similar role in a new sector, or new role in their former sector) or they may change to a new career. Some returner programmes offer retraining opportunities including qualifications to work in a new area, such as tech or wealth management, which may be combined with an on-going role at the end of the training.

What’s your top advice for someone considering whether to get back into work?

Take time to reflect on why you want to go back to work and what you’d like to do next. Many returners choose to go back to the professional sector they enjoyed pre-break, but others use their career break as an opportunity to move into different fields that better reflect their interests, values and the way they want to work now.

Use your network to chat over ideas for different roles, hear about current opportunities and seek connections to others who might also be able to help.

Gain valuable experience through skilled volunteering to add to your CV, test out new work areas, and talk about at interview.

Explore free online courses to bridge any technical skills gaps. 

Consider returner programmes for a supported route back to work


Don’t try to hide your career break! Value the experiences, skills and alternative perspective you have gained during your career break.

Sign up to our network! Our free Returners Professional Network, a supportive community with 9,000 members, offers a wide range of support, advice and inspiration, including free monthly webinars, monthly return to work support magazine, events and role models, together with access to a range of opportunities (https://careerreturners.com/returners/sign-up/).

Sign up today.