Gaps in employment happen, but having time away from the daily grind doesn't mean your career has to come to a standstill.
It may be an unplanned situation, such as being laid off or a decision to take time off to care for a sick relative. Noncompete clauses are increasingly being used that can require waits of several months or more before you can sign on with an industry competitor.
Or it could be a break of your choosing, like a much-needed sabbatical to recharge from the stress of a high-powered executive job or the decision to leave the workforce for a few years to raise children.
Regardless of the reason, having time off can be a chance to rethink your career goals and make plans to attain them.
"It's really about approaching the time you have off intentionally," said Amy Wolfgang, a career and leadership coach based in Austin, Texas, in the US.
Career coaches from around the globe share their suggestions of how to make the most of an employment gap.
First, have some fun
For people used to being high-achievers, having a period of time where they're not interacting in a business setting can be unsettling. But it's really a chance to pursue once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Always wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago or attend the Olympic Games? Now may be the time, if finances allow.
"Do something you always wanted to do but didn't have the time before due to work," said David Wu, CPA, the CEO of GMPTALENT/IMD, an international executive search firm based in Shanghai.
Or you could take the time to learn a new language or to pursue more creative endeavours such as writing or painting.
Whatever you choose, find something that will recharge you and prepare you for thinking about your true career and life goals. If the work gap is involuntary, you might not be poised for an around-the-world junket, but setting aside some time for personal projects can help you alleviate stress while searching for your next job.
An extended break is a good time to look within and figure out if you've developed habits that hold you back in your life and career, Wolfgang said. Many people unknowingly adopt behaviours that stop them from taking full advantage of opportunities, and taking time to reflect on that could help vault your career forward.
"If the foundation is rocky, it doesn't matter how many skills you layer on top," she said.
Wu, the consultant based in China, agreed. He suggested that taking steps to understand your personality and how it differs when you are relaxed, as opposed to being at work and under stress, can help. Evaluate what you value the most, whether it's family, reputation, wealth, health, or success. He has his clients use a psychometric assessment tool called Lumina Spark to help them get at those answers.
"Knowing your personality can help you work effectively with others and support your future development," he said.
Look for new opportunities
You may not be walking into an office every day, but that doesn't mean your skills and talent should lie dormant, said Neela Bettridge, a London-based executive leadership coach.
Many of her clients who have taken breaks offer help to charities or other organisations, which can help keep their management and leadership skills sharp. "It's a very intentional way of keeping your skills up while you're having a break," she said.
One client of hers, a senior managing partner in a large company, decided to use a break to pursue two of her passions — baking and entrepreneurship. She started a baking business that found great success, and ended up with two viable careers, Bettridge said.
Reflect on your career
Wu suggested taking a close look at your career so far and analysing what some of the high and low points were. Analysing what circumstances made you the happiest and most productive will help you focus on precisely what you're looking for in your next position.
Sometimes you need time away to figure out if you're headed in the right direction, Wolfgang said. "You have the opportunity to either shift where your career is headed or stay on your current path," she said.
After getting a hold on what you want your next job to be, take time to brush up on the skills you'd like to have, whether it's new technical skills or management training such as classes in strategic thinking.
If your break is for family reasons, such as spending time with a new child or taking care of an ill relative, try to squeeze in an online class to enhance your skillsets, Wolfgang said.
A career coach can help with that, as will less-intense approaches such as watching TED Talks and reading books about improving your business skills.
Or maybe a new degree is what you'd like to pursue to start an entirely new career, Bettridge said.
"So many people have different careers in their lifetimes," she said.
Network with purpose
Get out and network, taking advantage of more free time to meet for a meal or talk over the phone with those you'd like to have in your professional network, Bettridge said. Join professional organisations as well, and attend conferences or local networking events to keep current with what's happening.
Just don't approach this networking solely as a way of looking for a job. Look at it instead as a way of building and maintaining relationships, Bettridge said.
Many people, especially in situations where they've been laid off, can end up retreating and not engaging with those around them, Wolfgang said. That hurts your chances of finding decent employment. Blindly filing applications online is not the solution. She suggested making concrete plans to network to hear about opportunities.
She also suggested, for those who have an employment break due to family reasons, to ensure that you're networking throughout your employment gap and not trying to squeeze it in at the end.
Acknowledge the break
Gaps in employment are not terribly unusual in today's business climate, Wolfgang said. But she suggested that those with gaps be forthcoming about what happened and what they did with the time. Otherwise, that potential employer may come to its own conclusions, which may or may not be true.
"If you own that story, you have a better chance of telling them what you did," she said.
Bettridge said she finds that there's more acceptance of higher-level executives' taking gaps, but that those in less senior roles should have explanations ready, as well as examples of how their time off was used productively.
Whatever your plans are for your employment, make sure you act on them, Bettridge said.
Referring to an employment gap, she said: "Take control of it rather than it taking control of you."
Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance journalist based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, an FM magazine associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.