Intended for healthcare professionals

Careers

Can my career progress after a break?

BMJ 2023; 381 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p1309 (Published 20 June 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;381:p1309
  1. Abi Rimmer
  1. The BMJ

Returning to work after a period of absence, either by choice or circumstance, can be daunting, but there are ways to make it easier, experts tell Abi Rimmer

Ask for what you need

Lucy Henshall, GP and founder of Welcome Back to Work (www.welcomebacktowork.co.uk), says, “It could be made so much easier to return to work after a break. Imagine a world where doctors feel supported to flourish, where they are appreciated as unique human beings and valued for their talents. Aren’t those the doctors we would prefer to see as patients?

“It’s time to change the conversation around career absences. Instead of the system automatically viewing time out as something people should feel embarrassed about or apologetic for, we need to embrace the truth: that doctors are human too.

“Life is neither predictable nor linear. Best laid plans can be derailed in the blink of an eye by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

“Some doctors take time off work because of unexpected, life changing events like a serious illness or accident. Some take time out for caring responsibilities. Others may choose to spend a period away from work engaging in self-development, learning, or acquiring new skills. All these reasons are valid.

“It is perplexing that, while in virtually all other industries a breadth of career and life experiences is celebrated, in medicine it is criticised. Is it any surprise that, rather than flourishing and thriving, doctors are barely surviving?

“My advice to anyone resuming work after a break is simple. You are the expert in your life so be positive and ask for whatever you think you need to help your transition—be it an IT update, a mentor, or an initial spell of shadowing to rebuild your confidence.

“Know—and believe in your bones—that articulating the specific support you need helps to manifest it. Explain your hopes and anxieties to others. They are busy, so make it easier for them to assist you by being explicit.

“You deserve a warm welcome back, and time and space to find your feet—so ask for it. Aim for your first day back to be joyful and encouraging. Success breeds success. Good luck. You’re amazing.”

Leaders must ensure you are supported

Claire Light, General Medical Council head of equality, diversity, and inclusion, says, “Returning to training or work after a period of absence, regardless of the reason, is daunting. We know some doctors who leave UK practice have faced barriers on returning, with lack of induction and fear of losing skills cited.1

“We are seeing more flexible working being accommodated in medicine. Those returning, if in training, can apply to train less than full time for any reason. And trainees have the option to move between specialities, without losing recognition for completed work.

“Doctors can add value to the team they are working in and tailor their work around their strengths and weaknesses. People’s lived experiences can enrich the community they serve.

“A diagnosis of a health condition or disability will not prevent studying or practising. Organisations must make reasonable adjustments, in line with equality legislation, to remove barriers people face because of their disability.2

“Leaders must take responsibility for ensuring working environments are inclusive and that doctors receive well organised inductions—our research found poor inductions can impact wellbeing and patient safety and impacts on recruitment and retention.3

“We run free Welcome to UK Practice workshops for doctors, regardless of experience, suitable for doctors returning to work. It provides practical advice, learning opportunities about our key standards and guidance, and explores ethical scenarios doctors may encounter.4

“Support is available for doctors who take unplanned breaks in practice in either meeting the requirements of revalidation or in deciding to temporarily give up their licence.5

“Doctors’ experience is valued and they should be encouraged and supported to return to practice.”

Appreciate your unique experience

Amrita Sen Mukherjee, founder of Your Wellbeing Doctor (https://yourwellbeing.doctor), says, “This question resonates deeply with me because I understand the impact that periods of absence can have on doctors. Whether it’s because of illness, disability, childcare, parental care, or compassionate leave, the emotions that accompany such absences are universal: grief, shame, despair, and anxiety.

“As doctors we commit ourselves to protecting others but often neglect our own wellbeing, even when we have been harmed, such as during a period of absence.

“Take a moment to reflect on your personal definition of what it means to be a doctor. Embody this definition and ensure it aligns with your values, rather than conforming to someone else’s imposed ideology. Embracing your unique understanding of the doctor’s role can empower you to navigate your journey with authenticity.

“Remember that, as a doctor, you possess a wealth of transferable skills. While the way in which you use these skills may evolve and adapt, it doesn’t diminish your capabilities. Embrace the opportunity to challenge traditional practices and be a trailblazer, integrating modern principles into your approach.

“Your journey as a doctor is entirely your own. Don’t shy away from acknowledging and embracing this truth. Each person’s path is shaped by a unique combination of experiences, including periods of absence. Recognise that your journey is valid and embrace the lessons and growth that come from it.

“You can absolutely progress as a doctor even if you’ve had a period of absence. By redefining your understanding of the doctor’s identity, and embracing your transferable skills and individual path, you can continue to grow both personally and professionally, making a meaningful impact.”

Footnotes