Breaking Point: Attitudes towards ‘career breaks’ across four countries & how to create a system fit for purpose

Serco Institute Staff

Those who want to take a break often don’t feel able to, while those who have already done so consistently report challenges in returning to the workforce, ground-breaking new research by leading international public services think-tank the Serco Institute shows. Less than half (42%) of people in an international survey felt able to take a career break, while around 80% feared the impact such a break would have on their career progression.

Breaking Point is the Serco Institute’s latest research paper, based on simultaneous polling of over 7,000 people across Australia, the UK, the US and the UAE. Survey questions examined people’s attitudes towards career breaks – such as maternity, paternity and bereavement leave – as well as the barriers people perceive when returning to work.  All responses went through statistical modelling to ensure the data collected was nationally representative.

You can find a full breakdown of our findings, on a global as well as a country by country basis in the report here.

The research is published as global labour shortages continue to put pressure on economies globally.

The report makes a number of policy recommendations including:

  • Legislation should seek to make parental leave (maternity, paternity, adoption) ‘opt-out’. We believe this would help shift cultures so that it was the ‘norm’ to take the parental leave people want to, without feeling pressured to stay in work or return early.
  • Where flexible working is practicable organisations should seek to normalise it as part of general workplace culture. However, we suggest that this should be taken still further, and work should increasingly be considered on a basis of delivered outcomes, rather than an hourly basis.
  • Organisations must systematically capture the views of employees who have taken career breaks and use these views to shape career breaks policy and seek to directly address the issues raised to remove barriers for returners in future.

These changes are especially important for workers delivering public services who generally indicate that they feel barriers to taking and returning from career breaks more so than their colleagues in the private sector. Without credible options to take career breaks and return from them, public services workers may choose other sectors or leave altogether, leading to a possible capacity and skills shortage in public services.

Strikingly, the Institute’s research makes plain that barriers to returning to work and concerns about career breaks are not experienced evenly.

Women appear to be at a particular disadvantage, with our research indicating that traditional gender roles have remained persistent: one in three respondents in Australia, the UK and the US (31%, 34% and 35% respectively) do not believe maternity constitutes a legitimate reason for taking a career break, rising to 51% in the UAE. With women respondents almost three times more likely to have taken parental leave than men (31% vs. 11% across the four countries), it is clear a significant cultural shift is needed to combat long-held conceptions of family and workplace roles, and to ensure women are both aware of and confident about their ability to take and return from career breaks.

Commenting on the findings, Serco Institute Deputy Director Ben O’Keeffe said:

“The current shortage of workers means we must think differently about the workplace. governments and businesses need to look again at how to encourage people to stay in employment and support them in returning to work.

“Often people have little choice - a career break breaks their career and effectively forces them to leave work altogether. This must change. Too often we have stuck to work practices from the middle of the last century, despite having the technology to meet the workforce needs of today.

“The age-old story of women facing the biggest barriers when it comes to work is sadly still with us. It is shocking that even maternity leave remains controversial with some people.

“Younger people are already changing the way they work, and the data shows they are not going to put up with old-fashioned notions of the 9-to-5 job.

“Flexible working needs to become the norm wherever possible, parental leave should be given by default, and we need to make career breaks part of how we think about our working lives.

“This is especially important given the evidence that people delivering public services feel most squeezed when it comes to taking and returning from career breaks. We must do everything we can to ensure these key workers don’t disappear from the labour market and leave the nation short of crucial skills in health, education, transport and other vital services.

“We need a shift in policy, practice and, perhaps even more importantly, culture. We otherwise will not make the most of the talents from across our society through having a properly diverse, representative workforce.”

Download the full report
Can a better approach on career breaks reverse the shrinking workforce?

Related articles

User Experience in Government Services: The Need for a Unique Approach (Saudi Arabia)

The Serco Institute's new report takes a deep dive into user satisfaction with government services, challenges with measuring it and why a new approach is needed.
26th July 2022

User Experience in Government Services: The Need for a Unique Approach (UAE)

The Serco Institute's new report takes a deep dive into user satisfaction with government services, challenges with measuring it and why a new approach is needed.
25th July 2022

Les électeurs français se sont exprimés et souhaitent que les services publics soient une priorité

Une nouvelle enquête menée par un think tank international met en évidence les priorités en matière de services publics avant le second tour des élections législatives
16th June 2022