Bridging the Gap

By Lisa R. Rhodes

May 2024

Photo Credit: Illustration by Aad Goudappei

For people who want to return to the workplace after a gap or extended break, the search for the right job can come with serious doubts about getting back into the game. In fact, about 88% of stay-at-home parents are somewhat or very concerned about reentering the workforce, according to a 2019 survey conducted by Flex Jobs, a flexible job search website.

Career counselors, who work with clients on career development and related mental health issues, say while people often leave the workforce for legitimate reasons — to raise children, take care of aging parents or recover from an illness — the journey back can uncover personal fears and insecurities. These can cause clients to question their competence and ability to succeed.

With help, however, these clients can begin to envision a job that meets their practical needs and complements their personal values. Career counselors can help them reframe cognitive distortions and assess and build skills. Clients can also use job search resources, including artificial intelligence (AI), to help with preparing job-seeking materials.

Emily Baxt, LPCC, a career counselor and owner of Baxt Consulting in San Diego, says one of the most important roles she plays is to help clients rediscover their self-assurance. “Clients have to be able to own their own worth and really own their own strengths before they can convince somebody else,” she says. “The job search isn’t going to be effective if they don’t believe they’re a good candidate.”

Work and Personal Values

Counselors say the impact of COVID-19 has made today’s workplace a new world for many returning clients. The pandemic was disruptive to the traditional structure of full-time employment, particularly in its early stages, says Marty Apodaca, LPCC, career counseling manager at the University of New Mexico’s Office of Career Services. “We’re still looking at pandemic fallout, and we’re going to for many years to come.”

The initial shock of a decimated workplace caused by downsizing and layoffs left many workers scrambling to find new jobs, he says. Eventually, employers had to get back to conducting business and required employees to report to work, either in-person, remotely or both.

Hilary Berger, EdD, LPC, who counsels stay-at-home mothers returning to the workforce, says people working remotely from home had to quickly adapt to using new technologies now considered essential in improving communications, productivity and efficiency on the job.

Most employers now expect employees to be “open, flexible and adaptive” to learning and using technology, she says. Technological advancements such as AI “are reshaping industries and jobs at an unprecedented pace.”

While the pandemic has modernized the workforce, it has also had an impact on what it means to be employed. Andrew Seguel, LPC, LCMHC, owner of Counseling for Change, a remote practice that serves clients in New Jersey and Vermont, says there seems to be “contrasting perspectives from employers and employees on what is necessary and essential for productive and meaningful work.”

Many employers are accustomed to the 9-to-5, in-person, daily commuting that once defined the workforce, and they have been trying to return to that formula, he says.

But for many workers, the rules have changed. Enduring long hours to commute in traffic and spending time away from family no longer suits the workstyle of people who were able to work remotely during the pandemic. Many employees are saying the old way of performing work “doesn’t really fit how they want to be living or working,” Seguel says.

For example, workers who were mandated to return to work and experienced spikes in anxiety and depression in toxic workplaces made their mental health a priority and left to find more meaningful and accommodating work, says Apodaca, president-elect of the National Career Development Association (NCDA), an ACA division.

Personal life values, particularly regarding one’s well-being and work-life balance, have become more important in the search for work, Seguel explains. Employees are “putting their feet down,” he says. Employers who don’t work to match their employee’s personal values may find some walking away.

A Crisis in Identity

The workplace may offer more freedom and flexibility to employees, Apodaca says, but clients who have been away from the workforce may find it hard to advocate for themselves during the hiring process.

It may be challenging for these clients to present a positive self-image. They may struggle to foster a healthy self-esteem, partly due to Western culture’s tendency to tie a person’s identity to their work, Baxt says. She shared a presentation on the topic of returning to work after a break titled “Who Would Want to Hire Me? Helping Stay-at-Home Parents Restart Their Careers” at the 2023 NCDA Global Career Development Conference.

Seguel says there is a long-held cultural implicit bias that “if someone is out of work, they’re not going to do as well at work as someone who has been continuously working.”

The perception that a gap or break from the workplace can be detrimental to a person’s career exists, “regardless of whether that perception has any veracity,” he says.

For some clients, an extended absence from work can result in an identity crisis. “A lot of people associate what they do for work as a part of their identity,” he explains. For example, if a client is a nurse and they have not worked in several years, they may wonder “can I still say I’m a nurse if I’m not practicing nursing skills?”

Seguel says the client may ask themselves, “Who am I if I’m not doing something for my work and contributing in some productive way?”

Counselors say clients who question their personal and professional identity often display negative self-talk, which reveals a lack of confidence about whether they’ll be successful in returning to work. For example, they may worry that they don’t have the ability to be attractive to a potential employer because they don’t know how to explain their absence in a way that does not prevent them from being viewed as an asset.

The language that some clients use to describe themselves and their situation can sometimes be “downright mean,” Apodaca says. “They say things they would never say to someone else.” For example, some clients may say, “I’m dumb; I’m stupid.”

Counselors say other examples of negative self-talk from clients include:

  • “I’ve been out of the workforce for too long; I’m obsolete.”
  • “I don’t know, maybe this is silly to try to go back to work.”
  • "I did work in my last job, but I don’t think that counts.”
  • “This job looks interesting, but I know I’m not qualified.”
  • “Why would anyone want to hire me?”

Baxt says cognitive behavior therapy helps clients recognize and reframe their negative self-talk. Counselors can start by asking questions to clarify what clients are saying about themselves, such as:

  • “You don’t think you are qualified? Tell me more about that.”
  • “You don’t know how to do anything? Really? Is that true?”

Once clients begin to examine whether their negative self-talk is true, Baxt asks reframing questions such as “what would you say to a friend or your child if they were in the same situation?” The goal is to help make clients aware of how negative words and distorted thoughts are harmful to their personal and professional well-being.

Assessing and Building Skills

One of the first concerns clients have about returning to work is that they lack the relevant job skills to perform in a new job. Seguel and Baxt use the Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment to identify a client’s innate talents and strengths. Seguel says these strengths can be directed toward a particular goal, task or purpose.

The strengths from the assessment can be grouped into broad categories that align with career readiness competencies, such as the ability to communicate, think critically and build relationships, which clients can apply in any work environment, Seguel explains.

When clients complete the assessment, they are given a report of their strengths and the corresponding competencies. “This gives clients some positive sense that they can function well in any professional context, even if they have concerns about their current skill level,” he notes.

Clients can purchase the one-hour, self-directed assessment. However, Seguel recommends counselors and clients work together to complete the assessment and discuss how new insights about a client’s capabilities can be integrated into their life and work.

When assessing a client’s skill set, Apodaca says it is important to help them realize that their whole life is part of their career and that they are bringing all their life experiences to their job search.

Counselors can help clients recognize their potential by reviewing past resumes or using narrative therapy to encourage clients to create their own life or career timelines. These efforts can point to the transferable skills clients have acquired through past jobs or volunteering, which should not be overlooked.

Apodaca and Baxt say these skills include the ability to lead a team, solve problems, articulate ideas clearly in writing or verbally, teach, fundraise and do project management.

As creator of Work Like a Mother, a career counseling and career development framework that acknowledges and legitimizes motherhood as an integral part of a women’s career journey, Berger says she has worked with stay-at-home mothers who no longer feel confident in their professional skills when returning to work. “A mother’s skills may be obsolete due to technological changes, but this does not mean that they are obsolete. Women’s professional resources lie right beneath the surface,” she says.

Engaging in what Berger calls daily “professionally relevant activities” can rebuild their confidence. For example, she says, depending on parenting priorities, daily professional activities such as listening to a podcast, learning technical skills, taking a course or creating a website can enable women to grow and learn and have access to their vitality. (Berger will conduct a professional training session based on the Work Like a Mother method at the 2024 NCDA Global Career Development Conference in San Diego in June.)

AI and the Job Search

Counselors who work with clients who need help creating or updating a resume, writing a cover letter or writing a career summary for LinkedIn can recommend clients use AI to help.

Seguel has used AI with clients as a resource for conducting mock job interviews and helping draft cover letters. Several technology companies offer free AI systems, such as ChatGPT (produced by OpenAI), Copilot (produced by Microsoft) and Gemini (produced by Google).

Baxt says clients can be encouraged to use AI to help write cover letter drafts and summaries for LinkedIn and to generate and identify key words and phrases that can be recognized by the applicant tracking systems that employers use to screen job candidates. She suggests counselors advise clients not to submit material for a job that has been completely written or developed by AI.

Clients are expected to be honest in their job search, Baxt says, and they should be careful to only use their own voice when responding to a job ad.

“I believe clients can use AI ethically and ensure authenticity while still using it for many purposes,” Seguel adds.

Wanted: Human Employees

As technology evolves, Seguel says there is reason for clients to be hopeful about the job market in the near future and their place in it. People will still be needed to bring their distinct human skill set — critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence — to jobs that require interfacing with human beings, he says. AI will likely be reserved to complete mundane, time-consuming tasks, such as generating code for computer programming.

Employees who learn how to use AI for pedestrian duties so they can focus on high-value work that uses human skills will be successful, he says. People will continue to be paid for the “valuable asset” of being human.

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