A career break doesn’t have to be a career-ender. Time away from the professional landscape gives people space to shift priorities, evolve, and discover what they want to do for fulfilling work. The pandemic normalized breaks from paid work for family life, caregiving, and health and wellness.

Thoughtful leaders are curious about how people grow and remain connected during a career break versus focusing on the absence of work. It’s humanizing to show people that you see and support them.

Returnship programs are the ultimate way to guide ambitious prospective employees back into meaningful work. They allow companies to tap into an incredibly capable, diverse, and often overlooked talent pool of highly experienced professionals.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Returning to paid work

Today, smart companies understand that major life events happen and are not always according to plan. Whether someone is caring for children or a family member or their own well-being, most career breaks aren’t intended to be a full stop but a pause.

For example, founder and mother Neha Ruch is using her career pause to run a community giving voice to ambitious women shifting careers for family life called Mother Untitled. The shift toward infusing power and confidence into the narrative for women like her gave the Stanford MBA turned stay-at-home mother a passion project to focus on until she’s ready to return to full-time work.

“I’ve realized that there is a fate worse than awkwardly rambling about a non-traditional career or a pause for parenting. It’s far more painful — even detrimental — to be overlooked and never asked at all,” said Neha in this op-ed on Romper.

According to LinkedIn, 53% of people say they are better at their jobs after leaving the workplace and coming back, and 69% say that taking a break helped them gain perspective and figure out what they want from life. The unsung superpower of a career break is learning exactly who someone is outside of their professional work. Talent returns focused, driven, and clear on their career vision.

Just like no one career pause looks the same as another, there’s not only one road back to paid work.

Overcoming barriers

Anything an organization can do to help returning talent overcome the obstacles they face positively impacts career growth.

Returnship programs strategically target barriers to employee success. Job and skills training boosts confidence and inclusive company cultures. Networking and mentoring connect returners to their colleagues in an authentic, meaningful way. Plus, measurable outcomes and accomplishments silence imposter syndrome.

Returnships alone cannot remove all barriers. Mental health and well-being needs may resurface throughout a person’s career. Caregiving responsibilities can shift in unforeseen ways. And working parents are disproportionately affected when affordable, reliable childcare is unavailable.

Flexible work, paired with a Lifestyle Spending Account (LSA), meets people where they are at any stage in life.

Organizations that want to attract top talent adapt and evolve to meet the needs of their people. For example, paid parental leave is often considered the hallmark of organizational support for parent employees. Pinterest and Airbnb, for example, have amazing equitable and supportive models.

Caregiving remains an essential part of the employment infrastructure beyond those early months. Flexible work, paired with a Lifestyle Spending Account (LSA), meets people where they are at any stage in life. LSA funds can be directed toward care for children, family members, and personal well-being.

For moms, but not just for moms

Motherhood is an asset to any career.

According to 2021 available data from Salary.com, stay-at-home moms should earn upwards of $184,820 per year. Stay-at-home moms (or those who identify as such) work an astonishing 106 hours per week on average. That means 15 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are a mom, have a mom, or know a mom, you know they work hard to get it done.

Stay-at-home parents who prioritize caregiving over their careers aren’t alone in their desire to return to paid work after an extended break. Increasingly, mental health and well-being leaves are more common as individuals take a break from paid work to prioritize their health. Compassionate leaders meet returners with understanding and empathy.

What is a returnship program?

A returnship program is a structured, supportive return-to-work program that provides a path to full-time employment after a career break. Participants apply and interview like traditional job seekers. If accepted, they have an opportunity to update their skills, gain relevant work experience, and rebuild their professional network.


Returnship programs like The Mom Project and Intuit’s partnership typically recruit mothers or stay-at-home parents, but any experienced professional can benefit. Unlike traditional internships, which often target students or recent graduates, returnships focus on individuals with a minimum number of years (usually at least five) of prior professional experience.


Returnships are designed to help individuals who have taken a significant hiatus from their careers to raise children, care for family members, or attend to their own health and well-being transition back to work. Companies that offer these programs recognize the value of diverse, untapped talent.


Often there is a minimum required gap in employment (typically two years or more) to be considered for returnship opportunities, but programs are open to any experienced professional, regardless of the reason for their career pause. Programs can range in length from a few months to a full year.


At the end of a returnship program, successful participants may have the opportunity for a full-time job with the sponsoring organization if there are suitable openings. Even when a full-time position is not guaranteed, returnships provide valuable experience and new connections for participants to leverage in their job search.

Why are return-to-work programs important?

Return-to-work programs fill a gap in the modern employment landscape with a critical goal: get ambitious, experienced professionals back to full-time work after a career pause. They offer a unique opportunity to enhance skills, create community, and improve an organization’s diversity and inclusion.

Returnships are your leg up on the competition — setting you apart as an organization that recognizes and values this talented demographic of returning professionals.

Returnship participants lend loyalty to the organizations that provide these opportunities. According to The Mom Project, talent is 25% more likely to accept a full-time offer from the company that sponsors their returnship than a competing offer from another organization.

Promote diversity and inclusion

Returnships help bridge gender and equity gaps in the workplace by offering opportunities and support for individuals who face barriers to career growth. A returnship program strengthens diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and amplifies valuable knowledge and diverse perspectives from returning professionals.

Job training and mentorship help returners reclaim their confidence in a supportive, structured environment.

Enhance skills

An extended career pause can mean a gap in industry knowledge. Return-to-work programs allow individuals to refresh their skills and stay current with advancements. Job training and mentorship help returners reclaim their confidence in a supportive, structured environment.

Build a network

Preparing to reenter the workforce after a career pause is hard. And reconnecting with a professional network can feel like starting over from scratch. Returnships offer a pathway to reintegrate into the work environment and establish new connections.

How to start a returnship program

Thoughtful leaders subscribe to culture-building ideas. Establishing a returnship program follows much the same model as other diverse talent pathways. Resembling a traditional internship, a returnship program introduces talent to an organization while providing support along with learning and development resources.

There are elements of a returnship program that can make it unique. For example, it’s mission-critical that hiring managers who interview candidates understand that skills assessments are most effective on the back end of a returnship rather than as a part of the screening process.

Rather than a blank slate, returnships expect participants to leverage past skills and knowledge throughout their experience.

Returners are typically assigned meaningful projects and responsibilities to demonstrate their abilities and potential value to the organization.

1. Identify goals

Make sure you know the kind of experienced talent you want to attract, identify the gaps in your workforce you want to fill and know how your program will align with your brand and your company’s mission, vision, and values.

2. Determine structure and duration

The length of a returnship program can range from a few months to a year. Consider the teams where returning talent will fit best and have an ideal number of participants in mind. Participants typically work full-time for the duration of the program.

3. Establish eligibility

Establish eligibility criteria, such as the length of the career break, desired participant qualifications, and types of experience. A clear application and selection process, including interview and evaluation criteria, aligns with program goals.

4. Create a network

Build community at work with an Employee Resource Group (ERG) to encourage engagement and inclusion for everyone, including returners. This will help build support systems that help returnees transition back into the workforce.

5. Recruit top talent

A strong, targeted recruitment strategy attracts top talent. Shout out your program on your company’s website, social media platforms, and professional networks. Consider partnering with returnship-focused organizations like The Mom Project to expand your reach.

6. Optimize outcomes

Measure the success of your program with candid feedback from participants. And how and where returners transition to full-time jobs will help you evaluate and refine the program for greater success.

It’s not a gap; it’s a chapter

We are seeing female icons of ambition across industries prioritizing what matters now and while making shifts. Ambition and career continuity are not synonymous. The choice to prioritize family or health and well-being for a season is deeply personal and deserving of respect.

Just as you support working parents, your organization should hold space for parents, caregivers, and those prioritizing their own health and wellness to return to the workforce.

When you empower culture, everyone wins. Take the first step toward building a network of benefits specifically for employees returning from a career pause with a Lifestyle Spending Account from Espresa. Reach out to our team for a free demo!


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