Going back to work after a long absence is tough — ‘returnships’ could change that

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Ragini Kapil was an elementary school principal in Delta, British Columbia, for eight years and she loved her job — until she injured herself.

Kapil, 58, had decided to take one year off to pursue her dream of screenwriting. Just weeks before her leave was supposed to start, she was travelling by boat to visit her seventh-grade class on a field trip when the boat hit a swell, causing her to fall and fracture a vertebra in her back.

“I went back to work after the 12-month screenwriting program,” said Kapil.

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“However, the [lingering] pain in my back due to nerve damage from the accident greatly interfered with my ability to perform my duties as a principal.”
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She said this made her feel afraid about letting people down, and her insecurity quickly spiralled.

She took a short leave, but when she tried to return, her anxiety made it impossible.

Her injuries were further compounded by a severe bout with the flu that left her dehydrated.

She eventually fainted and hit her head so hard she was diagnosed with a moderate concussion and post-concussion syndrome.

“Life changed after that,” she said. “I could barely function. Things were so hard… I couldn’t comprehend conversations, couldn’t look at screens, my head hurt all the time… the list goes on.”

At first, Kapil’s insurance company was very understanding and helpful.

She was placed on a long-term disability plan, and her caseworker suggested that she go to a concussion clinic to get her symptoms under control.

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She started going to the clinic in the fall, but a month later, she felt she was being pressured to start a plan for returning to work, she said.

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“My goal was to get better and to become a functional human being again,” Kapil said. “I didn’t realize that the pressure would be on [returning] to work.”

“I was so far away from being able to do my job, it wasn’t even on my radar.”

Every time Kapil even thought about going back to work, she would cry uncontrollably. She ended up refusing to follow her insurance company’s recommendations.

“I wanted to be healthy and get my life back, but they were pressuring me to return to work well before I was capable,” Kapil said.

Thankfully, her workplace was extremely supportive and understanding.

“They created a special environment for me,” she said.

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Regardless of why you left work, or how supportive your company is, returning can be hard. In your time off, there has likely been technological advancements, a change to job descriptions and big-picture company restructuring.

Now consider tackling all of that after a major — often traumatic — life experience.

That’s where “returnships” can help.

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Similar to an internship, a “returnship” is designed to help someone who has taken an extended period of absence from their industry to re-launch their professional careers.

Of the few “returnship” programs in Canada, most offer networking opportunities and versatile working conditions.

A program for people with a gap in their resume

One of the most common reasons for taking leave from work is for maternity leave.

The fast-paced environment of most modern workplaces can make returning after one year daunting. After a few years, going back can feel impossible.

For women in finance, Return to Bay Street is a program which aims to change that.

Open to women who have been out of work for a minimum of 18 months, Return to Bay Street provides candidates with a $5,000 educational grant and a four-month internship at a participating financial firm.

It also provides opportunities for networking and training for things like interviewing and writing resumes to help women refresh their skills.

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“I think, all of that together, give the women a really strong idea of what firms are looking for,” said Camilla Sutton, the CEO and president of Women in Capital Markets (WCM) (the organization which hosts the Return to Bay Street program).

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“And, the truth is, the firms are looking legitimately for diverse talent… They really have to look at new and different ways to see that talent and this is one of those streams.”

Catherine Staveley, now the managing director of global structured products at BMO Capital Markets, can speak first-hand to the power of the Return to Bay Street program.

She was working at a multinational investment bank when she discovered she was pregnant.

She went on what was supposed to be a short leave, but one child turned into two and her leave was extended.

Then, as she was growing her family, Staveley discovered a love for holistic nutrition. She decided to go back to school to study nutrition, and then she opened her own company.

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It wasn’t until around seven years ago, when her children were a bit older, that Staveley realized nutrition was no longer what she wanted to do. She decided to go back to finance full-time, but she wasn’t really sure where to start.

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“I realized that I needed more than what nutrition was giving me… but it was hard to figure out what ‘more’ was,” Staveley said.

Her friend, the CEO of WCM, told her about a new collaborative project between BMO and WCM — the Return to Bay Street program.

“I don’t know how many people they interviewed, but myself and one other woman were hired by BMO, and we’re both still here,” she said. “We were the very first people that made it into this program.”

Staveley loved the program because unexplained gaps on a resume — which are usually a concern for employers — are actually one of the only things you need to take part.

The program was great because the senior management was committed to it. In the first week, I had met the CEO of Capital Markets,” Staveley said. “[The program] puts you in front of all these people… For me, it was great. I was very supported.”

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While Return to Bay Street was originally created to help moms, the team at WCM has noticed it’s increasingly popular with new Canadians.

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According to Sutton, these are candidates who had “experience in major financial organizations globally, [but] stepped away from their roles to immigrate.”

The Return to Bay Street had 133 applicants this year, and it’s growing.

“I think it’s such a great reflection of the beginning of real change for the industry,” said Sutton.

Startups are the perfect fit

Bryan Smith started a similar “returnship” program at his startup, ThinkData Works.

When he heard about the Return to Bay Street initiative, he realized nothing similar existed in the startup world. He also realized the startup environment is perfect for easing back into a full-time career.

“We have very flexible work hours… we have the ability to work from home,” said Smith. “All these things make a returnship… a lot more manageable for someone who has just started a family, [for example].” 

In Smith’s mind, returnships are an amazing way to grow and diversify his team.

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“Rather than looking at it as charity, which I think a lot of people think of, we actually looked at it as a lot of really talented [people] out there, who were in very senior positions and who absolutely want to get back into the workforce,” said Smith.

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“We actually took that as a way to attract better talent.”

Now, Smith is turning his attention to other startups.

“The adoption has been abysmal in the startup community, which I think is absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “Given how flexible everything is, it should really be a no-brainer. The people you attract are talented people who can deliver really good value to your business.” 

“Every startup should adopt this.”


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