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How to talk about resume gaps when burnout is to blame

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Reuters/Michael Buholzer
Sometimes we need to take a break.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published

If you’ve ever taken a break from work in order to recover from burnout or other mental-health issues, you know that attempting to return to the world of full-time employment can be fraught. Recruiters, hiring managers, and the software they use are often trained to look out for resume gaps, with time between gigs frequently interpreted as a sign that someone got fired or couldn’t hack the demands of a full-time job.

Now standards may be shifting, thanks to the panoply of reasons people are leaving the workforce during the pandemic. But resume gaps can still give some employers pause. This doesn’t mean that leaving a job to prioritize your mental health and wellbeing will doom the rest of your career. You just have to be careful about how you narrate the time you took off, so that hiring managers see that period as a strength rather than a liability—or, at the very least, as neutral.

Is it ok to have a resume gap?

The first thing to know about resume gaps is that you shouldn’t have one—that is, not one that robots can detect.

“A high percentage of resumes get screened by AI these days,” explains Renata Dionello, chief people officer at online job marketplace ZipRecruiter. Those AI programs frequently screen for resume gaps, so if you have a blank period in your job history, your application might get discarded before you ever have a chance to explain it to a human being.

To avoid this fate, make sure you put something down for the dates when you were in between jobs. This might be anything from traveling to freelancing to being a stay-at-home parent or taking a course that’s relevant to your skill set.

The point, Dionello says, is that “your resume is a story about you as a person and what choices you’ve made,” which serves as a guide to “what kind of worker you are.” So regardless of the reason you took time off, your resume should signal that you made good use of that time—even if what pushed you to quit was the need to rest and recharge.

If you left your previous job to focus on your mental health, another option is to simply put that you were on health leave. Dionello recommends choosing the more generic “health” wording over “mental health” because, unfortunately, coping with depression and anxiety still carries more stigma than dealing with physical illness. “Nobody’s going to dig in if you say that you were unwell,” she says.

Should you mention burnout in job interviews?

Once you get to the job interview stage, it’s up to you whether you mention the fact that burnout played a role in leaving your last gig.

“Disclosing that you left for burnout is not required,” says career coach Melody Wilding. “You can just say that you took personal leave or that you were not working due to conditions related to the pandemic. You can keep it general.” Or you might decide to use the word “sabbatical,” which tends to have more positive connotations.

One potential reason to avoid bringing up burnout in job interviews is that hiring managers may worry that you’ll burn out in your new job, too. “I don’t think that sets you up as a stronger candidate unless you took very serious steps to address the causes of your burnout,” says career coach Phoebe Gavin. “Your burnout is not like a cold that goes away.”

How to talk about burning out without alienating new employers

There are circumstances in which you might decide to discuss the role that burnout played in your decision to take time off—particularly if you can show that you’ve learned and grown from the experience.

If you can talk about how you used the break to identify and rework the habits and mental models that made it difficult for you to stay engaged at your last job, “that’s a really great story to tell about a break,” says Gavin.

Perhaps you realized that your burnout was rooted in a values mismatch between yourself and your company, and took time off to volunteer on a cause that’s important to you and to learn more about how to get involved with organizations more aligned with your ideals. Or you might borrow language offered by one commenter on the blog Ask a Manager, who used a range of scripts when talking about a burnout-related job departure to show how taking time off had helped them learn what they really wanted from their next role. The goal is to craft a narrative that shows interviewers you’re “well-positioned to stay engaged over the long-term,” Gavin says.

Another option, Dionello says, is to point to external factors at your previous company that contributed to your burnout. You don’t want to throw your old employer under the bus, but you can diplomatically say that remote work contributed to your burnout, and that’s why you’re now looking specifically for jobs that have in-person components, for example. “I think that’s a really good story,” Dionello says.

Or you could cite pandemic-related factors that would be unlikely to alarm potential employers, such as the challenges of balancing your job with overseeing your kids’ online learning while schools were closed. Any employer worth working for should understand why you might have had to quit in order to get your family through a tough period.

However you choose to frame your time off, your goal should be to talk about “what you did that sets you up for success, versus why you were gone for so long or why it was so hard for you to close the gap,” Gavin says.

Quitting without another job offer

The complexities of navigating resume gaps might make some people feel worried about the prospect of quitting without a backup plan. But Dionello says the tradeoff can be worth it.

“I do think people need to be thoughtful before they take a gap and decide how they’re going to frame it in the future,” she says. “But I also think that sometimes people become very risk-averse and don’t do things they want to do. So if you need the time off, take it. Just really be thoughtful about how you’re going to explain it.”

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