Breaking down the hidden stigma of mental health career gaps

There is no doubt that much has been done to broadly reduce the stigma of poor mental health, but in the working world, there is often still a culture of silence and shame that can impact a person’s wellbeing and particularly their career. Many people still feel they need to hide any mental health difficulties and struggles in fear of what employers or colleagues will think and how they will react.

Why is there stigma?

Stigma usually comes from unhelpful and incorrect assumptions. Employers may have assumptions about what it means to have taken time off work for mental health reasons and individuals may have their own assumptions about themselves because of needing to take time off work.

Addressing mental health stigma:

Mental health stigma remains in the workplace despite campaigns

Employee mental health questions answered

HR must implement better mental health policies

Some workplaces can have a culture of presenteeism, with individuals who are physically or mentally struggling forcing themselves to appear productive, working until they cannot carry on anymore and then burn out.

Even virtual and hybrid workplaces are not immune from this culture, with employees feeling like they need to always be ‘logged on’ and immediately available, even after working hours.

This, mixed with the pressure to always be at our best, can lead to people’s mental wellbeing being significantly impacted, with employees needing to take time off work to recover, sometimes even long-term, which in some circumstances may result in job loss.

Understandably this CV gap can fill individuals with dread. How are you supposed to talk about this in the future? How do you explain this? What will potential new employers think of you and your ability to perform?


Returning to the workplace after a mental health gap

Coming back to the workplace after time off can feel like a minefield. Whether you’re going back to a role you were in before, or starting at a new one, it’s normal to feel worried about missed opportunities, promotions, feeling less confident in your abilities, and dreading attending interviews.

  • Be honest: If you have a gap in your career, be honest and model this honesty for others. If this seems overwhelming to talk about in an interview setting, try practicing what you would say to a supportive friend.
  • Don’t feel ashamed: You shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed about needing to take some time out. Think for yourself, what specifically are you ashamed of, and try to come up with challenges to these assumptions.
  • Recognise the benefits of a career gap: Taking time out can reduce the risk of burnout and show employers that you’re self-aware enough to know when to look after yourself and what your stress signs and triggers are.
  • Focus on your strengths: Having a break does not make you a poor employee. Talk about what makes you great, what sets you apart and how your skills align with the job description.


Employers should be cautious of making assumptions about gaps

If you’re interviewing a candidate and notice a career break, it’s okay to be gently curious about why there is a gap. It’s useful to reframe the question and ask what the candidate learned during this time rather than focusing on the difficulties that took place.

It is those who have been through difficulties that are more likely to be resilient. By making assumptions and not hiring or noticing those candidates that have a CV gap, you could be missing out on some great employees and are not helping stigma to be broken. This is everyone's responsibility. We can start by updating our CVs or LinkedIn profiles with any gaps to open the conversation and set an example.


Siobhan Jones is a UK-trained and registered senior clinical psychologist and lead psychologist at digital healthcare provider Mindler