Returning to work after an injury or illness? – CV and interview tips
According to the Health and Safety Executive, almost 30 million workdays were lost due to injury and illness last year. A recent study found that 60% of absences were categorised as “long term”, lasting over a month.
Returning to work after a long recovery from injury or illness can be daunting. In the following article, guest writer Chris Salmon (Operations Director of Quittance Legal Services) looks at how to present recent gaps in your employment history to recruiters, and how to handle health-related interview questions.
Legal rights vs practical advice
In most cases, you are under no legal obligation to reveal a historic or ongoing disability to prospective recruiters. In practice, however, leaving an unexplained gap in your employment history could negatively affect your application.
The Equality Act 2010 requires companies to take reasonable steps to ensure that recruitment processes are inclusive, and that reasonable steps are taken to accommodate job applicants and workers with disabilities.
Like gender, sexuality or religious beliefs, disability is a “protected characteristic”. Prospective employers must not discriminate against you on the basis of a historic or ongoing disability.
Recruiters must not reject applicants on the basis of protected characteristics, and you are not required to reveal these characteristics to employers, even if the recruiter asks.
Although not every injury or illness is likely to be considered a “protected characteristic”, most employers will embrace the spirit of the legislation and will avoid asking about health issues that have no bearing on your job.
Despite the laws in place to protect workers and jobseekers from active discrimination, more passive forms of discrimination can occur. This is particularly true if you have unexplained gaps in your recent work history.
In theory, prospective employers shouldn’t assume the worst when faced with a gap in your employment history. In practice, recruiters don’t like uncertainty or unanswered questions.
With COVID-related unemployment rising, there is increasing competition for fewer jobs. Busy recruiters will look for ways to shortlist a growing pile of applications. When faced with two similar candidates, a mystery gap in one applicant’s CV could be the deciding factor against them (however unfair that might be).
Updating your CV
Although you are under no legal duty to disclose a recent injury or illness, it may be a good idea to do so. By stating explicitly that you were off work for six months due to a serious injury, for example, your employer will have fewer unanswered questions about your application.
The trick is to present your experiences, including time off, in the best possible light.
Beyond just filling in gaps, there are other, more positive reasons to explain time off for illness and recovery. Employers look for candidates who are honest, trustworthy and who have “=real-life experience. Recovering from an injury or living with an illness, and being open about it, demonstrates that you possess these traits.
Furthermore, your application will be more memorable. In contrast to applicants who just list dates and job titles, you will come across as a more rounded individual.
How to format time off due to injury on a CV?
As discussed above, saying something is usually better than leaving a gap. How much detail you give will depend on what you are comfortable with, and how best you can spin your time off work.
Keeping it simple
If you would prefer not to discuss what happened, you can address the gap in simple terms, for example:
“Jan 2020 to June 2020 – Recovering from a serious injury”
Focusing on growth
If you are happy to discuss your time off in more detail, you could present the time off as though it were a job. Set out what you did during the time off, what you learned, or how the experience changed you. For example:
“Jan 2020 to June 2020 – Personal development
I had to take several months off work after a serious injury. During my recovery, I focused on developing my creative skill set and took an online course in graphic design.”
This approach also helps you to “own” the experience. You can show a prospective employer that you are determined and self-motivated.
Returning to work after a long-term illness
The Equality Act 2010 defines a “disability” in broad terms, as a physical or mental impairment that has substantial and long-term consequences. Being unable to work as the result of your illness or injury easily satisfies the “substantial” requirement. “Long-term” is defined as longer than 12 months.
If you satisfy the criteria, you are protected under the Act from discrimination on the basis of your time off work.
Although the advice in the previous section suggests how you can spin time off in a positive light, it is important to note that you do not have to justify or explain what you were doing during your recovery. For many health conditions, (and particularly those with a psychological element, like stress or depression) you may not have had the energy, focus, or physical capacity to even think about “personal growth”.
Even if you haven’t completed any online courses or learned a new skill, your recovery will still have been a difficult journey. Rather than just stating a date range (e.g. “Oct 2018 to Jan 2020 – Serious illness”) you could write a sentence or two expanding on what your recovery and rehabilitation involved. A little detail will help a recruiter to better frame your period of time off. For example:
“Oct 2018 to Jan 2020 – Serious illness
In October 2018 I sustained a serious head injury and was diagnosed with TBI/concussion. Although the initial symptoms abated after a matter of weeks, I experienced ongoing headaches, fatigue and insomnia and in Jan 2019 was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome. My symptoms steadily improved and in Jan 2020 I received the ‘all clear’ from my GP.“
If you have been in contact with Fit to Work, or an injury-specific charity like Headway, and have a “return to work” plan, you could also mention that, emphasising how eager and ready you are to return to work.
Before the interview
Preparing for a job interview is usually stressful, and it can be made much more so if you are anxious about what an interviewer will ask you about your health. If you do not want to discuss a traumatic injury or incident, you could contact the company’s HR manager or recruiter by email and explain, confidentially, that you do not want to discuss a historic injury.
Mindful of their legal duty, recruiters will know not to press for information about a topic. You can still volunteer information if you feel comfortable doing so, but the key point is that you will be in control.
Tricky interview questions
If you have spun your time off in a positive light on your CV, you must be consistent when answering questions during your interview.
Interviewers won’t be trying to catch you out, but you should still consider preparing an answer to likely questions about your injury. Giving some thought to questions like those below will also help you to feel (and sound) more confident during the interview.
How did the injury happen?
Think about how much detail you are willing to give. If the accident happened at work, have you listed your boss at the time as a reference? Your account should match what your references are likely to say.
Are you ready to return to work?
If the injury or illness happened recently, this question could come up. If you are fully recovered, have a confident answer prepared, like:
“I am fully recovered and am eager to get back to work.”
How will your injury or illness affect your work?
Where possible, answer this question fully and honestly.
If you do have ongoing health needs, remember that your employer has a legal duty to take reasonable steps to accommodate you. If you say nothing, your employer cannot help. Consider the risk to your health or ongoing recovery if you are not clear about your health needs.
In the majority of cases, any required steps will be simple for an employer to take. Larger businesses will likely have experience supporting similar cases in the past.
Ask if you can follow up
If you aren’t sure how to answer a health-related question, you can always ask if you can follow up with more detail in an email or phone call after the interview. Knowing you have this option can also give you more confidence overall, which in turn will make you appear more confident and in control.
Take time to prepare
Don’t rush your application. Take some time to prepare your CV, and to think about how to answer interview questions. More time to prepare will also give you space to work out how much you are comfortable saying about your injury or illness.
If you have ongoing symptoms, you could also discuss your plans to return to work with your doctor, and discuss what adjustments you might need.
Giving yourself more time will help you to find creative ways to frame your recovery in terms of personal growth. Focusing on skills you have improved during your recovery can help, but employers are also interested in you as a person. Recovering from a serious injury or long-term illness, or successfully managing ongoing symptoms, is a powerful demonstration of your strength of character.
About the author
Chris Salmon is the Operations Director of Quittance Legal Services, a panel of solicitors in the UK. He is the first person to appear as a guest writer on the Bright Sky Career Coaching blog, after impressing us with his detailed knowledge and helpful recommendations on the topic of returning to work after injury or illness.