Hi Audra,

I have been out of work for three years, two of which were spent on paid long-term disability from my employer after a major bout with depression in late 2012. I am still recovering, battling significant anxiety and depression problems but have been making steps and am hopeful for the future.

Over the past year I have applied for, interviewed at and been turned down by six employers and there is one aspect of the interview that I don’t know how to handle. What do I say about my work history for past 3 years?

Factors I consider:

– I ‘technically’ worked there until December 2014
– I have not actually worked since December 2012
– Having a 3-year gap of employment needs explanation, or is bad
– I am really not comfortable addressing my mental health issues at a job interview
– If I lie and say I worked there until December 2014, I worry my lying will come across poorly

Still Searching

Hey Searching!

I’m so sorry that you are experiencing so much anxiety and depression, but I’m very glad you are feeling hopeful for your future!

I think your letter does a good job of highlighting that there isn’t always a photogenic “recovery” point that comes after needing to take a break from employment to do crucial mental and emotional work. Even after making a lot of progress, there is still the concern that this progress is fragile. And your narrative about yourself is now that, for some period of time, you are/were a person who “couldn’t work.” Thanks for being willing to talk about this!

I moved to Toronto to start a new job in July of 2011, and by January 2013 I’d had a nervous breakdown that left me unable to keep that job or do any other job for a long time. I was lucky to have medical leave and Employment Insurance and a very supportive chosen family who all made sure my rent kept getting paid and I kept eating. This let me hunker down and do a ton of heavy emotional processing, while taking a lot of breaks to watch a lot of Fringe while knitting a sweater.

I wish everyone could have an opportunity to take this kind of time and space to develop or strengthen coping techniques to mental health struggles.

If you have had six interviews, then your resume is likely in good shape, but I still want to take some time to chat about what I think is the most dreamy resume format for folks with unconventional employment histories. This is what it looks like. It’s a great alternative to leading with a chronological list of titles you’ve held, which can reveal things like employment gaps or apparent demotions you might have needed or wanted to take at various points in your career. Instead, it lists a series of skills that you have — I always retool them to match with the job I’m applying for — and offers examples of times you have done each one.

I think this format is great for a few reasons:

  1. It offers “proof statements” right off the bat. It is much more impactful to be able to say, “Grew the Because I am a Girl Facebook community to over 100,000 members,” rather than “Was responsible for maintaining the social media accounts for the Because I am a Girl” The latter just lets you know that it was my job to do something, while the former lets me brag about how successful I was at doing that.
  2. It has the potential to make your employer curious about you. Being able to drop a bunch of one-sentence stories about your work experience can make someone eager to hear the next sentence in that story. When a single job posting gets hundreds of applications, that’s a great opportunity to stand out.
  3. It forces you to curate a highlights reel of your career. This is a great confidence-booster when determining what jobs you should apply for, and it gives you a bunch of great things to brag about in a job interview (this is especially helpful when your mind goes blank when someone asks you a question about yourself).

Since you are already getting interviews, this last point will likely be the biggest benefit to you. Also, the fact that you are getting interviews means that probably employers are seeing that you have the right experience and education for the jobs for which you are applying. So that gap might not be as big of an issue as you think.

I completely understand not wanting to talk about depression or anxiety in a job interview. The job market is garbage right now, and it’s easy to feel like any display of vulnerability will take you out of the running. I think it is completely reasonable of you to say, “I was employed by [Employer] from Jan. 2011 to Dec. 2014, and accomplished the following things during my time there…” Focus on facts. You were employed. You accomplished X. If you had returned to that workplace, you probably wouldn’t feel obligated to reflect a medical leave as part of your tenure there, so try to frame it the same way in your head.

It’s often impossible to know why a job interview isn’t successful. Sometimes you can ask, but that can be tricky to navigate. And after every unsuccessful interview, the next one can feel more loaded and stressful, particularly if you are feeling like you need to be cagey about a gap in your resume.

Something that was invaluable to me was doing mock interviews with friends in advance, especially those who had experience hiring. To be clear, I hated this process more than I can tell you, but the difference I felt going into interviews afterwards was night and day. I got out all my blank panicked looks and long silences during these practice interviews. I also got fantastic feedback on which of my answers stood out, which needed more context, and which didn’t really land well.

In addition to getting help from friends in this way, it might be worth engaging a career coach to help you pinpoint if there’s anything that’s causing your interviews to not measure up against those of the other people competing for the same jobs. Even a few sessions could be illuminating and bolstering!

I also recommend spending some time with these incredible free workbooks; the one about overcoming procrastination changed my life. I know there is a long to-do list while you are doing this tough internal work, but if you think your anxiety or self-esteem are hindering your employability, it might be worth committing to doing at least one of the workbooks on those issues. I wish our government committed to these sorts of resources. Great work, Australia!

I wish you the best of luck in your job search. Don’t give up hope!


p.s. I absolutely encourage folks to weigh in on this one on the She Does the City Facebook page. I’d love to hear from HR folks or those of us who have tried to ease ourselves back into the world of earning after any kind of gap.

Have a question for Adult Learning? Send Audra an email: ask.adult.learning@gmail.com.