A career break is not a career breaker

returners, returning to work
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Returning to work after a career break can be daunting, whether it’s been a gap of six months or six years, returning to an organisation and a role you know well or making a new start.

But why? What happens to us when we take a career break that makes it so hard?

With a focus on other aspects, away from the traditional world of work you are used to, your confidence to operate effectively and add value in that world starts to drop. The internal imposter voices start to shout…

“They’ve managed to cope without me brilliantly”

“There are lots of others with more relevant and recent experience than me”

… and you forget everything that you were capable of, and enjoyed, doing, at work before!

These are real and significant feelings, but on consideration, the reality is actually quite different. You have in fact been adding to, not taking away from, the skills and experiences that make you who you are, your skills set hasn’t suddenly disappeared! OK, some might be rustier than others, but with the right preparation they can soon be revived. It’s like riding a bike, it will all feel natural again soon. The new experiences gathered during your career break add something different to your career journey and enable you to take a new perspective on work and how you can add value.

An underlying lack of self-confidence is common for many women returners and it’s not quite so easy to just “get back on your bike”. There are, however, ways you can help yourself prepare:

Recognise and accept how you feel

If you don’t deal with these feelings, they might show up at unhelpful times; for example in the job interview where your body language shouts “get me out of here” or the catch-up with a working mum who appears to have it all sorted, as you sink lower in your chair, feeling like you’ll never live up to this standard.

We’ve all been there, but you can manage these feelings in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Practising the power pose. There is scientific evidence to suggest it positively influences our mindset.
  • Challenging your assumptions by asking yourself, “what physical evidence do I have to support this assumption or feeling?” If you can’t find any, maybe it isn’t actually true.
  • Practising your elevator pitch in the mirror or role playing interview question answers with a friend.

Ask for help

Finding a career and life coach could be a great way of addressing your concerns and challenges. Talking it through with an independent person can help you make sense of it all and decide your route forward.

Joining communities of people, online or face-to-face, who are experiencing similar challenges, might also help with building confidence and supporting you through this transition.

Get clear on your priorities

What is important to you now? What are you looking for from a role or organisation? What might you be prepared to compromise on?

Do this thinking early on, so you don’t feel under pressure to make a quick decision when you might be feeling a little bit wobbly! Creating a list of negotiables and non-negotiables helps to focus the mind on what you want and need. Knowing this in itself, brings confidence.

Dust off your skills

Find opportunities to practice the skills and activities you knew and loved about working. Start enjoying them again, in a ‘safe’ way.

For example, join the local school committee to help you step back into a team environment and brush up on your decision-making skills or volunteer for a charity to help you recognise the skills you have that add value.

Know your strengths and weaknesses

Shine a light on the aspects that enable you to be at your best: What were you known for at work? What strengths were you employing when you delivered your best work?

In addition, reflect on what new skills and experiences you’ve gathered whilst being on a career break. Just because you were applying those skills outside of the traditional workplace, doesn’t mean they’re not relevant to the world of work today.

Be proud

A career break isn’t just a gap on your CV, think about it as an integral part of your career journey with associated benefits. What do you know now that you didn’t back then? How have you grown as a person, and how will that bring value to your working life?

Think practical

Of course, there are also practical ways to get organised before your return to work, to reduce your heightened level of anxiety. For example:

  • Organising childcare
  • Setting up your online grocery shop
  • Agreeing new routines and schedules to deal with household responsibilities
  • Sorting out your working wardrobe so you have enough clothes to last a week
  • Start a new exercise routine to fit around your new working hours

Finally, don’t forget to give yourself a break!

We all need time to rest and think; you’re only human after all and returning to work is a significant change. You’ll have lots of different emotions flying around and some plates will drop. That’s OK. You can do this!

Sarah LeachAbout the author

Sarah Leach is a Careers Consultant for Executive MBA students at Henley Business School. Using a range of coaching solutions and development workshops, she supports people with personal and professional growth, clarity of purpose and taking purposeful action. Her advice comes from a combination of professional knowledge and her own career break.

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