Returning to Work - a case study
When one talks about taking time out away from work, it’s really easy to imagine trips away to exotic places learning about new food and people, or perhaps going on surf-yoga or get-fit bootcamps are more your thing. Perhaps it is going on a course to learn about preserving marine life in Belize or visiting archaeological sites searching for ancient Mayan artifacts. Certainly I was lucky enough to do some of those things when I had a sabbatical a few years ago.
However, for many clients, their time out is for something far less ‘glamorous’, (that said, I’m not sure huffing and puffing around mountains is a great look on me) and they take time out for a variety of reasons – some for joyous ones, and sadly others for less inauspicious ones. The reasons for the time off can be for very joyous ones such as maternity leave, whilst others have to take time off for more inauspicious causes, such as illness or redundancy. Even where there was a deliberate and well-thought out career change, it is inevitable that returning to work brings about some misgivings and no small amount of anxiety.
As topics go, this is too large a one to lock down into just one case study. However, I felt it was important to at least raise the subject and acknowledge that it is a very real challenge for many. At a later stage, I will write in further details on these case studies but for now, I thought it was important to highlight some of the work we did, which might help give some of you some food for thought.
Q1: How do I slot back in as if I did not have any time off? I don’t want my manager or my team to resent me for having a few months off to have a baby.
A1: Why on earth would you want to pretend that you didn’t have a life changing experience? Imagine all the things you’ve learnt and how you’ve grown in that time off as you had a baby. Take some time out to think about what you’ve gained from this wonderful time. Most working mothers I know are more brutally efficient with their time & efforts, ensuring that they retain high levels of productivity and yet are able to juggle getting home in time for feeding and bath time. My advice would be to ensure that you informally stay in touch with your team, HR and manager to ensure that there are no major surprises whilst you were away. It’s really important to talk to the latter two about a plan for how to ease your way back into work, before you start. Remember that they want you to succeed as much as you do, so being open about your expectations and concerns as well as theirs will go a long way to smoothing your transition back in to work. Remember also that they don’t know what your time away was like, so don’t assume they know what you are thinking, how you are feeling especially if they seem impatient with you. Do also prepare yourself in some less demanding ways such as some short and light reading on relevant topics to ensure that you are not starting work completely out of the loop.
At this point I would also add that some of my clients have struggled at home with the lack of support they are getting. Being a working mother can be a minefield to navigate, with some husbands/partners being less than keen to support their return to work. Or you could have a mother/mother-in-law who disapproves for the same reason and will constantly harangue you until you eventually fold and behave like a good old-fashioned wife & mother. The nanny might not be someone you trust as much as you’d like. I would suggest having some really candid conversations around this topic and always have a back up in case something goes wrong. This is your career and you can make it work.
There are many more thoughts around this but also make sure you minimize potential stressors such as transport or food for dinner. These can really add to one’s anxiety levels if not prepared, or as prepared as one can realistically be.
Be kind to yourself. Going back to a familiar role yet with different circumstances can really throw one for the loop. Ease in gently. Make sure you acknowledge what is or isn’t working for you and work through these obstacles with compassion for yourself. It will work out for you.
Q2: I had to take a leave of absence because I was ill with work stress, which led to me having a debilitating illness. I’m really worried about relapsing back into my old working habits.
A2: This is a really tough one. The stress was caused by the constant and persistent pressure created at work and so to return to that atmosphere, looking to pick up from where you left off and not fall back into the traps from before will be hard. That coupled with the anxiety associated with being debilitatingly unwell must really up the ante on the stress scale, thereby further exacerbating the situation. Additionally, the illness itself will have brought about some really difficult emotions within yourself and with your friends and family.
Prior to going back, I would suggest having a good honest look, as well as a real heart-to-heart with yourself. Why were you so stressed previously? What brought this about – was it an event? A person? The workload? Particular behaviours? What were/are your triggers? How did your stress manifest itself? Will you recognize it if you see it again? If you could redo how you did things, what could you change? What can you do to improve things on your return and who do you need to speak to, to ease this transition? What changes can you make mentally and physically to reduce the likelihood of the stress recurring? What support can you get to help you through this process? What else can you do to reduce the stressors in your life, such as review your spending habits? Schedule exercise for a few times a week? Change your eating habits? Organize date nights and meeting with friends more regularly?
It’s amazing that with a little distance and time the amount of clarity that arises. However, it is very easy to get sucked back into the whirlwind that is a demanding job. Do set up structures that support you in your quest to not fall back into drowning mode. Also, start being really honest about what is or isn’t working for you. You may well discover that this really is workable after all, with far less stress. Or perhaps this role or job is no longer the right one for you now.
Q3: I’ve been made redundant and I’m worried that I won’t be able to find a job, interview well and perform as well as I used to. I am worried that people will judge me as being a loser.
A3: Being made redundant no longer has the same taboo associations as it used to. Sadly employees are often treated as commodities rather than the talented people that they are, or organisations are forced to make these redundancies due to unfortunate circumstances. Either way, you’re the one affected by this decision.
It is worthwhile remembering that whilst the redundancy is wholly personal to you, more often than not, it was not a personal decision made by management. Even if this is the case, it is important to acknowledge that you are more than just ‘that person who was made redundant’. You have a wealth of personal & professional experience. You have a network of professional and personal contacts. Go through your CV, update it and remind yourself of all your achievements. How can you ensure that your next potential employers see your strengths and your potential contribution? What else can you do to ‘update’ yourself – is there a course that can help enhance your CV and differentiate you from your competitors? What can your previous experience bring to this new organization? What are you transferable skills? Why did your previous employer choose you for the list – is there any thing you can learn from that? What were your previous appraisals like – can you learn from those and use them to your advantage? What would your ex colleagues say about you?
It is really easy to wind yourself up into a state of frenzied anxiety or defeated gloom. People will be able to smell desperation on you though, so do your homework – on the new company and on your team, but most of all on yourself. The more prepared you are on what your contribution you will make, what benefits you bring, as well as really knowing this deep down within yourself, the more confident you will be when talking to your employers on your skills & attributes. I would also strongly urge you to remember that the interview is a two-way process. You need to know if this new place is the right fit for you or not. By desperately trying to get a job wholly unsuited for you will merely damage your confidence even more.
Returning back to work after a break is a challenge. Your mindset will likely have changed, perhaps subtly, but changed nonetheless. Improving your confidence (a whole topic in itself) will come with greater self-awareness and clarity of thought. These in themselves, as well as actively seeing help and support from friends & family, and professionals, well help ease the trepidation one experiences. Just remember that this time off was not wasted. Things happened and you learnt a lot, no matter how hard. These will contribute to who you are today and what you bring to the workplace.
I hope that some of these abbreviated examples will give you some food for thought and also to remind you that whilst returning to work after time out can be a difficult time, you can do it – with some preparation and support.
Karen Kwong is a highly experienced executive & business coach who has worked with start-ups and social enterprises through to large established corporates across a number of industries including financial services, engineering, retail and media & communications. Added to this, she spent almost twenty years working at a senior level in fund management. She also has a Masters in Organisational Psychology. For more please see here or contact her at: email@example.com
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