Returning to work

Returning to work after a career break can be a challenging step. Your skills will be rusty, technology and people may have moved on and your own attitude to work could be very different. But a little preparation and the right approach will allow you to deal with the hurdles and launch yourself into an enriching new phase of your working life.

Should I return to the same career after a long break?

This is a question well worth asking before you jump straight back into the workforce. You may be very excited about returning to the same kind of work, in which case your decision is already made. But it can still be worth stepping back and asking how the changes you've experienced since you last worked have changed you, and how differences in your home life, your health or your interests might affect your work. Now is the time to reshape your working life accordingly.

What kind of problems could I face when I return to work?

It can take time to get used to the patterns of working life again. Even needing to be at a certain place at a certain time and stay there for the whole day can come as a shock when your life has been following very different rhythms. You will have to go through the process of learning or re-learning the tasks involved which, even for someone returning to the same job, can be challenging. And, whether you're returning to your old job or doing something completely different, there's a good chance that you'll be unfamiliar with at least some of the technology and processes used, because working practices rarely stand still.

If you are returning to your former job or organisation, you could face some crucial changes among your colleagues. You may have a new boss with whom you need to build a relationship. Close colleagues may have left or moved on within the organisation. New people may have arrived. Changes in roles could call for changes in relationships. There's a good chance that former peers or subordinates will have become your superiors while you've been gone. And, unfair as it may seem, some of your colleagues may have changed their attitudes towards you because you've had a break, perhaps regarding you as less than fully committed to the organisation or your career. It's their problem, not yours, but it's worth being aware of.

If you're beginning a new job or at a new organisation, you'll have an entirely different set of challenges. You'll be starting again, and that means getting to know the job, the people and the culture entirely from scratch. The learning curve will be almost as steep as when you first started out at work.

Some of the reasons for a career break, such as illness or childbirth, could have a physical impact on your work. As well as coming to grips with the nuts and bolts of your job, you may also have to take into account the demands of child care or the effect of a chronic illness or disability, requiring an element of planning that you never needed before.

How can I make returning to work easier?

First, check that your skills are up to date. You may be given a little leeway to let you catch up, but life will be better for you and your employer if you arrive back at work as ready as you can be. Find out in as much detail as possible what skills you're likely to need and then take an honest look at your existing set and work out what's missing. You may need totally new skills and some of your older ones may need updating, so use the time to develop them, either on your own or by doing a short course. Every little bit helps. And if you are going back to your old job, don't presume that your old skills will suffice. Not only may they be rusty, but the technology and processes in that job may well have changed. Be prepared.

Be as informed as you can about the organisation and the people working in it. If you're starting with a new employer, that means getting hold of every source of information available and finding out everything you can about what they do, how they do it and who does what, and digesting that information so that you can become an integral part of your new team in the shortest possible time. If you're coming back to an employer you worked for before, then arrange to meet some of your former colleagues informally, and your boss more formally, beforehand to find out what's new and who's who. The inside information they can give you is invaluable in plugging back into things once you start, and they can also help smooth your way before you begin by dealing with logistical matters and maybe even doing a bit of personal PR for you.

If you are faced with concerns like child care or making allowance for illness or disability, make sure your arrangements are in place in time for when you start work. The last thing you want is to have to disappear in your first week to deal with a child care emergency at the same time as you're climbing the steep learning curve. The same applies to even apparently simple things like planning your journey to work. Make sure all your systems are well organised in advance, because that means fewer things to worry about at crunch time.

If you are returning to your old organisation, be prepared to change the way you behave towards former colleagues who now have new roles, particularly more senior ones. The relationship you had before may no longer be appropriate, and coming straight in and treating them the way you used to can cause complications. Take their new positions into account, and be sensitive.

How do I explain a gap in my employment history?

Sadly there are still plenty of people around who regard a career break as either a sign of weakness or grounds for suspicion. The important point when dealing with enquiries about your absence from the workforce, whether from them or from those who are simply interested, is to be upfront and positive. There's nothing to be ashamed of. Your time out was either beyond your control or something you chose to do for good reasons. It may well have given you new skills and experience. It will certainly have given you a new perspective and a fresh approach to bring to your work. It has made you a better person and will make you a better worker.

How should I go about returning to work after illness?

If you are off sick, you may not be able to return to your original job straight away. The Disability Discrimination Act 1996 established new duties on employers to make 'reasonable adjustments' for people with disabilities.

If your employer is not sympathetic or helpful, you might be better off going to the next meeting with a union rep if you have one, or a fellow worker. You have the right to be accompanied at meetings with management.

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