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How to Return to Work After Time Off (Without Feeling Overwhelmed)

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Need help getting back into work mode after time away?

Coming back to work after a sabbatical or career break is very different to coming back from a short family holiday. Getting back into the swing of things can feel like a real challenge.

If you’re returning to the same workplace, it might be a bit strange. People move on, routines change, and your role might feel different than it used to, given all the new skills and experiences you’ve had while being away.

And if you’re searching for new role, the industry might have evolved, your skillset might be in question, and you might worry about explaining your break to potential employers.

Both of these scenarios can be challenging, so we’ll go through how to deal with both of them.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at how to prepare for your return to work—no matter how long you’ve been away.

Returning to the workforce and looking for a new job

So you’ve not been working for a while. That’s quite common – research indicates 62% of all employees worldwide have taken a career break at some point.

There are plenty of reasons you might take time away from work:

  • Caring for a family member full-time
  • Raising children
  • Dealing with illness, physical or mental health issues
  • Recovering from burnout
  • Pursuing further education or training courses
  • Taking a sabbatical or extended vacation
  • Redundancy
  • Moving to a new location or country
  • Starting a business or pursuing an entrepreneurial venture
  • Volunteering or doing charity work
  • Dealing with personal or family matters

Depending on what caused your career gap, your return approach will differ. But there are a few general principles to follow when you’re getting back to the job market:

1. Think about what you really want

Returning to work after a break is an opportunity to reflect on what you really want out of your career. Take some time to consider your priorities – what are you really looking for in a job? You’ll probably care about factors like flexible working, salary, or opportunities for development.

But also - what type of job would really fire you up? What would make you spring out of bed each morning, eager to get to work? Is this an opportunity for a total career change?

Instead of just applying for all the job opportunities you see, you should be more strategic in your job search. If you’re spending 8 hours a day doing it, you’ll need your job to be something you like (if not love).

2. Evaluate your current skills

You might feel a little rusty, but don't sell yourself short. Think about the transferable skills you might have gained during your time off, in areas like communication, problem-solving, and time management. These skills can be valuable in a variety of roles and industries, so don't be afraid to highlight them in your job applications.

According to one LinkedIn survey:

50% of hiring managers believe people returning from a career break have often gained valuable soft skills, and 46% believe candidates undersell them.

3. Get your head back in the game and research the state of your industry

Before diving into job applications, take some time to get up to speed on the current state of your industry. Dig around online, see what people are talking about, and see what’s been happening recently. Find out what you can about emerging technologies or practices within your field. This can help you stay informed and position yourself as a knowledgeable candidate during job interviews.

4. Note down the positive things about your break and what you got out of it

When preparing for job interviews, it's important to be able to talk about your break in a positive way. Make a list of the things you achieved during your time off, whether it's pursuing a hobby, learning a new skill, or spending time with family. It’s all relevant experience that can demonstrate your ability to prioritize, manage your time, and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

5. Update your documents

Make sure your job application documents are up-to-date and professional.

This includes your CV, cover letter template, and LinkedIn profile – a must in many industries these days. Make sure to mention any new skills or experiences you've gained during your time off, and update your profile picture to something recent and professional.

For CVs and cover letters, try searching online for ‘AI CV writer’ or similar – there are plenty of tools out there that make it much easier than starting from scratch.

6. Start networking and applying for roles

Networking can be a powerful tool in your job search, but it probably needs a different name. How about just ‘talking to people’?

See if you can find industry groups in your area through or social media. There are plenty of informal meetups where people just hang out and chat, rather than sell and make deals. If you want to work in marketing, search for a marketing meetup nearby and let them know your plans. Most people love to talk about themselves, share their success stories, and point you in the right direction. They could give you advice on industry mentoring, apprenticeships, or other approaches you might not have considered before.

You could also make a list of people in your professional network and reach out to them to let them know you're looking for work. Attend industry events, talk to recruiters, and consider reaching out to alumni networks or professional associations.

Then, it’s time to get out there and start applying to roles. If you think it’s worth doing, head down to your local jobcentre to see what vacancies are being posted. Or you can scroll through sites like Indeed to find current opportunities. You can even search for companies offering returner programmes designed for those coming back from a career break.

Put together a systematic plan and note down each application in a spreadsheet. Keep yourself accountable and set goals for how many you’ll apply to each week.

7. Prepare for job interviews

When you get invited for an interview, it’s wise to do some prep. Although you don’t have to rehearse every possible outcome, a decent interview technique always comes down to good preparation.

Firstly, research the company itself. You need to know what they do and why they need your help.

You can also practice your responses to expected interview questions, including how you've spent your time off. Be ready to highlight the skills and experiences you gained during your break, and explain how they’ll come in handy for the role you're applying for.

If you’re nervous, don’t be – you’re interviewing the company as much as they’re interviewing you. It’s a chance to ask questions and see if it’s really a good fit for the both of you.

You might be returning to the same position you had before, or a different one in the same company. If that’s the case, you’ll have to approach things differently.

Returning to your previous workplace

You might be returning to the same position you had before, or a different one in the same company. If that’s the case, you’ll have to approach things differently.

1. Think ahead

If your sabbatical or career break lasts for six months or more, start thinking about your return a few months out. For a shorter sabbatical, give yourself a month’s head start. That way, you’re not trying to rush your way through everything in the days before your return.

Think of the best ways to ease back into work, and get support from your manager or company to get you there.

If you feel like it, check in on work while you’re away. This isn’t for everyone—especially if you’re like one of the 39% of Europeans felt they needed a serious break from their jobs. If you need a clean cut, take it… and don’t feel guilty about it.

If not, check out some industry news, listen to podcasts, or scroll through your LinkedIn profile to see updates from work. You’ll ease yourself back into “work life” before sitting at your desk for the first time in a few months.

2. Make a plan

Speaking of preparing ahead, talk to your manager and see if there’s an official “return to work” plan for your company. (Most sabbatical policies will mention it.)

Some companies will give you some kind of structured return as you come back from a career break or sabbatical.

If your company doesn’t have a structured plan, don’t worry. You can work together to create a plan that suits you.

It’s important that your return to work reflects your own needs and isn’t hampered by a formal process. Think about what you want your return to the workplace to look and feel like.

Maybe you will go part-time as you find your feet. Perhaps you’re ready to jump head first into a new and exciting project. Either is completely fine; no two people are the same!

Eugene Fedorenko, Product Designer says:

"After 15 years at Wildbit, I went on an 8-week sabbatical during the summer of 2020. I was anxious that getting back to work would feel like an avalanche, but the reality was much calmer. Two things helped the most.

First, our team held ground and solved problems when they popped up, so I didn’t return to an overflowing backlog. Second, I spent the first week just catching up with projects, discussions, and the team. After that, I was ready to jump right in with a good sense of the situation and a solid plan for the next few months."

Either way, map out your first few weeks and schedule in plenty of time for figuring things out, settling back in, and catching up with everyone.

3. Catch up on your company, industry and team

It’s inevitable that things will have changed since you were back at work. That’s why it’s important to make time to catch up on your company, industry, and team.

Make sure your return to work plan features enough downtime for you to immerse yourself back in the world of work. You could:

  • Catch up with any changes in your team and the company
  • Introduce yourself to unfamiliar faces
  • Read up on any industry news and updates

Take your time, you won’t know everything straight away so don’t be hard on yourself.

4. Catch-up with your team

It’s great to jump back into the social side of being back at work. Meet with your manager and coworkers, catch up on what’s new, make friends with unfamiliar faces.

Sure, most of these moments might be work-related, but make time for social catch-ups too. Grab coffee or lunch and update each other on life and things you might have missed.

Talk about your sabbatical and the experiences it’s brought you, and your plans and goals for the future. (Chats about holidays are always welcomed!)

Some 34% of people feel they don’t have enough social interaction at work. This is a good way to close that gap—even more so when you’re coming back to work after a long break.

5. Have confidence in your skills

You’re an expert at what you do. Time away from the workplace hasn’t changed that.

Returning to work after a career break can make us feel lost or unsure of our skills or place, but you’re just as capable as before—if not more so!

Think about the different skills you’ve practiced during your time off. Maybe you’ve taken a sabbatical to figure out how to use a new piece of software, and could introduce it to the company for some super productivity gains.

Or, maybe you volunteered at an art gallery and have discovered a new way to help the visual merchandising team out with their displays.

Don’t forget about any soft skills you’ve learnt, too. Even if your career break or sabbatical wasn’t linked to your line of work at all, you’re always learning. Time away from the workplace can make us doubt our skills, but even those we haven’t used in a while aren’t gone. A few weeks back and you’ll be in your usual rhythm.

6. Take up some training

If you get the opportunity to brush up on existing skills or learn new ones, take it!

Returning to work feels different for everyone, but this can be a great way to ease yourself back in.

Ask your manager if there are any opportunities for learning and development. This can include:

  • Retraining on software you use
  • Learning new software or processes they’ve created since you’ve been away
  • Training for new skills, like an online course on leadership

If learning new things is what keeps you motivated, this is the moment to tackle a new challenge.

7. Get excited about your future

Sabbaticals and career breaks give you time and space to think about different aspects of your life, including your career.

Has yours given you a fresh lease of life? Take that excitement into the workplace with you!

Use your return to work as an opportunity to make moves on your new plans and career path. Speak to your manager about career growth opportunities, training, and how you want your role to look now and in the future. You never know what’s available until you ask.

If you have exciting new ideas about how you can make a difference, share these with your manager before you officially come back. Do you want to become a manager? Or change your job role slightly?

They might be able to help you make them a reality by shaping your job around your new career goals, or maybe put you on a different career path. It all starts with a chat.

On the other end of the spectrum, now is the perfect time to address the things you’re not keen on and want to fix.

Take boredom, for example: a third of people said boredom was the main factor in them considering a job move. Chat with your manager about what you haven’t enjoyed before, and look for ways to make your return to work a fresh start. It’s the ideal cure to Monday morning dread (if that’s what you’re worried about falling back into.)

8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Don’t be afraid to speak to your manager or HR department for help and support, if you need it.

Ask about starting out working from home or part-time if that’s possible. If you’re anxious about arriving at a desk full of to-dos, partner up with someone who can take some of those tasks off your plate for the first few weeks.

Sometimes returning to work can bring on bigger, more emotional support needs. It might be that your sabbatical was a way to reduce stress and avoid burnout, or that you needed to care for a sick relative. (Unfortunately, COVID has made this more common than we’d like.)

Coming back to a work environment can trigger all kinds of feelings—but know that there’s often support available.

With only 30% of companies offering sabbaticals, the ones that do are forward-thinking when it comes to their team’s support. Read through your company policies or ask for a quick meeting with someone to talk through your options.

There’s always someone that can help solve the problem.

Ready for your first day back?

Returning to work after a long break is a completely new experience for most of us. Whether you’ve been gone for four months or twelve, it’s an interesting step to navigate.

If you’re going back to your old job, create a plan with your manager, and think about the support you need. Make your way towards some new career goals, or settle back into your old routine with your favorite coworkers.

If you’re seeking something entirely new, tell your friends what you’re up to and ask for their support. It’s a time for positivity – use this moment as an opportunity to create the kind of back to work experience you crave, whatever that looks like.

And remember: IceHrm's support is always there. If you need it, take advantage of it.

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