Wednesday 29 April 2015

What role does image play in supporting your return to work?

One area that can be neglected when thinking about your return to work is how to present yourself in a way that reflects the image you want to convey.  If you've been out of the workforce for some time, you might have questions about what exactly 'business wear' looks like today.  And you might be uncertain about the styles and shapes which suit you best.  Business and Career Coach, Natalie Hunter, explains how getting your image right can boost your return to work confidence.

Returning to work after a significant break can induce a whole range of emotions. On the one hand it can feel daunting and tap into our darkest self-doubts. On the other hand, we might feel excited and reawakened at the prospect…possibly all of those things and more.

I’ve taken a few breaks during my career, one to go travelling and two maternity leaves. I clearly remember the mixed feelings of returning: disorientation, anxiety, pressure to make a good impression, optimism, engagement and liberation – at least for a while - from the daily demands of domesticity. As it turned out, my last return was on 9/11 and any fears I had on that occasion were soon eradicated by more important things.

It feels trivial to talk about the importance of image after that, although, rightly or wrongly, we do judge each other on appearances and make all kinds of assumptions: How professional is she? How smart? How contemporary? How creative? How well organised?

I’ve been involved in many an interview over the years and listened to the hiring manager’s comments afterwards. Appearance is often on the agenda…and it’s not always flattering.

Like many people, when I’m facing the unknown I try to focus on the aspects of the situation that I can control. In terms of returning to work, one of these things is appearance.

Image, of course, is no substitute for competence. I want to be known primarily for the quality of the work that I do, not how I look, although if I feel confident that my appearance will create an authentic and favourable impression, that’s a bonus. Paying a little bit of attention to understanding what makes us look our best frees up our time and attention to focus on the content and quality of our work.

Some of your original working wardrobe might still work for you, although even classic styles can look dated – the fashion industry is very clever at getting us to keep buying more! Perhaps your body shape has changed and the styles you once relied on no longer seem to work. Colour has an amazing capacity to make us look radiant or drab. This doesn’t mean you suddenly need to start wearing lots of strong, bright colours, it’s just about understanding what depth, brightness and tone of colour works best for you in the context of what would be appropriate for your potential working environment.

I love style and colour and how they transform the way we look, but I don’t enjoy spending huge amounts of time and money on expensive, sometimes torturous, grooming procedures or lengthy shopping trips! In my book, anything that can make life simpler, calmer and lower-maintenance is to be welcomed.  Being able to edit a shop floor with a few quick glances, for example, or quickly pick the right outfit for the occasion, saves precious time and energy.  Knowing what to look for helps avoid expensive mistakes or those ‘fashion over style’ disasters that stare reproachfully at you from your wardrobe.

Investing a few hours to explore how your image can support your career aspirations can make all the difference in helping you to feel confident and make a positive impression. Once you understand what suits you and why, you can make confident choices and always look your best.

By Natalie Hunter, Women Returners associate, Business & Career Coach, Image Consultant and Leadership Development Consultant

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