Friday, 26 May 2017

What's it REALLY like to return after a career break? Advice from a returner 2 years on

When I was contemplating returning to full-time work after a six-year career break, I cast around on Twitter and among friends for clues and tips and reassurance that I wasn’t Completely Mad for even considering it. There were lots on how to get organised, but very little that told me what it would actually be like. Almost two years in, what would I say to someone asking me the same question?
Be brave
I expected the tiredness and the logistical challenge of combining work and a hectic family life after the luxury of a few years where I only had to consider the latter. What I didn’t realise was how exhausting dredging up the courage to go in, day after day, till I found my feet again would be.
I was terrified on a daily basis, for a long time, in a way that I didn’t recognise from pre-career-break work, and in a way which I no longer experience now. I had a mantra of “don’t look down”: visualising myself on a tight rope, I willed myself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to contemplate the horrors lurking should I slip.
Little things I once and now again take for granted: composing an email, approaching someone senior, giving an opinion or advice which I know could come back to bite me should I be wrong, were draining in a way I simply hadn’t expected.
Battling imposter syndrome is nothing special, I know, but it took every ounce of energy I had to fight it down when it was armed with the ammunition of that time away from the office.
Be selfish
I was brought up to believe in service to others, and having been acutely conscious of the additional time I had available while not working, like a lot of people I tried to volunteer where possible and fit in lots of social commitments with friends and family.
Volunteering and working are not mutually exclusive, of course, but it took me almost a year of becoming increasingly unhappy and ill to realise that a break while I reacclimatised to work would have been best all round. It wasn’t the lack of time which was the issue, so much as the need to prioritise family and my own mental well-being with space wherever possible not to be “in demand” from external sources while we all got used to our new normal.
Again, two years in, I now have the energy and headspace to start to be able to fit things into the spare time I have available, but in retrospect, it would have been helpful to have felt I had permission to take a step back. As with the friends point below, it’s natural to feel it important to prove a point – look, I can work and still do everything too! – but those who really care about you won’t be bothered either way.
Losing friends and inconveniencing people
Very much related to the above. Maybe this was just me, but it was hard to realise that to some people I considered friends, I had only every really just been valuable by my presence. A stay at home mum is a useful social acquaintance: able to step in at short notice, lend a hand in groups and generally help move things along by the simple virtue of proximity to home during the hours when others are in the office or on the road.
Not everyone, of course; going back strengthened some lovely friendships by making me realise who was a friend because of who I am rather than what I could do for them, but it wasn’t an easy thing to process in the midst of readjusting back to work when I could have done with a bit of support, and it’s something I wish I’d been prepared for.
Be happy
I used to scoff at the idea that having a happy mother was a tangible benefit to children, perhaps because I just didn’t realise that I was bored and rather miserable by the end of my time at home, but it’s been true in our case. I’ve been incredibly lucky in a supportive employer and access to great, affordable childcare, without both of which it possibly would have been a very different story.
Terror notwithstanding, I felt even in my first day that way you do when it’s only on starting to eat that you realise you were famished. Tiredness notwithstanding, I am simply happier with the boost to my confidence and self-esteem which returning to work has given me.
It has been and continues to be, hard. I miss my children, they miss me (and the luxury of not being in wraparound childcare) and I simply don’t have the degree of involvement in their daily lives that we once took for granted. But they are happy, and they continue to thrive, and we’re all more than managing.
If you’re reading this and wondering whether going back to work (or stepping back into a more demanding job after a period of doing something to fit in around family commitments) is for you, I can’t give you an answer. All I can say is that it was the unquestionably the right thing for me.
Oh, and good luck.
This post first appeared on Head in Book - Postcards from Surburbia

Posted by Donna

Plesae note, we will be posting fortnightly going forwards.  To read more from the archives see here. 

Friday, 12 May 2017

Is a returnship right for me?

As I'm sure you know, I'm fairly evangelical about the potential benefits to businesses and individuals of returnships - we have so many great case stories* of women getting back into great jobs this way. However I also recognise that they're not perfect (we've been working through many of the teething issues with organisations over the last 3 years) and that they're not for everyone. So this post is to help those of you wondering ...

Is a returnship right for me?

Answer these 6 questions to find out: 

Q1: Have you had a career break from your professional career for over 2 years?

YES: Go to Q2

NO: For most programmes there's a minimum of a 2 year break (sometimes 18 months). If you're looking for another job after redundancy, statutory maternity leave or a shorter sabbatical, focus on direct hire roles instead as you shouldn't need the support package provided through a returnship. If you're finding it hard to get a permanent role, even with a short break, also consider stepping stone roles such as interim, maternity covers, temp and contract work.

Q2: Are you looking for a complete career change?

NO: If you'd like to use your existing/transferable skills and experience, in the same or a different sector, go to Q3.

YES: A returnship can work for career shifters (into a new sector or using transferable skills) but isn't aimed at complete career changers. Look instead at study routes, strategic volunteering (or 'work experience') in your chosen sector, and at retraining programmes such as those listed here.

Q3: Are you confident that you can get directly into a permanent role via standard recruitment routes?

NO: Go to Q4

YES: If you like the idea of a trial period in a new sector, or a chance to test out whether it's the right time to return, go to Q4. If you would value the support offered on a returnship, look at Supported Hiring returner programmes (into permanent roles) and corporate returner events, or consider funding your own returner coaching. If you don't see any challenges with getting a permanent role, you don't need a returnship!

Q4: Can you be flexible on flexibility of hours/location?

YES: Go to Q5 

NO: If you have strict requirements for how work will work for you (e.g. 2 days a week, completely home-based, short commute), do push yourself a bit to consider where/how you can compromise. If you're completely inflexible you will find it hard to commit to and benefit from even a part-time returnship**; you need to have the opportunity to prove yourself, be visible and upskill and it will be harder to find a suitable-level role at the end. You may want to consider freelancing or other options until you're at the point where you can commit more time to work.

Q5: Can you be flexible on salary for the returnship period?

YES: Go to Q6

NO: Returnship salaries shouldn't be minimum wage. They are typically at an experienced hire level, but may be significantly lower than you were used to. Remember that this is a fixed term (3-6 month) programme rather than a permanent role; make sure to discuss the likely level of salary for roles at the end of the programme to assess whether the cost-benefit of this supported bridge back makes sense for you.

Q6: Are you proactive, positive and able to cope with uncertainty?

NO: Returnships come with their own challenges. In these pilot years participants play a key role in making the programme work and you need to be proactive to make the most of the opportunity. Even though the majority of participants convert into ongoing roles, you will also have to manage a degree of uncertainty during the returnship period. If this feels too stressful and/or you don't recognise the inherent value of refreshing your networks, knowledge and experience, whatever happens at the end of the programme, then a returnship may not be the best option for you. Focus instead on returner programmes which bring you directly into permanent roles.

YES: A returnship sounds like a great fit for you! Look at the open opportunities on our website here.


* See our returnship success stories here
** Some returnships are full-time, others are open to part-time or other flexible working

Posted by Julianne

Friday, 5 May 2017

Three Top Tips from Successful Returners

Over the past few years, we’ve been delighted to hear so many inspiring stories from women who have successfully returned to work. Here are three of their top tips.

Keep up your professional skills & knowledge

We all know that a career break is not a break from life and is typically taken for either reasons of caring, illness or re-training – none of which leave a lot of spare time. However, many returners felt that their efforts to keep up their skills and knowledge paid off when it came to returning to work. Fiona returned to occupational psychology after a 6 year break and advocates maintaining your professional knowledge, “I also always kept up with my profession in that I receive journals and took an interest in developments in my field.” Adrianna, who returned to Investment Banking after a 9 year break agrees, “Read as much as you can – from every available source – on topics related or potentially related to your business and the market as a whole”.

Rachel took a 9 year career break and during that time recognised some study areas she could pursue to help keep her skills recent and relevant, “As I didn’t have any recent professional qualifications I starting working my way through a project management course.”

Many returners also found they honed skills while undertaking ‘strategic volunteering’ – unpaid work that develops your skills and knowledge. Carmen, who took a 7 year break before returning as a Macro-Economist believes this approach helped her, “I became a governor at a local primary school, which I feel helped me to hone my negotiation skills and deal with difficult situations.”

Networking is vital – you never know where a lead will come from

When you’ve been on a career break the typical routes of finding work through online job boards and recruitment agencies often prove more disheartening than helpful. We hear so many stories of role opportunities that come up instead from networking conversations and contacts. Julia, who is now a Finance Director after taking a 2.5 year break would concur, “A more effective strategy was telling all my friends and mums at school gates what I was looking for – most opportunities I received came from these contacts.” Rachel, who returned to a role in Investment Management after an 8 year career break set about talking to everyone she could think of about what she was looking for. “Although there were times when I wondered if the endless meetings I was going to were a waste of time, I persevered and was ultimately successful in landing my ideal role.  I had also applied for numerous jobs online and via headhunters but got nowhere – networking really was the only useful route – the effort will pay off”.

Directly approach the firms that you are interested in

In addition to networking, many successful returners made the decision to bypass recruitment agencies and directly approach firms that they’d like to work for. Amy, who returned to Law after a 2 year break, took this direct approach, “I phoned a few recruitment agents about part-time legal work. They uniformly told me that the law firms would not be interested and refused to put forward my CV for any roles. I short-circuited the agencies by applying direct to a firm. Bypass the agencies and speak straight to the firms you are interested in.

Grazyna returned to work as an architect and advises that “a direct approach is generally welcome as firms often have flexible needs for skilled staff who are hard to find by the standard recruitment routes.” Fiona found the same was true, especially of smaller firms. “I picked up the phone to call a local solicitor who I knew slightly. That was the best step I took! I asked for work experience and was surprised that he agreed to me coming in a few mornings a week. I ended up being there 5½ years, thanks to making that one phone call.

Hopefully these top tips have inspired you, and if you have any suggestions of your own we’d love to hear them.

Posted by Anna Johnson, Lead Career Coach, Women Returners