Re-entering Work After A Career Break

September 8, 2023 thehrobserver-hrobserver-careerbreak

There are many reasons why people might take a career break, for example, maternity leave, redundancy, or the wish to begin a new career. If the career break has been over an extended period, the thought of re-entering the workplace can cause uncertainty. There are a number of activities that can be undertaken by the returner and/or the organisation to make the transition back to work a positive and productive experience.

Whilst some organisations have specific programmes for supporting people to return to the workplace, this is often targeted at management level employees and focuses on those returning after a period of maternity leave. Provision might include ‘keeping in touch’ days or arranging informal opportunities to visit and re-connect with colleagues.

It is helpful if there is a timeline for employees returning to the same workplace as before their career break. This will allow them the time and space to prepare rather than doing everything at the last minute. The first stage of the timeline is to undertake a self-evaluation and reflect on the things that may be causing anxiety. For example, is it fear that they have forgotten how to use the technology or technical equipment, or worried about how things may have changed in the organisation. Once this has been identified they can think about specific actions to take, including online or courses delivered locally. There are a large number of free online programmes which can be undertaken.

Lack of confidence is a common problem expressed by those returning after a career break so returners might want to think about starting to informally engage with their network for example, through LinkedIn or attending local events. If there are specific things causing a lack of confidence e.g., in presentation skills, individuals could arrange practice sessions within their friendship or close colleagues group.

The second stage of the timeline might be to explore more generally what has been happening in the respective industry and sector, this can be easily achieved by a simple internet search. This will enable them to reflect on what it might mean to their organisation. Once they have looked at a macro level, they should start to focus more on their own organisation and role. The role of line managers is critical here in making the employee feel welcome and providing them with full updates on what has been taking place. 

HR Departments have an important role to play in ensuring that all of the relevant arrangements are agreed and actioned. They should also provide details of any significant changes to the overall organisation and any HR policies that have been updated. The HR team should also support line managers as good re-introductions to the workplace should aid employee retention. Organisations that develop a reputation for supporting people returning from a career break are likely to be looked upon favourably by prospective employees.

Ideally, the returnee would meet with their line manager before their physical return to the workplace, however, this may not always be practical. At whatever stage it occurs, it is helpful to agree on some short and medium-term objectives and any resulting learning and development needs. Line managers should also be able to provide detailed insights into what has taken place and any key changes. In some instances, it may be appropriate for the returner to do some work from home to get up to speed prior to returning to the workplace – if this is desired by both the employee and their organisation and there is an agreement for payment or time off in lieu.

For many people, a phased return is a good way to return to the workplace. This means that for the first few weeks, the returner will gradually build the number of hours worked until they reach their number of full contracted hours. Before they return, there should also be an opportunity to consider whether they wish to request flexible working arrangements.

It is helpful to remember that there won’t be an expectation that returners can remember everything! It would be helpful to communicate this before their return as this may reduce anxiety levels. It is also good practice to give space in the first few days for returners to get to know their colleagues – old and new. This could include a departmental lunch or a structured set of catch-up meetings.

Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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