How to return to work after a break

Perhaps you’ve had a baby. Or maybe you’ve been at home for a few years caring for children or elderly relatives. Whatever the reason, you could be dreading the return to work: how will you cope emotionally?

If you’ve been off work for a while, then advance scene-setting is a good idea. Career Coach Jenny Garrett says: “Speak to your boss before you come back. Ask them to explain to your colleagues that you are coming back to work and this is how you would like to be treated”.

Prepare the ground

She adds that it’s a good idea to meet colleagues maybe for a drink or lunch before you return. “That means you’ll get all the stuff out of the way – the questions about your baby, bereavement or other things – before you start work” adds Garrett. And if you can, schedule your return for midweek, not Monday: it will make the first week fly by.

Key takeaway: Let colleagues know about your situation before you return

Planning in advance

Before you return to work, do think about the practical aspects to reduce your stress levels. So rehearse your journey to work; double-check your fall back cover – who will pick your child up if your train is cancelled, for example. And schedule in a treat for the weekend after your first week back.  If you think your skills could do updating, have a look at AAT courses – there are short ones lasting just a few days.

Less responsibility?

Maybe you think that it would be better to ask for a lower-status job when you return. But Garrett warns:  “I would be wary about asking to have a lower-responsibility job or a change in role. If you do, you’ll be with a new team of people and the change from familiar faces you are used to could make coming back to work even harder. Stay with the people you know: you will feel safer and happier”.

Key takeaway: Think before asking for a job change – it could add to your stress

Managing stressful situations

Returning to work is going to be stressful: so think in advance how you’ll handle difficult moments. Part of that can be accepting that stress isn’t necessarily bad.

Dr Gary Wood, Social Psychologist and Solution-focused Coach and author of Unlock Your Confidence, Don’t Wait for your Ship to Come in…Swim out to Meet it says: “Remember that we need a little stress to perform at our best. How we perceive bodily responses is important. We might get butterflies in the stomach but that can just as easily be excitement rather than fear”.

Take it week by week

If you really don’t think you can manage to return full time, you can ask for reduced hours or a phased return to work – there’s more information here.

But if you are going to return to the same job and working hours, then try to put yourself in the best psychological shape to cope. Dr Wood says: “When we struggle to cope, part of it is because we can’t see an end to it. So it’s useful to take things a week at a time. ask yourself at the start of the week ‘What’s going to help me make the most of this week?’ Jot down some ideas. It helps to anticipate what might de-rail your progress and think of solutions beforehand. Also, make a list of the people and places you can go for support along the way”.

Difficult questions

In your heightened state of emotion, it can be all too easy to be derailed by a question you perceive as insensitive. Even an innocuous one such as “Who is looking after your baby?” might set you off. Garrett says: “I think it’s important to remember that people do in general want the best for you and they are asking questions just because they are curious. It’s always a good idea to think the best of people”.

She adds: “If you’re asked a question you find insensitive then try to think about it from the perspective of the questioner. An older colleague, for example, might make a comment about your childcare arrangements because when they had their children, the usual option was for the mother to give up work and stay at home. They are not trying to upset you: they are just interested”.

Practice in advance

Dr Wood comments: “If you can anticipate any questions that might come up at work that could upset you then mention these to your manager and ask if they can pass on an email from you. Say you guess people will want to ask how you are. Say you don’t want everyone treading on eggshells but emotions are a bit raw and you’d rather talk about things that take your mind off things”.

He adds that it can be worth thinking in advance of some “non-committal, politician-like but polite stock phrases to address awkward probing questions. There’s always one person at work who fancies themselves as an investigative journalist! Remember it’s your life and your information. You don’t have to go into detail. Just smile and keep it short and polite”.

Key takeaway: Don’t assume questions are meant to be intrusive – most people are just curious. But do think in advance how you’ll answer emotionally-difficult questions

Too kind?

Your well-intentioned colleagues might go too far in their efforts to help you. “Be aware of benevolent bias” says Garrett. “This is where people make adjustments for you – perhaps by lightening your workload or taking projects away from you. They are only trying to be kind but it can have the opposite effect on you if you’re feeling sensitive.

And again, if someone says they remember what it felt like when they had a baby/their mother died and this is what they did then they are projecting their experience onto you while yours might be very different. This can be annoying but again, try to take a step back and see that really, they are only trying to help you”.

In summary

Recognise that going back to work after an event or a period at home might be emotional. Remember that your co-workers are actually nice people in the main and the questions they ask you aren’t meant to upset you. And think about pre-warning work colleagues about your situation/emotional state if you think it will help.

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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