New Year Return to Work Action Plan

The start of a new year always brings with it a renewed sense of action and focus. It’s a great time to turn your attention to your return to work plan and create some tangible outcomes for success.

Getting started

We can often feel held back in our progress because the task feels insurmountable and then procrastination kicks in as we simply don’t know where to start! We suggest a staged approach to your planning by breaking down the larger task of ‘returning to work’ into smaller sub sections. Typical sub sections could include upskilling, self-marketing, networking and applying for roles. Once you have your categories defined you can then divide each section down further into mini tasks.

The smaller your tasks are, the more inclined you will be to take action and tick them off your list, so make sure you break them down! Under ‘self-marketing’ you could list the bigger tasks of CV writing and LinkedIn but splitting them further makes them more doable e.g. update professional summary, write achievements section, write LinkedIn headline or About section.

Your tasks will have a different focus based on where you are in your return to work journey. Let’s think about that next.

1. Starting to think about your return

Sometimes this stage can feel the hardest – where to begin?! Your self-doubt and inner critic can be loudest here so it’s helpful to think about two parts to your approach – creating actionable consistent tasks and working on your mindset.

Start by scheduling some time in your diary to reflect on your career history. Revisit your professional background and achievements remembering what you enjoyed and, also what you didn’t like. It can be helpful to draw a career timeline depicting the highs and lows and jotting down key bullet points for each change. This reflection piece will help you to reconnect with your strengths, identify your interests now and understand what’s important to you about work (what you value), and will help you to begin to rebuild your professional identity and confidence.

Remember to also review your career break, this is invaluable time and will undoubtedly have shaped you personally and yield many transferable skills which you can talk about professionally when you return to work.

Finally, start talking about your desire to return to work to your network. Who could help you, with insights, ideas or intros… and who could you reconnect with? Get over the fear of reaching out and just do it! People are far more willing to help than we give them credit for. For more advice on the professional, practical and mental prep you can do, read our blog here.

2. Actively applying

There can be a temptation when returning to work to apply for many roles in the hope that one or more application will ‘stick’ and you’ll eventually get an interview. However, if you don’t focus in on the roles that you are really keen on, and which are a decent match for your skills, then you are far less likely to be successful.

Make a list of your key strengths, what you want and where you would like to be working, both geographically and in terms of organisational size/type and culture. It feels counterintuitive but the more prescriptive you can be in defining what you would like to return to and where, the easier it will be to narrow down your search and for recruiters to see your genuine interest. Ensure you review roles for ‘key words’ and make sure there is a reference to the same and similar words in your CV and application. This will ensure that your CV passes through automated CV reading technology and stands a better chance of reaching interview.

Ask a friend to read over your cover letter and application, check for errors and ensure you are drawing out the very best of your skills as relevant to that role. And finally, make sure you follow up with the organisation if you don’t hear back and also, if you are rejected. Ask them for some helpful and constructive feedback that you can take forwards.

3. Interviewing

An interview is a great opportunity for you to showcase your skills and strengths, as relevant to the role, and to establish if the role and organisation is going to be a good fit for you. You will want to stay focused during your interview and give concise answers which illustrate the impact your actions had on the business, clients or colleagues – the STAR format is still the best approach to use here. Do schedule in time to do lots of interview prep to practice your best examples that will illustrate you have the skills and experience they’re looking for.

We also recommend doing a mock interview with a friend or a coach to help you to prepare and practice those interview questions. It’s impossible to know exactly what you will be asked but knowing how to introduce yourself confidently, talking about your skills and knowing why you want the role and would be a good fit, will all stand you in good stead. Ask whoever is interviewing you ahead of the interview what competencies you are likely to be assessed against. You will also find examples of common interview questions and tips to prepare in our Advice Hub.

After your interview do take a few moments to reflect on what went well and what you struggled with and any particular questions that were tricky so that you can think those through with the benefit of hindsight for next time.

4. Just returned

If you have bridged your career gap and made it back into the workplace, congratulations on your return! At this stage you will want to concentrate not only on understanding the role and the organisation, but also on building great relationships with those around you, particularly your Line Manager. It’s helpful to have that friendly contracting conversation upfront with your line manager to set out how you would both like to work together, what’s expected of you, how the team works (team culture and norms), and flexible working norms within your team.

We recommend investing in this key relationship and ensuring you have regular catch ups and conversations with your line manager to ensure that you are on track and receiving helpful positive and constructive feedback for your development.

Consider who else you need in your network, both to get the job done but also to help you to develop your career. A mentor relationship can be so beneficial and can reap rewards on both sides. Your organisation may have a mentor scheme, or it may be more informal where you approach a potential mentor that you think would be a good match. A mentor can help you to understand the wider organisational culture and provide valuable contacts or support in raising your visibility within the business.

Time to recharge

Making the time to recharge is key, irrespective of the stage of your return. We live and work in a culture of ‘busy’ and it can be very easy to be swept up in ‘doing’ and not spend enough time ‘being’. It doesn’t have to be hard – make a note of the balance restorers that help you to calm and feel happy and then go through your diary making space for them! Small and consistent is the best way for building healthy wellbeing habits just as it is for creating your return to work action plan. And remember if you feel you are procrastinating at any stage, just chunk down your tasks into much smaller manageable tasks and you’ll find you get more done!

 

Positive boundaries to support your return to work wellbeing

When it’s a busy time of the year, it can be easy for overwhelm to take over and balance to disappear, whilst trying to stay afloat amongst the sea of planning, family and caring commitments. It can be very tempting to put anything non urgent to one side such as your return to work plan or, looking after yourself. Instead, take a moment now, before the mayhem begins, to plan what you can do to create some positive boundaries to maintain your wellbeing over this period and beyond!

What are boundaries and why do we need them?

Boundaries are healthy positive parameters which you set for yourself to help others understand your limits and your expectations. Boundaries are the foundation of good relationships and help to preserve your mental health and wellbeing.

Everyone will react differently to varying levels and types of stress, so understanding what is normal and healthy for you can help you avoid tipping over into stress or overwhelm. And the earlier you can identify your stress signals the better!

Physical boundaries

Let’s start with physical boundaries, those which relate to your body and health. How have you been feeling lately? Take a moment to check in with yourself scanning your body for areas of tension.

What are you missing right now? What have you been neglecting? And what do you need?

· Is it some regular exercise each day, getting outside in the fresh air? Maybe it’s stretching you need, with some yoga or pilates?

· Do you need to find some space for calm to help reset your mind? Some meditation, mindfulness or breathwork could help you to rebalance.

· Sleep. Does your bedtime routine need a tweak away from scrolling and towards winding down with a good book?

Mental boundaries

Mental boundaries relate to where or what, you give your energy to. If you feel mentally drained, then this is a clear sign you need to pull back and set some boundaries in place.

· Resist the urge to be instantly accessible and responsive. You don’t need to answer messages straight away and especially if you are relaxing in the evening. Consider muting WhatsApp groups if they are stressful or turning off notifications.

· Determine the best time of day to complete tasks, when do you have most energy? If you are at your best first thing, then you could schedule some time to keep moving forward on your return to work plan – update your CV, polish up your LinkedIn profile, research companies you are interested in.

Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries are about taking ownership for your own feelings and not taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. Emotional boundaries are a must for healthy personal and professional relationships and your wellbeing.

· A protective bubble image is helpful here. Imagine your own thoughts and feelings protected within your own personal bubble boundary.

· Avoid engaging in some else’s bad mood or energy. Choose to separate your thoughts and feelings by physically moving away or mentally visualising your bubble.

· Steer away from unhelpful conversation or negative talk. Well-meaning family or friends may offer return to work advice that isn’t supportive or helpful, remember that this is their view only, you have a choice not to take this on.

Moving forwards with a plan

You might be caring for elderly parents, relatives or children and juggling many commitments but it’s up to you to take responsibility for your wellbeing and prioritise it. When you have healthy boundaries in place you will feel and function much better – for yourself and for others.

Now is always the best time to take action and it doesn’t need to a grand plan! If you can create some small consistent steps each day to honour your boundaries you will be doing well. Here are some examples:

· Take some exercise every day, 15 min walk around the block or 15 mins of yoga. Pop reminders in your phone, diary or on post it notes around the home.

· Swap 30 minutes of your evening phone scroll to read, watch or listen to a helpful or inspiring resource. For your return to work listen to our Career Returners podcast or read our many returner success stories.

· Switch off some of your phone notifications, as many as you dare. Mute busy WhatsApp groups and know that the messages will still be there to answer when you are ready.

Take a moment now to jot down some positive boundaries for your wellbeing. Make them personal and specific to you and your needs and commit to taking action.

Menopause – Removing a Potential Return to Work Barrier

‘The more people talk about menopause the better their experience’ (Kantar, 2022)

Lesley Salem, Founder of social enterprise Over The Bloody Moon, aims to remove the muddle and stigma of menopause. She shared some great insights and advice for members of our Network in our recent co-hosted webinar. As a third of the women in our Network are between 45 and 55 (the typical age for menopause), we thought this was a topic many of you would welcome.

Menopause terminology and experience

‘Natural’ Menopause is described as 365 days after a person’s last period. ‘Peri-menopause’ is the time period leading up to the menopause, when a person will begin to experience fluctuations in their hormone levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. This can have a big impact on how you feel physically, emotionally, and cognitively. This stage can last for around 7 years – on average women can notice changes for about 4 years. The most common symptoms include difficulty sleeping, hot flushes, night sweats, brain fog, mood changes and anxiety. In the UK, research shows that 59% of people feel that peri- menopause and/or menopause impacts their lives moderately, severely or at an unbearable level.

It’s also useful to note that women’s experience of (peri)menopause can vary by ethnicity and culture. A recent study in the USA found that black, Asian and Latin women may go through menopause earlier than white women, with more intense and prolonged symptoms. There are still some cultures where discussions about menopause do not happen openly, so it is even more essential to be aware and armed with the right knowledge and understanding as you go into peri-menopause or menopause.

Menopause support at work

The good news is that menopause support is becoming more commonplace. With 5.5m women currently transitioning through menopause in the workplace in the UK, and this number set to grow higher as more women work for longer, businesses are recognising the need to ensure women can access support if required. While organisations are not currently mandated to have a menopause policy, there’s been a groundswell of activity to change this, as it’s believed to be the best catalyst for cultural and systemic change in this area. Currently, 25% of organisations in the UK have a menopause policy, and of those, 75% believe they have had a positive effect. Reported benefits include increased staff retention and engagement, greater productivity, and higher representation of women in senior leadership teams.

Raising the support you need at interview

If (peri)menopause is impacting you, how can you find out whether the company you’re applying for will support you? Doing your research on their website should give some clues as to culture. You could ask about what wellbeing policies, professional networks or employee resource groups they have at interview.

Once you’ve demonstrated you’re the best candidate for the role and have been offered a role, you could raise what support you’d like. This is the point when you may be negotiating other terms such as flexibility. Reflect on what you think will help you to start well in your role and continue in a sustainable fashion while managing any symptoms.

One suggestion could be agreeing a level of flexibility to your day – working a set number of core hours but having the ability to start later and finish later if you’ve had a bad night.

Obtaining the support you need in role

Once you’re in role, do ensure that you’re scheduling in regular short breaks in your day to help keep stress levels down. Block out thinking time and prioritise important tasks to make sure that you’re focussing your time and energy on what’s key. (Good advice for anyone!).

If you need additional support from your employer, here’s some tips from Lesley on how to approach it:

  • Arrange a meeting with your line manager
  • Prepare for your meeting. Set out how menopause is impacting you, giving specific examples
  • Think in advance how you believe they can support you. Are there changes they can make to the ambient environment, your work schedule, the way meetings are currently set up? Come with some suggestions for them to consider and be open to any ideas they might have
  • Keep the conversation open and ongoing. As your symptoms evolve, so may your needs

Organisations are increasingly aware that supporting their staff during all life stages will attract and retain the best. So do make sure that you reach out for the help you need to thrive at work.

References

  • Kantar & OTBM, ‘Redefining Menopause’ May 2022
  • NHS, 2021
  • SWAN Study, ‘Investigating Health for Mid-Life and Older Women’ 2022
  • Debenhams Ottaway, in collaboration with CIPD, March 2022