As regular readers will know, I’ve been on maternity leave since January, and I’m now easing myself back into work. I spoke to Janice Haddon, a coach and management consultant who specialises in helping people return to work successfully (amongst other things). This is what she had to say about returning to work after a long absence, whether you’ve taken a career break, sickness absence, maternity leave or been unemployed.
Janice, why do business people find it difficult to come back to work after a long absence like maternity leave?
Being absent from the workplace for a long period is a difficult adjustment to make. When off work, people have a range of experiences that are entirely different from being in work – and when they are absent – the workplace changes and moves on. Colleagues leave, new ones start, processes change, clients and customers are different. One thing we can be sure of is that nothing ever stays the same – change is a constant.
Because things will have changed, this will impact on our knowledge and therefore our feelings of competence and what we feel we can achieve in the day when we return to work. If we have worked in a place for a long time and come back after a period of absence, people assume that we know what we are doing – and because we feel we ‘should’ know what we are doing – we don’t like to ask for fear of feeling or looking stupid.
Ah, that sounds like Imposter Syndrome to me. So what can women to do to ease the transition back to work?
The key to this is understanding how to achieve life balance and happiness! We can do this by getting our Essential Needs© met. Our Essential Needs are:
- feeling in control
- feeling safe
- connection to others
- feeling competent and achieving things in the day
- mental stretch and creativity, status – ie recognition for what you contribute and having privacy and down time.
For most of us we get our Essential Needs met through the workplace. While other areas of our life contribute to this, because of the amount of time we spend in work it naturally has a big impact on the levels of satisfaction we feel and how our Essential Needs are met. When more than two or three of these Essential Needs are in levels of dissatisfaction, that’s when we feel unhappy and can even start getting a bit depressed.
Understand when you go off on maternity leave or another absence that your Essential Needs will be impacted. You won’t get the same level of connection as you won’t be in daily contact with colleagues, you won’t get the same mental stretch, sense of competence or achievement, status and recognition. And let’s face it, with maternity leave, you are no longer in control – a small person is!
Yes, that’s certainly true! What’s your advice about keeping in touch with work while you are off?
Keep in touch but don’t get stressed about it! Good and responsible employers and close colleagues will keep you up to date with what is going on when you are off. They will want to get the right balance though so as to not swamp you with information. They will want to get this right so they support you and don’t overwhelm you. Have a conversation! Be clear on how much information you would like and how often and reach an agreement before you go off on maternity leave. If you are on sick leave outline what you would like.
Your individual needs will vary depending on you and your circumstances. Most employers will want to do the right thing, so help them to know what that is.
What is your top tip for dealing with the fact that it is very likely that your workplace has changed while you have been away?
Nothing stays the same. Don’t get stressed about it. Be open to change and relax into learning new things that have been put into place while you have been off. Develop a good working relationship with colleagues; they will support you in your return to work.
When you get back to work, take a little time to identify what is the same and what has changed. If there are new things to learn, set yourself some goals. Identify what resources you have around you to help and then work out how you are going to achieve them. Talk to your manager and agree targets, timescales and what support you need. Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day and while you might be able to hit the road running sometimes the best thing to do is stop and take stock. Identify what is needed to move forward positively and then you can carry on and succeed.
And any advice on work life balance?
Enjoy all parts of your life – that is what makes you whole. If you feel things aren’t quite in balance, have a conversation, ask for support. In a conscious and respectful way explain to those around you how you feel and what help you need. Sometimes people just need to be asked!
Sometimes from the outside we look like we are fully in control and don’t need anything. The fact that inside is turmoil is another matter! So don’t get into that. It is all very well to look like a swan on the outside but we can only cope with the turmoil underneath the water for so long before we hit exhaustion. Don’t get to that stage. Understand how you feel. That is the happiness factor – the secret to life balance.