Why a Return to Work Begins In Your Head

So, you’re keen to engage your brain again; you’d love to find work that’s going to be stimulating, fulfilling, creative (in a way that doesn’t involve food, fancy dress costumes or other people’s homework). But there’s something stopping you from beginning the search for a job.

“To be honest, I was ready to return a good two years before I actually made a move. But I convinced myself the time wasn’t right.”

What’s going on? It seems as if the first search is much less about the jobs market and much more about what’s going on in your head. What are the stories we tell ourselves about why we’re just not quite ready to return to work, to pick up our career again, to put ourselves first for a while? And are they true, or fallacies that are barring our way back?

“I’m needed at home. The family wouldn’t cope without me.” The truth is, you’ve probably cast yourself in this role, becoming the default parent, making every job in the family your own, absorbing the domestic minutiae. Frankly, it’s often easier that way. You’re there, why not. But, arguably this behaviour can come from a feeling of guilt about not working or a need to feel indispensable. If you cast yourself in that role, you can uncast yourself. Division of labour and domestic tasks is always fraught but if you’re clear and specific other people can do more. It will be good for them (even though they don’t quite see it that way, at first).

“I’m Unemployable. I’ve been out too long. My skills are not relevant”. Common concerns from women who’ve had a career break. As if their earlier (and by the way successful) career counts for nothing. Almost as though that was happening to a different person. This is madness. Everything you learned and did before you took a career break did not suddenly get thrown out along with the disposable nappies. And what you’ve been doing during that break is additive. All that life experience enhances your ability to get a job done.

“Believe in yourself. Remember you were great before and will add value. Keep learning, be interested. A career break brings new perspective and this is a hugely valuable asset. Fresh thinking, use it to your advantage”.

“I’m too old.” OK ageism is rife. And wrong. You might not be able to fix it overnight but you can definitely fix how you respond. With age comes wisdom, perspective, experience. Someone once asked me:

“What does a 40 year old woman bring to the table that a 25 year old graduate doesn’t have?”

Well, if you’re a teacher, experience of being a parent, for a start. A management consultant? Knowledge that no powerpoint presentation on earth is going to change anything. An advertising account manager? Knowing how to reassure a twitchy marketing director that their spend will deliver. Yes, you might be the oldest person in the office but those years of living bring with them valuable experience.

“The industry has moved on. I’m not up to speed with the trends.” In short, this is basically a fear of looking stupid. Break it down. Yes, things will have moved on. You need to be specific about what and find a way of plugging the gap. Many professions have industry bodies that can help. You will undoubtedly have friends who still work in your industry who can point you in the direction. Follow the right thought leaders on twitter – it’s not the 140 characters that matter, it’s the links that lead to the latest thinking, research, trends that will help you get up to speed. It’s all there on the internet should you choose to go in search.

“It’s not worth it.” Ah that one. “The childcare costs will outweigh what I earn”. We could dedicate a whole book to that particular fallacy. As Iris Bohnet points out in The 100 Year Life, we’re all going to be living longer; and who amongst us has saved enough to retire at 50? Sadly, for every year you’re out of the workforce, there is an increased risk that your market value declines. In short, you need to do a much longer term equation to measure the financial impact of returning.

“I won’t be as good as I was before.” No, you won’t. You’ll be different. Probably better. I spoke recently to a returning teacher. “I used to be first in in the morning and last out at night. I spent the holidays preparing lessons” she told me. “I couldn’t imagine going back because there is no way, with teenage kids, that I could put in those hours. I couldn’t be the teacher I used to be.”

Having gone back, of course (you can see what’s coming here) she is so much more efficient and effective. Parents value and respect her advice when they’ve got concerns about their children because – guess what – she’s been there. And more to the point she has the confidence that she can empathise and say something that’s going to be of practical use.

“I’ll be judged and found wanting” We all remember what it was like when we were working. Needing to be on top of email, responding there and then to every demand. We’ve been there looking at our watches at 4.30 when a member of the team has to leave early because they’re doing the school run, or won’t be in on Friday because they work part time. We’ve picked up their slack and begrudged them their privilege.

This is real and is probably going to happen. So what are you going to do? Sit at home because you can’t play that game? Or return with your head held high, confident about how and where you are going to add value?

The jobs market today is very competitive: returning to work is tough and there are plenty of hurdles to be jumped. Just make sure that you’re not putting up extra barriers by accepting as absolute truth things which actually might turn out to be stories that you’re perfectly capable of rewriting.