Government Equalities Office Returner Toolkit

The Government Equalities Office has recently published a Returner Toolkit which we co-wrote with our friends at Timewise. 

This amazing free resource has 51 pages of advice and tips – it’s a A-Z for returning to work. We’d encourage everyone to have a look at it, whatever stage you’re at in the return to work journey. You can start from the beginning and work through it, or dip in and out of the stages that are most relevant to you.

You’ll find advice, ideas and information to help you on a range of topics:

  • setting yourself up for success
  • building your work confidence
  • getting clear on your career direction
  • updating your skills and knowledge
  • networking
  • finding job opportunities
  • exploring options for flexible working
  • writing your CV and cover letter
  • preparing for interviews
  • negotiating effectively
  • getting ready to return to work
There is also a detailed ‘resources and signposts’ section with links to lots of organisations and resources for general advice, thinking about returning to work, preparing to return and returning to work.

You can access the free toolkit via GOV.UK here.

Why your career break is a positive not a negative

There are lots of reasons for a career break – to care for young children or other relatives, for health reasons, to study, to travel or simply to recharge your batteries.
Far from being something to try to hide when you want to return to the workplace, there are very good reasons why you – and your potential employers – should celebrate your break.
We know from experience that returners re-enter the workplace with a fresh perspective, together with renewed energy and motivation. Employers value this too. At our Women Returners ‘Back to Your Future’ Conference, O2’s Andrea Jones told the audience:

“There’s so much experience the returners have before their career break and they’ve gained so many skills on their career break. They come in with a really fresh pair of eyes….they can look at our processes and our systems and the ways we work quite differently. I think it’s a real breath of fresh air – and that’s what we hear from our managers.”
Other employers spoke about the enthusiasm of the returners they had hired, the fact that they are incredibly efficient as time management comes more naturally to them, and their desire to contribute more broadly to the organisation rather than just doing their job. Returners were also valued as role models for younger employees of people who had taken a non-traditional career path.

Dependent on the reason for your career break, you are also likely to have developed a variety of new skills. For example:

  • If you’ve taken time out to care for others you will have honed your communication, time-management and organisation skills. And nothing improves negotiation ability more than getting to a compromise with a teenager! 
  • If you’ve done skilled voluntary work you will have developed both teamwork and leadership skills – managing volunteers is much harder than paid staff.
  • If you were travelling or studying, this can signal an openness to experiences and a motivation to learn and develop. 
  • If your break was because of a personal trauma or health issue, you will have developed resilience and fortitude.

When writing your return-to-work CV and cover letter and preparing for interviews consider everything you’ve done during your break. Make sure the skills and experience you’ve acquired come across – they are an important part of who you are now. Muscle relaxant Soma (Carisoprodol) at www.phcconsulting.com/soma-carisoprodol/ also enhances the analgesic effect of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. To a certain extent, its effect on the intensity of pain is enhanced by its sedative activity.

Switch your focus. Rather than seeing your career break as a negative to employers, focus on how it differentiates you and makes you a better employee,  gaining maturity, perspective and many new skills. You will be an asset to your next employer because of, not in spite of, your career break.

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Advice from successful returners to work

Did you miss our Women Returners ‘Back to Your Future’ Conference this week in London? For those of you who couldn’t join us, our next few blogs will talk about the takeouts from this sellout event.

Our Returner Panel session was chaired by the wonderful Jane Garvey from BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour. Five women who have successfully returned to work after a multi-year career break spoke about their experiences. Two had taken a break to care for small children, one for fostering and setting up a business, one to focus on family time with older children and one to take time out from a long career in a high-pressure role. Three had returned to work via a returnship, the other two via networks or stepping-stone roles.

Here are some of the highlights from their comments, including the panel’s advice for other women wanting to get back to work:

On where they are now:

“It’s been a revelation to me – the whole returnship process, the support the firm has provided me, the support from Women Returners and the whole promotion of the idea of being able to return to work… I managed not only to return to work but to start a whole new career in the finance industry.” 

“I didn’t know that returnships existed. I had set my standard of returning to work as ‘perhaps I could take a few steps back if someone would have me’ – I really had no expectations and not a lot of confidence that I’d be able to step back into a senior role…honestly, the programme has been transformative for me and my career.”

“It’s amazing – I didn’t think that from where I was two and a half years ago to where I am now was going to be possible.”

On how they first felt being back at work:

“It was a bit of a shock, I wanted it but it was quite challenging. The most interesting thing for me was the progression over a number of weeks. And what I learned from day one was not to crucify myself by setting totally unrealistic standards about what I wanted to achieve.”

“I think we all have that slight reservation that we’re not quite up to it or that we won’t know what to do when we (arrive) and sit down or go to a meeting. But I was amazed at how quickly it all came back. After about three weeks the senior management team were saying ‘we feel like you’ve been in the organisation for years – you’ve just fitted back in’.”
“My first day was a mixture of terror and excitement.”
“My employers were really welcoming…I was nervous about photocopiers and phone systems.”

“Don’t worry – within a week you’ll be back in the swing of it.”
“I was made to feel incredibly welcome from day one. I was given a senior woman as a mentor and meetings were set up for me to meet other people in the department.”

On setting boundaries/managing work-life balance:
“You have to decide what you’re going to do in a week, what you’re going to deliver and make sure you communicate that to people around you.”

“It’s really important for you to take responsibility (for managing boundaries). No-one is going to do that for you.”

“Don’t set unrealistic standards about what you can achieve when you first get back to work.”

On what to wear for interviews:

“A friend gave me some brilliant career advice once. He said – when you’re going for an interview don’t do things that will enable people to write you off from the beginning. If you’re going for an interview where – like it or not – they wear suits then wear a suit. Do your research.”

“For me, it’s about feeling confident. – if you feel confident in what you’re wearing that’s what’s important – and the fact that you project that confidence.”
“It’s very dependent on the workplace. I don’t think it’s to do with wearing a suit – it’s about getting the dress code right.”
“I went to the hairdresser for the first time in two years – I wanted to feel ‘put together’ and confident.”General comments/advice:

“What I would recommend is lots of positive talk to yourself in front of the mirror before you go into the interview.”

“We have to understand that we have skills – they don’t go away – they might be slightly rusty but I can reassure you that within a week you’ll be back in the swing of things and within three months you’ll feel you’ve never been away.”

“You’ve had a break, you’ve developed lots of positive behaviours and that’s what you’ve got to offer a new employer.”
“One of the women on my returner programme had been out of the workplace for 20 years and came back in and did the programme and got herself a job that she was absolutely thrilled to get and loves and is forging another career.”

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How to develop a growth mindset

Psychologist Carol Dweck is one of the world’s leading authorities on motivation. Throughout her career she’s focused on why some people succeed and others fail.

In her TedTalk (above) – Developing a Growth Mindset – Dweck explains that those who have a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities are static and that they don’t have the capacity to change. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset know that these qualities can be continually developed and improved through hard work and persistence. 

In adults returning to work, a fixed mindset can manifest itself in thoughts like “I’m too old to move into a new area”, “I’m hopeless with new technology” or “I’m no good at networking”. Remaining open to growth and self improvement will greatly improve your chances of success in finding a satisfying and fulfilling role.

How to adopt a fixed mindset

1. Believe in the power of ‘not yet’. In her TedTalk, Dweck gives the example of a school in Chicago which replaced a ‘fail’ grade with ‘not yet’ and saw a huge improvement in student performance. If your job application is rejected, a ‘not yet’ attitude can stop you from giving up and encourage you to explore different option and strategies to achieve your goal.
2. Don’t see obstacles that stand between where you are now and where you want to be as immovable barriers, but rather as challenges or hurdles to overcome – opportunities to develop new skills and acquire more experience.
3. Seek out feedback with an open mind. We know it’s difficult, but try not to see negative feedback as a judgement of your competence but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow. Listen to what family, friends and former colleagues tell you, and make sure you ask for specific feedback if your job application is rejected after interview. What you learn can help you make changes to bring you closer to success next time around.
4. Take action. Adopting a growth mindset means believing in the power of neuroplasticity, that the brain can continue to make new connections in adulthood or strengthen connections that you haven’t used for a while. You can help to realise your own potential through learning new skills or practising ones that are a bit rusty.
5. Move out of your comfort zone. Conquering something that scares you is a useful way to teach yourself that you can grow and move forward. Celebrate your successes and seek out yet more opportunities to challenge yourself! 

Carol Dweck is the author of Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential

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How to be a successful returner candidate

There are many reasons why employers want to attract those returning to the workplace after an extended break. Returning professionals offer a wealth of experience, maturity and a fresh perspective. Employers are now starting to recognise this and other positives of bringing returners into their organisation. By hiring returners an employer is able to tackle skills shortages, improve gender and age diversity, tap into a high-calibre talent pool, and improve their organisation’s attractiveness to potential employees in general.
But what do employers look for in individual candidates and how can you make the most of your skills and experience when you apply for a returner programme or any open role?
Here are our five top tips:
  1. Don’t try to hide your break on your CV or make excuses for it in the
    interview. If you’re applying for a returner programme, it is especially
    important to mention that you have been on a career break, including
    the length of your break at the time the programme starts. You risk
    being excluded from these opportunities if you try to cover up your
    break. If it’s been a while since you updated your CV and cover letter,
    read our blogs How to Write Your Post-Break CV and How to Write a Back-To-Work Cover Letter.
  2. Don’t undersell yourself. Learn to tell your story. Make sure you’re aware of, and appreciate, all the skills, experience and perspective that you can bring to an organisation. It’s likely that you will return to the workplace recharged, refreshed and enthusiastic to take on the challenge with new skills developed during your break. Make the most of this in interviews. This is the time to blow your own trumpet!
  3. Low professional confidence is common in women who have taken a career break. If you feel this is an issue for you, take steps to build your confidence back up again so that you believe in yourself and in your skills and experience. And don’t forget to read the success stories on our website for proof that, no matter how long your break, you can get back into a great job.
  4. Research and prepare thoroughly for interviews. Consider why you are a great fit for the organisation/role and articulate what sets you apart. Develop detailed examples of your competencies and skills – including transferrable ones – and prepare answers to typical questions.
  5. Show your enthusiasm and positivity. How you behave and the way in which you communicate is just as important as what you say in an interview. Make sure the interviewer can see the energy and motivation you’ll bring to their organisation!

Remember that employers aren’t doing you a favour. They have sound business reasons for encouraging returners back into the workplace to take on stimulating and rewarding roles. Taking the time to prepare yourself to make the most of this will put you in a strong position to resume a successful career.

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Adopting the right mindset for your return to work

For many people, September brings with it that old ‘back to school’ feeling – a sense of fresh starts, renewed energy and optimism. And, of course, September is a great time to kickstart your return to work journey as companies tend to start hiring again after the summertime lull. So how do you capitalise on this ‘new start’ feeling to help you achieve a successful return to work? One of the most important things is to adopt the correct mindset.

If you’ve been out of the workplace for a number of years, it can be hard to approach your journey with unremitting optimism and indeed this can be damaging to your progress and self-esteem. Being too optimistic, without adding a dose of realism, can lead to unrealistic expectations. For example, underestimating the effort needed or a feeling that if you just keep using the same job search methods, even if they’re not working, everything will ‘come right’ in the end.

On the other hand, we often find that the returner who claims she is being ‘realistic’ actually has a pessimistic perspective and that she too quickly dismisses the possibility of finding a rewarding job. The ‘pessimistic realist’ tends to believe the worst, quickly becomes disillusioned when she hits a few setbacks and decides that returning to work is hopeless and not worth the effort.

A more effective mindset

Far better to adopt a mindset of ‘realistic optimism’ – as psychologist Sandra Schneider advocates. Schneider tells us that optimism and realism are not in conflict – we need both. Realistic optimists are cautiously hopeful that things will work out the way they want and will do everything they can to ensure a good outcome. The realistic optimist finds out the facts and acknowledges the challenges and constraints she faces. Her optimism comes into play in her interpretation of ambiguous events. She recognises that many situations have a range of possible interpretations and chooses a helpful rather than an unhelpful one. She gives people the benefit of the doubt, is aware of the positives in her current situation and actively looks for future opportunities. Valium (Diazepam) has a calming effect. I have been afraid of heights since childhood, so during long flights, I feel feared and nervous on the plane and I cannot relax. Just one pill before departure and the feeling of anxiety passes.

Here’s an example in practice. You send a ‘getting back in touch’ email to a former work colleague and don’t receive a response after a week. It’s all too easy to conclude that she just isn’t interested in talking to you, but consider other interpretations. Perhaps she’s on holiday, swamped with work and hasn’t had time to reply, or the email has landed in her junk mailbox. Now decide how to respond: contact her through a mutual friend, resend the email in a week, contact her via LinkedIn or even pick up the phone and call her. If she still doesn’t respond, choose a realistically optimistic interpretation (e.g. she’s too busy) and focus on making other connections.

Tips to develop your mindset

Here are 5 of our tips to help you adopt a more ‘realistic optimism’ mindset for your return to work:

  1. Combine a positive attitude with a clear evaluation of the challenges ahead. Don’t expect your journey to be a smooth one – you are likely to have setbacks – but trust that you have the ability to get yourself back on track
  2. Avoid dwelling on the negatives or jumping to overly negative conclusions. Recognise this ‘negativity bias’ is a result of how our brains are built (read more on this here)
  3. Don’t wait for the right time – it may never come. Simply taking action will move you forward
  4. Focus on what you can control rather than worrying about what you can’t
  5. If you think that lack of confidence is making you pessimistic, check out our advice on how to re-establish your confidence

There is evidence that ‘realistic optimism’ can boost your resilience and motivation, improve your day-to-day satisfaction with life and lead to better outcomes. And be reassured that it’s not about your genes – we can all learn to be realistic optimists!

If you are interested in Sandra Schneider’s research see:
Schneider, S.L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: meaning, knowledge and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.

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Is it possible for me to return to work with a 10 year break?

So, you’ve had a long career break and now want to return to meaningful work that builds on your skills and experience. It’s only human to feel daunted by this and we won’t pretend your route back to work will be a stroll in the park. But do believe in yourself – it is possible and there’s lots of help out there. You’re still the same capable person you were before your break – just a little out of practice.

First of all, check out the advice hub on our website – this will help you throughout your return to work journey. And for inspiration, and to show it’s possible, here are some real-life examples of women who have returned to work after a break of 10 or more years. Enjoy reading their stories – they have some great advice and tips!

 
M – Software Developer (14 year break)

M, who worked as an IT contractor, had a 14-year career break on and off. During her time away from the world of IT she did some teaching of basic IT skills and ran a business with mixed results. She decided to return to work as a software developer using recruitment companies. She is now a full-time PeopleSoft software developer.

Here are M’s top tips:

  • The best advice I have is to just go for it
  • Be determined if you have made up your mind that you definitely want to go back to work
  • Even after I received the standard rejection emails from the recruitment agents, I still phoned them to ‘check whether they had received my email’ and tried to show some personality, drive and ambition in a two minute phone call! It worked and the agent who sent me for the job interview had initially rejected my CV

Sarah-Jane – Portfolio Manager (15 year break)

Sarah Jane worked in asset management for 17 years before taking voluntary redundancy in 2002. During her 15 year career break she trained as a homeopath and worked for a small printing company. A change in family circumstances in 2017 prompted her to re-establish her career in asset management. She returned via the Fidelity New Horizons Programme.

Here are Sarah-Jane’s top tips:

  • First and foremost, believe it is possible!
  • Be organised, do your research, brush up on skills that will be needed once you are working
  • Contact old colleagues and ask for advice – they will be happy to give it
  • Receiving rejections is hard, but learn from each interview and treat each setback as a chance to consolidate and assess your next move
  • It may take time to find the right role in the right company but it will have been worth the effort when you do

Jill – In-house Lawyer (12 year break including career change)

Jill worked for 8 years as an in-house lawyer. After a 7 year career break following the birth of her third child she re-trained as a family mediator. Although she enjoyed her new career, she didn’t like working from home and realised how suited she was to being an in-house lawyer and how much she enjoyed it. She began with a returner course for solicitors and after plenty of setbacks and dead ends, six months later she was offered her first interim in-house role.

Here are Jill’s top tips:

  • Be determined in pursuing what you want and don’t be afraid of trying new areas, even if it is not exactly what you think you are looking for
  • No experience is wasted and you will learn a lot along the way
  • A very practical point: take the earliest interview date possible. In one case the company stopped interviewing after they saw me
  • Returners are often more positive, motivated and enthusiastic than other people, which is great for any business

Sara – Software Developer (13 year break)

Sara graduated with a BSc in Computing and pursued a career as a software developer. She became a full-time mum when her first child was born. Sara returned to work 13 years later via the Capgemini Returners Programme.

Sara says: “Software development has changed immeasurably, but the problem-solving mindset remains the same and it is this ability to problem solve that makes a software engineer. I’ve learnt that I can go back to work, and my family won’t fall apart. My children can survive.”

Sara’s advice is: “Go for it! You know more than you think you do and the maturity and diversity that you bring to a team is immeasurable in adding to its success.”

Nina – Mobile Technology Specialist (11 year break)

Nina worked for a variety of multi-national mobile technology firms before her 11 year career break during which she retrained as a secondary school maths teacher. She returned to the mobile phone industry via Vodafone’s six-month Return to Technology programme.

Here are Nina’s top tips for technology returnships:

  • When selling yourself, focus on your skills, not your knowledge
  • There are loads of technology jobs out there, someone is looking for your skills set. Don’t worry about having been out of the industry for some years, they are looking at what you can do for them
  • Don’t wait for the perfect job that matches your long-term ambition. Get your foot through the door and you can look around once inside
  • Get yourself a LinkedIn account and get back in touch with old colleagues. Someone is most likely looking for help on some project or other so you can get some recent experience under your belt

You can check out all our return-to-work success stories here.

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Telling your return to work story

“I struggle to view myself as anything more than a mother any more”

Ex- investment analyst after a 10 year career break

What do you do?

If you’re planning your return to work after a long career break, one of the hardest questions to answer can be “So, what do you do?”. You’re not sure whether to talk about your time at home or what you used to do all those years ago. When my children were small and most of the people I was meeting were other parents, I introduced myself more often as someone’s Mum than as Julianne. It’s not surprising that as our career break goes on, our independent working selves feel so far in the past that they’re not really part of our story any more (see previous post “Who am I anyway?”).

If your old professional life feels like distant history, then it’s harder to believe in yourself and feel positive about your return to work. This not only knocks your confidence but also makes your job search much less effective. Many women returning to work after a break find a new job through old and new contacts rather than through advertised roles, so you need to have a ready reply rather than a stumbled mumble when an ex-colleague asks “What are you doing now?” And when you do make it to an interview, if your response to the classic “Tell me about yourself” interview question is to spend the majority of the time describing and explaining your career break, you are underselling your past experience and are unlikely to come across as a credible candidate for the job.

The Career Break Sandwich

When you’re putting together your story, don’t start or end with your career break. We suggest you use a structure we call the “Career Break Sandwich”.

  • Talk first about what you did before in your working life – your career ‘headlines’ to establish your credibility.
  • Then talk about your career break. Explain simply why you’ve taken time out of the workplace, but avoid apologising for or justifying your break or spending too much time talking about what you’ve been doing. However do include any study, voluntary work, time spent abroad, unusual/challenging activities or anything else that might be interesting in terms of skills development or updating to a possible employer.
  • Finish with what you are looking to do now in your career and why.

Herminia Ibarra, in her career transition book Working Identity, suggests that a coherent story helps us to make sense of the changes we are making, so building our inner self-confidence. It also makes us more likely to get other people’s support: “Until we have a story, others view us as unfocused. It is harder to get their help“.

Aim to draw out links between your past and future, particularly if you have a varied work history or are planning a career change: Have you always enjoyed helping people develop? Or solving difficult problems in a team? You’re always bringing the benefit of your past experiences, at work and at home, as a foundation for what you want to do now.

Telling your story does take practice. Try out your narrative first with family and friends and get their feedback. Telling and retelling allows you to rework your story until you feel comfortable and convincing. Aim for a longer version to answer “Tell me about yourself” or “What are you looking for?” and a short version so you no longer hesitate when someone asks “So, what do you do?”

Posted by Julianne (updated from original post in 2013)

Three strategies to help women achieve their full potential

When we’re talking to people who are thinking about going back to work after a career break, there are certain books we recommend time and again, usually because they provide great tips on the practical elements of finding and applying for new jobs, or important strategies on overcoming psychological barriers to returning to work. We thought it would be useful to start sharing these recommendations here on our blog so that more people could benefit from them.

We’re kicking off with Tara Mohr’s Playing Big, which we love because it sets out practical tools to help women deal with the internal blocks and external challenges that prevent them from achieving their dreams, such as making that move back to the workplace.

Here are three of her strategies that we found to be particularly relevant to returners:

1) Learning to recognise your inner critic

2) Unhooking from criticism

3) Communicating with more impact

Learning to recognise your inner critic

We all have an inner critic, the voice of self-doubt, of ‘not me’, of ‘I’m not good enough’. This voice can become stronger for people who have been out of the workplace for a long time. While it’s impossible to silence it, it’s relatively easy to learn to relate to it in a different way:

  • Don’t try to argue with your critic. You won’t win! The trick is to notice the voice, recognise it for what it is, and refuse to let it determine your choices.
  • You could create a character for your inner critic to help you differentiate it from your true voice and/or try a visualisation exercise where you imagine turning down the volume on the critic’s voice whenever it pipes up.
  • Remember that experiencing fear or doubt doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track. In fact, our inner critic is never more vocal than when we’re stepping outside of our comfort zones, pushing ourselves, and on the verge of achieving something amazing.

Unhooking from criticism

Many women are relationship-oriented, which means that we work hard to preserve harmony and care about other people’s perspectives. While this is largely a positive trait, it can hold us back if it translates to a fear of disapproval. Bear these ideas in mind next time you find yourself overly worried about other people’s opinions:

  • A negative response doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong. Feedback is crucial: not because it tells you something about the value of your work, but because it tells you how it is likely to be received by the people you are hoping to reach. This also means that you don’t need to incorporate all feedback, but instead carefully select the parts that are strategically useful, and let the rest go, e.g. a former colleague’s opinion on your CV is more valuable than that of a friend in an unrelated field.
  • Criticism most affects us when it reflects a negative belief we hold about ourselves. The rest bounces right off. Use painful criticism as a way of discovering, and addressing, those negative beliefs that might be holding you back in your decision to return to the workplace.

Communicating with more impact

Do you ever feel the struggle between wanting to say something but holding back? Between sharing an idea and simultaneously diminishing it? Women are particularly affected by this, and are often guilty of dumbing down communication in order to be more likeable, at the expense of appearing competent.

Before hitting send on your next email to a potential or new employer:

  • Eliminate any undermining words and phrases (‘just’, ‘kind of’’).
  • Remove any unnecessary apologies (‘Sorry if this is a silly question’).
  • Take out any phrases that suggest that what you have to say isn’t worth much time/space (‘I thought I’d tell you a little bit about’, ‘just a minute of your time’).
  • Replace questions such as ‘does that make sense?’, which imply you feel you’ve been incoherent, with phrases such as ‘I look forward to hearing your thoughts’.
  • Delete the disclaimers (‘I’m no expert but’) and just say what you have to say.

This doesn’t mean being aggressive in your communication, but rather making a conscious effort to express warmth – e.g. expressing a genuine interest in the other person – without relying on diminishing phrases.

Watch this space for further reading recommendations, and please do comment with any books you may have found useful in your own return to work journey!

Posted by Elaine