Taking care of yourself: put your own oxygen mask on first …

If you’re anything like me, when you’re on a plane and the safety briefing comes on, you switch off and focus on your magazine (or screaming child!). But you probably know the bit that says “put your own oxygen mask on before your child’s”. Most women I know could learn from this. We tend to put everyone else’s needs before our own. So much so that we can end up exhausted, burnt out and at rock bottom before we actually take care of ourselves.

Chances are the demands on your time and energy are already copious. If you’re returning to work those demands will likely increase. If you’re also a mother, at this time of year when kids are back at school, it seems there are 101 small things to remember and this can feel exhausting. If you’re running on empty though you’ll struggle to truly enjoy life and be at your best. When I returned to work after my maternity leave it took me a throat infection that lasted two months and a shaky tremor in my hands that wouldn’t go away before I realised I was no good to anyone if I wasn’t looking after myself.
So stop, just for a couple of minutes and think – what’s my “oxygen mask”? What 3 things could I do to take better care of myself?
A few suggestions to help you think about your own personal ways to recharge your batteries:
  • Take a walk outside in the fresh air – ideally in a green, open space – spend some time in nature. Try to stroll and enjoy your surroundings.
  • Do exercise that you enjoy – highly energetic or reflective – just about any exercise will tend to do the trick!
  • Have a chat with a good friend – just ask them to listen to you for a bit – and feel free to ramble.
  • Rediscover a hobby or creative interest – watercolour painting, playing the piano, swimming, stamp collecting…..just something you enjoy! It can help if you are learning a new skill and where you are so involved in it you haven’t got room for worrying about anything else.
  • Get some extra sleep – go to bed early for a couple of nights, switch off electronic devices at least an hour before bed time, have a bath before bed.
  • Sit down for 15 minutes to have a cup of tea – and don’t do anything else!
  • Have an ‘electronic-free’ day – the incessant pull of technology can be draining. Switching it off can enable you to switch off for a while and literally ‘recharge’.
  • Cut out something in your life. If you had 5 fewer hours every week what would you drop? Give yourself some breathing space.
  • If you can afford it, have a massage.
  • Laughter is the best medicine. Watch a comedy or play silly games with your kids.
  • Meditation or mindfulness may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But simply sitting with your eyes closed in a comfy position and focusing on taking deep, slow breaths can do wonders.
  • Listen to music – sing along to your favourite song.
The next time you are feeling overwhelmed, when you know you are not at your best but are relentlessly pushing on, remember to put on your oxygen mask first.

Posted by Anna Johnstone, Coach & Facilitator, Women Returners

Coping with the return-to-work transition

There are many changes going on in my work life at the moment, as Women Returners expands rapidly in several new directions. Home life is also shifting as my oldest daughter ends school life and prepares for University. One moment these changes feel exciting and energising, the next they can seem exhausting and unsettling.

You may be experiencing similar up-and-down emotions as you are getting back into the job market or starting a new role after many years out. When I hit these periods of change, I find it helpful to remind myself that this emotional rollercoaster is completely normal. In the classic book Transitions, based on 30 years of research, William Bridges explains that we all go through a period of psychological readjustment when change occurs. Alongside opportunity, change can bring turmoil. It’s useful to know that this inner transition process typically takes longer than we think it will, and doesn’t necessarily correlate with the scale of the change or whether it’s a positive change such as promotion or negative change such as redundancy.

He provides a simple roadmap of the three stages of any transition process. Change starts with an ending and ends with a beginning:

1 Endings
2 Neutral
3 New
Every change starts with leaving the past
behind, recognising what you’re giving up & deciding what you want to hold on to
In this in-between state we readjust & reorientate. Emotional ups & downs are strongest at this stage
Finally, we launch into the new activities and start to embrace the change with renewed energy

Bridges’ research found that we’re much better able to navigate a change successfully if we anticipate these stages and take time at each step to adjust. Don’t misinterpret the confusing feelings in the neutral zone as evidence that you shouldn’t be making the change and a reason to retreat. Stick with it, weather the emotional upheaval, and you’ll eventually come through to an exciting new beginning.

Posted by Julianne

Mature competence vs youthful ambition: Career break mother wins Masterchef

In case you missed it, the 2016 Masterchef competition was won, last week, by a 50-year-old stay-at-home mum of four. While Masterchef doesn’t enjoy the same profile as The Great British Bake Off, the achievement of its winner and the opportunities the winner enjoys can be just as life changing.

It was clear to me in the final week of the competition that Jane Devonshire would be the winner, not simply because of her skillful and creative cooking but because of her character. Her maturity, self-knowledge, leadership and unflappability gave her the edge over her younger, seemingly more energetic and ambitious, male rivals. While one of the three finalists was running round in ever more desperate circles as he had done throughout the competition and the other succumbed to the pressure, Jane was a picture of serene competence, calming executing all her dishes perfectly. In winning, she exemplified so many of the aspects which we know make returners valuable to employers.

It was only in the final episode of the competition that we heard more of Jane’s story. She had started work as soon as she left school and by the time she was married and expecting her first child she had built up her own successful business. However, despite only seeing herself as a career woman up to this point, becoming a mother changed her perspective, as it often does, and she chose to leave her business to focus full-time on her family. Entering Masterchef was the first thing she had done for herself in many years and from a nervous start, she visibly grew in self-belief and assurance as she progressed through the rounds.

In the final episode, Jane also revealed that she had overcome cancer twice in the previous decade. Her win was a triumphant assertion that reinvention and a return to work that you love can be achieved. As I’ve said previously, entering a televised national competition might be an extreme way to regain your self-belief, but I hope Jane’s example might inspire you to think about some small steps you can take to return to your professional path.

Posted by Katerina

Taking control of your return to work

Some of the women on career break we meet at our workshops or who write to us for advice believe they have little hope of returning to work. They express this in the following ways:

“employers are only looking for young people these days”

“there are no opportunities for [my job function] anymore”

“no employers are interested in people with a CV gap”
“the only jobs are in the cities and I live in the country”

If any of these comments sound familiar, you may think that you’re just stating the truth – that the employment environment is closed to you and that nothing you can do will change this.

However, thinking this way can mean that you give up control – you make yourself powerless. If you believe that there’s no likelihood of success, you have little motivation to even explore how you might get back to work .. so, of course, you’re very unlikely to make it happen.

How to regain control

  • Be aware of what you’re telling yourself. Are you are making generalised, ‘black-and-white’ statements about the employment environment (using words like ‘only’ and ‘no’ is a good clue)? If so, you can start to challenge your thinking: e.g. are ALL employers ONLY looking for young people?
  • Consider what is within your control. What realistic options do you have open to you for returning to work? This could include investigating work-from-home ideas, looking for local options, exploring relevant returnships and other returner programmes, developing your network, retraining in a new field.
  • Start taking action. Through taking action such as talking to former colleagues, re-joining a professional association or attending information events about a possible new field you will gain knowledge, potential contacts and, most importantly, a sense that you are in charge again.

For further reading:
Too few choices: advice on identifying post break options
Are ‘shoulds’ ruling your return to work decisions?
How to make time for your return to work job search
How to return to work after a long career break
Is it possible to return to work at 50+ after a career break?

Posted by Katerina

The five steps that helped me to get back to work

Wondering how or indeed if you will ever get back to work again? You are
not alone – I remember that feeling well. Here are a few practical steps based on my own experience, that will help you to re-establish your
existing skills and learn new ones, build your confidence and broaden your
1. Take an online course. When I was looking for work
after a career break, I found myself out of touch with social media. I was
recommended a course from HootSuite, The Fundamentals of Social Media Marketing. The course offers 6 modules from optimising
your social media profile (great if you are looking for work) to social media
marketing strategy (useful if you are looking to set up your own
business), and you can take a certification exam for your CV. I also took the Coursera Learning How to Learn course last year to develop more general skills – it helped me to focus and be methodical, and to learn memory and time management techniques. Taking a course demonstrates
your commitment, your enthusiasm for a subject, your desire to keep current
and your appetite to learn something new, and is a good talking point at an
interview or during an informal chat. However be sure of why you want to do the course before starting to have the best chance of seeing it through. Are you looking to get a recognised qualification from a prestigious university? Or perhaps you just want to bring a skill up to date. See the previous post on MOOCs here  to read more about the range of free courses available. And if you’re relaunching in STEM, do look the new Reboot your STEM career course from Open Learn, the free learning platform of the Open University.
2. Find skills-based volunteer opportunities. While looking for a paid role, you could sharpen your skills and
put some of this theory into practise by volunteering. This doesn’t have to be formal – you could try
your school parents’ association (I practiced my events planning and
fundraising skills that way) or help a friend setting up a new business (I put my rusty HTML coding and design skills to the
test by helping to build a new website). It’s amazing to see your skills valued and used in a different
context. You’ll find that “you still have it” after all,
and this is very reassuring and empowering. Plan your strategic
volunteering by reading our previous post on the subject here.
3. Get feedback on your CV. Ask your friends and
ex-colleagues for feedback; it’s even better if you can send them a job spec that caught your eye along
with your CV. I found that it helped to get a fresh pair of eyes looking at my CV and assessing
objectively my suitability for a particular job.
4. Attend an event. Take a look at events targeting women looking to return to work organised by relevant
professional bodies and associations, alumni groups and local communities. In
my case, attending the Mumsnet Workfest event last year was a catalyst. I had
to be dragged by a friend to sign up, as I was uncertain about my professional
aspirations or what I would get out of the event.  But against the odds, I felt energised by the
women I met, who reminded me of what I had to offer. I came back with practical
advice (on my CV, on a job search strategy, on interviews) and was
inspired by Katerina and Julianne’s session on returning to work after a career
break. I was armed with new tools to look for work that would work for me. For
events listing and Women Returners’ talks and workshops, check our website and our monthly
5. Get a mentor. A mentor can
really help give you focus in your job search. I took part
last year in the Steps Ahead mentoring pilot scheme, facilitated by the CIPD. My
mentor was chosen according to the industry I wanted to move into. She provided
me with valuable insight into this industry, how to tailor my CV and what a typical role would entail, and gave me a lot of encouragement,
support and help. If you’re a STEM returner, do look at the free mentoring available through the new MentorSET programme.
These actions helped me to assess my situation more objectively, to determine how soon I wanted to go back to work, in what capacity and for what kind of organisation. While this is not an exhaustive list, why not try investigating one of
these suggestions? You might be surprised by how much closer you get to your professional goal and how much more confident you feel at
each step.
Posted by Muriel

First steps towards a board role

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have just released their new report on board appointment practices in the UK’s largest 350 listed firms. More than 60% of these firms have not met a voluntary target of 25% female board members. If you’re interested in boosting these numbers, this week’s post by Rowena Ironside, Chair of Women on Boards UK, explores what types of roles you can seek in the boardroom, how to go about it, and what you can bring to the table.

Some of us are fortunate to get an insight into the
boardroom early on in our career. In my case this was thanks to being an
executive director of a start-up business at the age of 30. But for most people
what goes on in the boardroom remains a mystery until very late in their
career. And if you don’t know what boards do, how do you know if your skills
are relevant or if the role is one that you will enjoy?
Women on Boards (WOB) exists to fill this information gap.
Our mission is to influence a measurable increase in the proportion of women
both on boards and in “pipeline” roles at the executive level. And to achieve
increased transparency in the board recruitment process, because at the moment
the majority of board roles (public sector aside) are never advertised.
The good news is that the single most valuable asset in most
boardrooms is common sense. Accompanied by the courage to ask tough questions
and challenge the status quo from time to time.
Boards exist to challenge and support the executive
team. They add value through a combination
of collective judgement and the deep, specific expertise of each director. As an individual board member you don’t need
to know everything; you don’t even need to have expertise in the “core
business” of the organisation. As long as you bring a specific skill,
experience or network that is valuable to the organisation at that point in
time. For example:
  • Don’t assume that you need to be a
    horticulturalist or an environmentalist to join the board of Kew Gardens. They may have a gap for digital marketing or
    event management skills on their board this year.
  • First board role? Not everyone around the table
    needs to have years of boardroom experience. A board that is explicitly searching for past governance experience is
    not going to be anybody’s first board role. But most boards are equally
    interested in your breadth of experience and professional skills.
A common mistake is defining your options too narrowly by
thinking you have to stay – or at least start – in “your sector”. Some charities need asset management and
M&A experience and you may find that a Public Sector board is in need of
your technology or risk management skills.
Women on Boards is there to help you navigate this
complexity. Our resources and support are designed to provide a structured
pathway to a board position that is right for you. As Clara Durodie, one of our members
described it last year: “It
felt as if someone was holding my hand, guiding me with care and skill”. WOB provides:
  1. Workshops, events and masterclasses that combine
    strategic insights and pragmatic advice. Our Getting Started: Realising your Board Potential workshop is a
    fast-paced tour through everything you need to know about directorship and how
    to do yourself justice as a candidate. Our Boardroom
    are designed to “open the curtains” so that you can be
    inspired by the opportunities on boards in a sector you haven’t previously
    considered, or for in-depth insights from current non-executives in an area you
    are targeting.
  2. Access to board vacancies across all sectors –
    most weeks we have at least 150 non-executive director, trustee and governor
    vacancies on the WOB Vacancy Board.
  3. Feedback on your Board CV. Writing a non
    executive profile that does you justice takes time and requires insight into
    what board members actually do. We will help.
  4. Personal advice, connections and encouragement. This
    is WOB’s USP. We will support you with
    targeted interventions at key points along the way, like when you are preparing
    for a board interview. We also do hugs if you are recovering from coming
    second for that role you really wanted.
  5. A rich Resource Centre of reference materials,
    research, articles and success stories. Our On Board page is my personal
There are thousands of different
boards across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. WOB believes that there is a board role for
everyone who wants one and that you are never too young to understand what goes
on at the top table. The boardroom is
where capital is allocated and where the moral and ethical standards for
organisations in all sectors are set. We
need more female voices at the table.
For more information about strategic volunteering, read our previous post here.

Rowena Ironside is
Chair of Women on Boards UK, a non-executive director of the Digital Catapult
and sits on the Governing Body of Hughes Hall, Cambridge. Before “going
plural”, Rowena spent 25 years in the ICT industry, starting her career writing
software in Australia; building and selling an IT services business in London
and finally running several multi-national professional and managed services
businesses in the software and hosting industries. She took a year’s break in
2002 to complete the Sloan Masters at London Business School.
For more information
on Women on Boards, join The WOB Network.

Posted by Muriel

Is caregiving as valuable as breadwinning?

I’ve been reading Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter this week. The book follows on from a controversial article she wrote in 2012 in The Atlantic “Why women still can’t have it all“. She had left her role as director of Policy Planning at the US State Department to return to an academic career, as she wanted to have more time with her teenage sons. At the time she was criticised for ‘dropping out’ and betraying her feminist ideas – incredible, considering she was returning to another high-level full-time role.

Now Anne-Marie Slaughter has come forward with a big vision – to ‘finish the business’ of creating equality between men & women, work & family. She sees the key to doing so as changing society and the workplace to value caregiving alongside breadwinning. She suggests that the core problem for gender equality in the workforce is that caregiving has been devalued and discriminated against.

Putting aside the debate on feasibility of the societal and workplace changes she is advocating, there is an important message in the book for those who have taken a career break to look after children or other family members.

We can, all of us, stand up for care.

It’s hard to disagree with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s statement that caregiving has been devalued. However, as individuals, we don’t have to go along with this. As Slaughter puts it: We can, all of us, stand up for care. It’s refreshing to have a powerful woman challenging the assumption that the work we do as professionals is harder than the work we do as parents or caregivers. She concludes that caregiving done well ‘is just as valuable and formative an experience as competition’. This isn’t about valuing one above the other or returning to a world where most mothers stay at home, it’s about recognising that family and work are equally important. The work-family choices that people make – working full-time, part-time, at home – should be equally validated and facilitated for both men and women. Slaughter echoes our view that there should be freedom for people to slow down or pause their career for caregiving reasons without stigma or penalty.

Admittedly, society and most of the workplace may be lagging far behind in this realisation. But standing up for care is a useful mantra to remember if you find yourself, when you’re ready to return to the workforce, feeling embarrassed or apologetic about having taken a long career break. Or feeling a failure or a poor female role model when you compare yourself with ex-colleagues who didn’t pause their career and are now in top-level roles. Having the freedom to compete at the highest levels of a career doesn’t make it an obligation to do so. The value that you have brought to your family can constitute just as much of a success for this phase of your life.

Posted by Julianne

Answers to some common return-to-work questions

We are often asked lots of interesting questions and thought it would be useful to share our answers to a few of these which we find to be common concerns after a career break.

I’ve done nothing in my break apart from bring up my children. What do I say about my break on my CV?

We always advise returners to specify that they have taken a career break rather than leaving an unexplained gap. It can be stated simply, with dates (e.g. 2008-date Parental career break), and does not need further detail if you were totally focused on caring responsibilities. It is important to state in your profile statement and cover letter that following your career break you are now motivated and committed to returning to work. In addition, don’t dismiss unpaid or low-paid work that you have done during your break which employers could find useful and relevant (e.g. organising a large event, setting up a small home business, studying for a qualification). Finally, if you are getting ready to go back to work, now could be the right time to find some relevant work experience, or to update your knowledge by studying for a qualification, to demonstrate your renewed interest in the field you are returning to.

For further reading:
How to write your post break CV
The ‘CV gap’ barrier: evidence it exists & how to get over it

I’m an experienced doctor with no wish to return to practising medicine following my break. How do I work out what my transferable skills are and who would find me useful?

We suggest that you approach the question of what to do next in a different way: rather than try to work out where your experience and interests might fit, we recommend that you start with investigating what your personal strengths and interests are so that you can focus on finding work that you will find satisfying and fulfilling. There are a number of books listed on our website which can help you to do this self-analysis. Alternatively, some people find working with a career coach is helpful to support you with working out your new direction.

For further reading:
Setting your career compass: identifying your strengths
How to identify work you will find fulfilling

I’ve relocated from overseas and don’t know how to get started with building a new network.

A useful way to think about your network is that it consists of people from your past, your present and your future. Your past network includes your previous work colleagues, suppliers and customers and school and university class-mates. Even if they are based in your prior location, they might well have contacts in the UK which they can introduce to you. Your current network includes all the people you engage with in your community in your daily life while your future network consists of people you can connect with through new activities you intend to start or training you plan to do. If you have a professional qualification, make sure that you contact the equivalent professional body in the UK to find out about membership, conversion requirements (if any) and networking events. An essential tool for building your network will be LinkedIn so make sure that you create a basic profile and build your online network too.

For further reading:
Five ways to build your back-to-work networks
Top tips for enjoyable networking
LinkedIn – an essential tool for your return to work

If you have other questions you’d like to ask, please get in touch with us or join our private LinkedIn group and share ideas with other returners.

Posted by Katerina

Will you stick to your New Year resolutions?

Every January it is hard to avoid the talk of ‘new year – new you’ wherever you look. For women on a career break, the new year is often a time to set goals and make plans for returning to your career or re-inventing yourself. All too frequently, however, your initial enthusiasm and drive can quickly wane, everyday life takes over and the project of returning to work becomes too hard to pursue.

Why don’t resolutions work?
There are four key reasons why new year resolutions fail. It is usually because they are one or more of the following:

  1. too general and vague e.g. find a part-time job; do more networking
  2. too big and daunting e.g. retrain for a new career in x; work out what to do next
  3. unrealistic e.g. land a new role by Easter
  4. not sufficiently action-oriented, with little idea of the steps required for achievement

All of these factors can lead to a rapid drop in motivation, as discussed by Julianne in her post on maintaining New Year motivation at the start of 2015.

A new approach
I was reminded of how often resolutions fail by a friend challenging me about how I would achieve my stated resolution ‘to create more space for myself’. When she asked how I would achieve this, I had no answer. Her question forced me to acknowledge that my resolution was too general and vague and that I hadn’t taken the step of converting my idea into action. I saw failure looming!

Her suggestion was to try a new approach to make the resolution stick: do something specific, simple and quick and do it daily for a month. By doing something new, even for only five minutes each time, on a daily basis, I will be able to make tangible progress on establishing a new habit. This approach is backed up by psychological research into how new habits get established. Linking the new behaviour to a specific cue, such as ‘on waking’ or ‘before dinner’ can also reinforce the habit formation.

Your 5 Minutes a Day return to work plan
How could you use this ‘specific, quick and daily’ approach to support your goal of returning to work? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Research useful updating or skills-development courses
  • Read a relevant news/journal article or book chapter
  • Connect with old and new contacts on LinkedIn
  • Read &/or contribute to a professional post on a LinkedIn Group
  • Email a contact to set up an informal chat
  • Work on a single section of your CV or LinkedIn profile

Of course you are likely to frequently spend more than five minutes a day, if returning to work is an important priority for you. However, by following the principle of doing a small thing every day, you will get into the habit of creating time to work on your return, so avoiding the common trap that everyday life gets in the way. This means that you cannot fail to make progress and will find it much easier to stick with and achieve your resolution by year end.

For further reading
How to form a habit – BPS Digest

Posted by Katerina

When life speeds up .. slow down

It’s that manic run-up-to-Christmas time again: finishing off the year’s projects, fitting in school end-of-term events, making holiday arrangements and somewhere in-between finding presents and writing cards. If your To Do list is feeling overwhelming, you can best reduce your stress levels by acting against your natural instincts …

Pause and Breathe

  • Resist the urge to race around and do three things at once; instead consciously slow your pace and focus on doing one thing at a time. Often we pride ourselves as Queens of Multi-tasking, and a whirlwind of activity can feel productive. However cognitive research has found that it’s far more efficient for our brains to focus on just one task – we tend to complete it faster, better and with less energy (here’s the science behind it, if you’re still sceptical: Multitasking Switching Costs).
  • Rather than not stopping from the moment you wake in the morning to the moment you collapse at night, take 5 minutes once or twice a day to sit quietly, slow your breathing down and do nothing (yes, not even checking your emails). Our minds need time to recharge, otherwise our energy gets more and more depleted until we reach collapse point. Even a short pause can break this cycle.
You can build these actions into habits through regular practice. This will enable you to better manage your energy levels all year round, at home and at work – these tips aren’t just for Christmas!

Season’s Greetings

Thank you for following our Back to your Future blog. We hope that we
have been a source of advice, support and inspiration to you this year.

We’re taking a festive break for a few weeks and will be back in the New Year!

All Best Wishes for 2016 from The Women Returners Team

Posted by Julianne