Navigating a Successful Return – Advice from Returners

At our 2022 Women Returners Conference, several inspirational return-to-work stories were highlighted on the Returner Panel, with the theme of Navigating a Successful Return to Work. Ably hosted by radio broadcaster Jane Garvey, four women shared their successful stories of relaunching their careers, after breaks of 4 to 30 years, within the fields of medicine, banking, data science and recruitment.

Jane asked the panel for their top tips for other women professionals wanting to successfully navigate a return to work. Here’s a summary of some of their excellent advice:

  • Don’t let a long career break put you off! Value the things that you’ve done in your career break. You might think you’ve done nothing – “I’ve just looked after three small children” – but spend some time reflecting on it. List all the things you have done, and the skills you have used, to demonstrate the different competencies and skills you have developed during your career break and which you can bring to your new role.
  • If you’re looking to return to a new area of work after your career break, look into different courses that can help you to upskill. There are many free courses available online that you can sign up to – check out what might appeal here. Upskilling will not only help you to test whether it’s the right career move for you, but it will also demonstrate your proactivity, enable you to talk confidently about your chosen area at interview, grow your network by meeting others exploring the same area and hopefully boost your professional confidence.
  • Read the Success Stories on the Women Returners website ( as a great source of inspiration on days where you feel low.
  • Reach out to other people who are doing the role you’d like to do to test whether it’s a good fit, to ask their advice and to explore potential routes in. Use LinkedIn to connect – sending a message rather than just a connection request is more likely to get you a response.
  • Ensure you have an up-to-date profile on LinkedIn so that you can be found by recruiters!
  • Don’t give up! Even if you apply for jobs and get nothing after requesting feedback. Keep trying. If you persist, the right job will come.
  • When you start a role, ask questions, throw yourself into everything, aim to learn as much as you can and to meet a range of people.
  • Believe in yourself! It’s very normal to have doubts as you return to work and to feel fearful, but this is very common and will quickly go away once you’re back to work.

These returner stories were incredibly inspiring and a real highlight of the Conference. It’s great to see how building self-belief, reflecting on the skills learned during your career break, looking for successful role models, and tenacity and perseverance have helped others to successfully return to fulfilling work.

For more inspiring stories of returning women, listen and subscribe to our Career Returners Podcast, out fortnightly on Wednesdays.

Navigating your Return – Advice from Successful Returners

There was a huge amount of excellent advice on the Returner Panel on Navigating your Return to Work at our 2021 Women Returners Conference. Chaired by Trish Halpin, Co-host of Postcards from Midlife, the panel included four inspiring women who have successfully returned to work after career breaks of up to 15 years. Two had returned via a returnship, one via a supported hiring role, one via her own networks.

Here’s a summary of some of their fantastic tips, based on their personal experiences, for other women professionals wanting to successfully navigate a return to work:

  1. Look at a returner programme as a journey – it doesn’t need to end where it starts. Just take the first step and then think about it as one step at a time
  2. You don’t need to feel grateful when you get a job. Remember you have skills and experience that your employer wants.
  3. Be open to new areas where you can use transferable skills – your career break can be an opportunity to diversify
  4. Keep a diary of how you feel and the decisions you make at each stage – it’s amazing to read back later
  5. Don’t keep looking back and comparing where you were before, as this can hamper you. Embrace the new opportunity with positivity
  6. Think about what you’re not going to do when you go back to work – ask for help and delegate. Don’t take on everything, you need to make time for work and life!
  7. Don’t let impostor syndrome set in. Everyone gets it at some point, no matter how high up the ladder
  8. Find people to cheer you on
  9. Positively approach new technology and virtual working. It can be daunting but it also can take some of the pressures away
  10. You will get back up to speed much quicker than you think!

For more inspiration from returners who have returned, read our Success Stories here.

Career Returners Podcast – Top Return to Work Tips (2)

After 10 wonderful weeks, we’ve reached the end of our first series of our ‘Career Returners’ podcast. Here’s what we learned from our inspirational podcast guests as they navigated their return to work journeys:

When you’re first thinking about returning to work

  • Cast aside doubts that you’ve been out of the workplace for too long – with the right preparation and ideally support, length of career break should never be a barrier to returning to your professional career. Amongst our podcast guests, the length of career break ranged from 3 to 16 years – and we’ve coached women on returner programmes who have been out for 20+ years. If they can do it, so can you!
  • Don’t worry about the reason for your career break – your reason is personal and you don’t need to disclose it. There are a whole host of reasons why people take a career break, including childcare, eldercare, ill health, bereavement, travel, relocation, studying or starting your own business. The reason is immaterial to employers – what’s material is your skills, strengths, experience and fit for their role.
  • Be proud of your career break – reflect on all the transferable skills you have gained during it, such as increased empathy, negotiation, leadership, and collaboration skills. These are what employers are drawn to and they value the increased wisdom and breadth of perspective that returners bring to their teams.
  • Reflect on your broader skills and strengths – through online strengths tools, revisiting old appraisals, reflecting on the projects you were involved in and the expertise you brought to them. Reconnecting with your professional identity will boost your confidence and help you to focus your search on the types of roles where you can use your skills and strengths.

When you’re thinking about your path back to work

  • Start with what work you’d find fulfilling – that’s work that’s aligned with your skills, interests, and experience. Once you’ve identified work that you’d find fulfilling, then think about how you might be able to do that work with the flexibility you’d like and at the level of pay you’d like.
  • If you’re thinking about a career change, do your research. Ideally spend some time volunteering in this new field to see whether it’s the right work for you and to build your experience and network in this new area. Talk to people working in this area to learn as much as you possibly can. Alternatively, get your foot back in the door in an industry you know, and once you’re in, then explore whether there are any lateral moves you can make to re-orient your career in the direction you’d like to go.
  • Consider returner routes back in returner programmes can offer the perfect route back in as they offer real work with support to get back up to speed often in the form of coaching, mentoring, and training. Recruiters will value your career break, and you will be competing in a smaller pool, as opposed to general roles in the open market. You’ll also be given time and support to get back up to speed which will make your transition back to work smoother.

When you’re actively looking for work

  • Create an action plan for your return to work – update your CV, create a LinkedIn profile if you haven’t got one and start building and reaching out to your network. Keep taking small steps, one at a time, to keep moving forward in your return to work plan.
  • Prepare your professional intro – so that you have a clear, engaging, and focussed career story to tell during networking conversations, and later when you’re in interview! Start first with highlighting your sector background, key skills, and expertise, mention your career break briefly (e.g. that you’ve had a 5 year career break to raise your young family), and end on what you’re looking to explore now.
  • Be prepared for a few bumps along the way – many of our podcast guests spoke about the fact that it took them longer than they thought to get back to work. Schedule in time for focussed and tailored activity rather than sitting in front of your screen for 10 hours a day, applying for hundreds of roles. Ensure you look after yourself during this period – eat well, exercise and take regular time off to recharge.

And finally, in the early days once you’re back at work

  • Understand that you may experience a rollercoaster of emotions – this is perfectly normal as the adrenaline high of starting your new role subsides and the reality of now combining a busy workload with your busy life sinks in. Think about what help you can get at home, what you can delegate and what you can stop doing. Reach out to people at work to connect and build your internal network – this will help you to navigate your new work environment and learn who’s who, how to access the resources you need, and the people who can help you.
  • Maintain your work-life boundaries – this is so important in ensuring you make your return to work sustainable. Your work life balance may shift but recognising when you start to feel out of balance and taking steps to switch off and recharge will be key in making your return to work enjoyable and sustainable. Establish some boundaries for yourself – when you will switch off, not checking email in the evenings or weekends, switching on your ‘out of office’ – these will all help you to manage this balance and set yourself up for success going forwards.
  • Have faith in yourself and remain positive and proactive remember to be your own inner mentor and champion as you return to work, stay optimistic that things will work out well, and continue to take small steps to create opportunities that will hopefully lead to the next fulfilling chapter in your career story!

Huge thanks to our podcast sponsors Credit Suisse for helping us to bring these stories to life. If you’ve missed any of the episodes in our Career Returners podcast, then you can listen for free via any of the links below, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts:

Career Returners Podcast – Top Return to Work Tips (1)

Anna and Karen have loved interviewing three inspiring women for the first episodes of our Career Returners Podcast. Having already gleaned much valuable return to work advice from these successful returners to work, they’ve summarised their top 5 tips so far:

1.Value the skills and experiences you have gained during your career break

Don’t undervalue these skills, just because they may have been gained doing volunteering rather than paid work. Sarah McKelvie, who returned to medicine during the pandemic after a 12-year career break, found volunteering provided valuable transferrable skills such as collaboration, motivating people and leading a team, all skills which have really helped her be the well-rounded and empathetic doctor she is now.

2. Don’t give up

The experience of all our interviewees illustrates that the road back to work can be long and draining. You may face many rejections and feel like it’s never going to work out. Their advice was to be patient and persistent and to draw on support to help you to keep going. Use your social networks and talk to friends and parents at the school gates so that others know what you’re looking for and can tell you about opportunities they hear of. Join like-minded communities for peer support such as our growing Facebook Group to help keep your motivation levels up.

3.Get clear on your values

It’s important to think about who you are now and what’s important to you for this next this stage of your career. This will help guide your return to work and help you to feel confident in your new role. As Rachel Tomkins, who returned to engineering with Tideway after a 9 year career break reflected, one of the keys to her successful return was just being herself, being authentic and bringing all the additional skills, experiences, wisdom, and maturity that she gained during her career break with her to her new role.

4.The first role back doesn’t need to be perfect

Your first return to work job can just be a stepping-stone to get your foot back in the door and refresh your skills. Rachel reflected that once you’re back in, you can then explore a whole host of other opportunities that may open up to you.

5. Be prepared to feel a rollercoaster of emotions as you return to work

The initial adrenaline high and excitement often gives way to exhaustion and imposter syndrome a few weeks in. This transition is totally normal and one many returners go through and successfully conquer.  What helped Melissa Janvier, as she returned to law at the Bank of England after a 5 year career break,  was setting aside time to rebuild her knowledge through reading and training, and by growing her network of support – both from established team members and from the valuable peer support of the returner pool she joined with.

You can listen to the Career Returners podcast for free via any of the links below, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts. New episodes are published every Wednesday:

Women Returners Career Returners Podcast Webpage

Career Returners on Apple Podcasts

Career Returners on Spotify

Advice from Successful Returners to Work

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

We were delighted to present two Returner Panel sessions this year. The first one was chaired by Jane Garvey from BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and our second one was chaired by Trish Halpin, Co-host of Postcards from Midlife, ex-editor of Marie Claire and award-winning journalist.

Eight women who have successfully returned to work after a multi-year career break spoke about their experiences. Reasons for their career break varied including caring for small children, health reasons, adopting children and running a family business. Five of our panellists had returned to work via a returnship, one via a supported hiring role, one via their own networks and one created their own returnship path with the NHS. Click here to read our returner panellists bios.

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

How they feel about being back at work now:

“I’m absolutely loving it. Bringing back my self-identity as a doctor has positively affected all part of my life, especially my confidence.”

“The role I’m in now is a perfect job for me, I have an absolutely great team and I love what I do.”

“The people around me create such a great team. It’s a positive place to be and I’m doing a job that is valuable to society.”

“Work has become my time and that is what I was missing whilst I was on my career break. I missed the mental challenge and being at work has provided me with mental stimulation, a great support network of other returners and I’m doing it for me.”

On imposter syndrome and lack of confidence:

“My confidence was rock bottom after looking for a job for 6 years and being unsuccessful but attending the Women Returners Event was the best decision I ever made. I had the niggling voice of am I too old? Has my career break been too long? I’m so glad that I forced myself to go along otherwise I wouldn’t be here now.”

“Everyone has it to some extend but it’s important to focus on what you do bring and not what you don’t have. Knowing my strengths and what I was good it (and believing in them) helped me come across more confidently.”

“We focus too much on the gap and we need to stop that. We are the sum total of all the experience we have in and out of work.  That’s the value that employers are looking for and life diversity that we bring to work. Keeping this in mind definitely made me feel more confident.”

On the journey back to work:

“I attended the Women Returners Conference twice, the first time I wasn’t quite ready to return and the second time I really focused on the coaching advice and took away a lot of helpful information that spurred me on. I realised I was procrastinating looking for the perfect life until someone told me not to make my return to work a life project. I applied for a job along with 400 other candidates and I got it.”

“I got some volunteering experience vaguely in the area I wanted to return to. This really helped build my confidence and crystalised what I was looking for in a job.”

“I had received many rejections from recruitment agencies, but my determination forced me to keep going. I then only applied to jobs that I really wanted, that I knew I could do with some stretch and that I was interested in. When I saw my job advertised, I really wanted it and that came through in my application.”

“I did a course in Innovation and found that my brain still functioned, I loved meeting new people, I was engaged and that helped me get my confidence back.”

“I tapped into my network and created a new one at the school gates.  That led to a career coach which then led me to my job. It’s important to use your network when returning to work.”

On their first week back:

“My first day was with my Returners Cohort and it was a great way to establish a network of people and having friendly faces in the office helped me feel more supported.”

“My employer created a 3-month onboarding programme which was really helpful for building my skills and knowledge. I also received coaching from Women Returners for the first 6 months which was invaluable.”

“Technology was my biggest challenge and I was fearful of looking incompetent. However, I quickly picked up the skills I needed.”

“I felt really supported from day one. Meeting other returners made me feel comfortable that I wasn’t alone, we take care of each other and support each other a lot.”

On balancing work and home life:

“You can’t do everything so having a support network around you helps a lot.”

“Being good is good enough, we can’t be perfect. As long as everyone is happy and healthy that is enough for me.”

“Flexibility on my return was key, my employer was supportive of that and I work from home 4 days a week allowing me to the school drop-off and pick-ups.”

For more inspiration from returners who have returned, read our Success Stories here.