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  • Lai Han Sam

5 Strategies for Going Back to Work After a Career Break



Ever watch an athlete at the starting point of a race? You will see them warming up, stretching and keeping themselves calm but ready to go. When asked to take their positions, they approach their lane on the track, position themselves and look forward. When they hear the pistol, they push themselves as hard as possible to get that initial boost of energy to start the race.


I will be exploring with you 5 strategies for returning to work after a career break. Like the athlete, the strategies I will be sharing with you, will help you to prepare for the race of getting back to work, and to start your journey with a boost of energy.


Nothing stays the same! Today in this Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, changes are coming even faster and can sometimes be very challenging for us. Deciding to take a career break, to put others before self, is admirable and noble. I spoke to some women who took a career break, and not one of them regret making that decision. Perhaps many of you here are in the that situation right now.


Like all changes in life, a transition from a career break back to work, must be prepared and managed. Companies spend a lot of time and effort managing change in the workplace. Spend the time and effort to manage your own life changes and don’t assume it is not needed. Only when you are taken care of, can you take care of others.


So, where do we start then? Let’s start with asking ourselves some open-ended questions. Why open-ended you may ask? Since everyone of us is different, we may find that we have different answers to these questions. Answering these questions will lead us to our own strategic plan in returning to work.


Why are you going back to work?


Before you even start to prepare for this transition, you must reflect on this question - Why are you going back to work? Having a strong WHY that connects with your values is one of the most powerful force you can tap on to make this change. Once you are clear on your WHY, it will be easy to determine your goals and priorities.


Knowing your goals and priorities will then guide you on your journey and provide the clarity in making decisions. Your WHY will also be your anchor when you encounter difficulties and challenges along the way. Going back to the root of why you are doing this will give you the strength and conviction to overcome any obstacles that come your way. It will serve to be your guide post towards your vision.


I had a client who really wanted to get back to the workplace after a 5-6 year career break, looking after her children. At first, she stated her WHY as wanting to be financially independent, so she is opened to any job. After a few coaching sessions, she finally crystallised her WHY to enjoying her field of work. When 2 job opportunities came to her, it was easy to choose the job that she really loved. During the interview, the passion shone through and she successfully landed the job.


Schedule time to reflect on this very important question. I would strongly encourage you to write it down in your journal. Some of you may even want to complete a vision board to always have a visual reminder of why you started this journey of going back to work.


What does the employer want?


If you have been out of the workplace for a while, it is good to find out what the industry of your choice is looking for. I was watching a TED talk about this precise topic by Carol Cohen. Carol has a background in finance and she herself took a 11-year career break to care for her 4 young children. During this time, she did not keep up with the news in the financial world. When she was trying to get back into her field of work, she had to resubscribe to the Wall Street Journal, and doing massive catching up. She was afraid that she would go into an interview and start talking about a company that didn't exist anymore.


Do you know what it is like to be working in the industry of your choice today? If you have lost touch or do not know, you can, like Carol, read up or speak to others who are in the field. If there are technological skills that is required, like the newest version of PowerPoint or knowing how to use an online project management platform like Basecamp, take the initiative to learn those skills.


Understanding the industry you are targeting to work in, and knowing what areas in which you can add value is important. Employers are always looking out for that. When you can provide what your employer want, it will make for an ideal partnership.


What mindset do you need to adopt?


Self- management in the areas of expectations is crucial to your success. You have been out of the work circuit for a while so there is an adjustment period in getting your resume, speaking to your network, getting the word out and checking on career fairs. There are times where conversations may not materialise or interviews may not go as well as you would like. It is important that you stay positive in the search.


Once you are successful in your job search, it is also important to be patient with yourself and others as you ease into your job. Persevere with a positive attitude and proactive outlook as there is an initial learning curve – not just in getting up to date in the industry but also the new working environment. Bring your growth mindset and continue to learn and show value in delivering your responsibilities.


Workplace relationships may also be a new experience since there may be younger co-workers or the workplace may have different work culture from your previous job. There may also be different team dynamics that you must be aware of. Keeping your mind open and relating authentically will help you to build long term successful working relationships.


What can you do to reintegrate?


There are many things you can do to reintegrate back to work. Here are 3 for you to start with.

  • Start networking with more people in the relevant industry by attending professional events or joining industry groups. You can event volunteer for these events and get to know more people.

  • Getting reconnected to your professional self is a great way to reintegrate. Reach out to your ex-colleagues or friends in the field. Asking them out for a coffee or a chat is a good start. They would remember who you were before your career break.

  • Read relevant articles or subscribe to podcasts to broaden your knowledge and understanding of your chosen field. When you are able to speak the lingo and share your up to date knowledge, it will demonstrate your strength and give you a boost of confidence.


How do you manage the change?


This change does not just affect you. It is a change in lifestyle and schedule for you and your family.


Start with communicating the changes that are coming so that there are no surprises. Be open and flexible with yourself and others as there will be a period of adjustment before you settle in a routine that works.


During this period, you may experience a higher stress level and having a lot more things to attend to. Make sure you take the time for self-care – these include eating a balanced diet, exercising and getting enough sleep. When you are healthy and in a better frame of mind, you will be able to tackle challenges better.


Stay positive and always put things into perspective. We all have a choice, an ability to control our internal and external responses, our attitudes and the way we deal with any situation. How you react often determines the outcome. Choose carefully.

Engage your support system. Reach out to close family members and friends – ask them for their help in managing logistical challenges like child care or emotional support in this time of change. Never be afraid to ask for help.


Reflecting on these 5 questions will help you get to your very own strategic back to work plan. It is a journey and there are no right or wrong answers. At some point during the journey, there will be challenges and obstacles. Know that you are not alone and many others like you have braved the journey of going back to work. It is possible – with hard work, perseverance, grit and a positive attitude, you can do it.


#hansamlai #lifework #backtowork


*First presented as a keynote at a Return 2 Work event with my partners, Mums@Work and Career Navigators, who announced their Career Re:Launch Program supported by Ministry of Manpower.

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