Return to work inspiration from the Great British Bake Off!

As one of the 14 million people who watched the Great British Bake Off final, I was as moved as many others by the winner, Nadiya’s spontaneous tearful declaration that she would never again place limits on herself. Nadiya’s comments resonated with me both as a fellow shortie and because of all my experience of women who’ve overcome their self-imposed limits to return to work after a long break. Nadiya, herself, stopped working 10 years ago when her first child was born.

I thought about all the people who tell me that they’re:

  • too old
  • too out-of-date
  • too far behind in their knowledge and understanding
  • too low in confidence
  • too low in skills
  • unable to manage work and their other commitments
  • unable to decide among too many options
  • lacking a network and even
  • unemployable

and so are unable to return to their career.

And at the same time, I thought of all the women I’ve worked with and met through the years who have overcome what appeared to be insurmountable barriers and found a way back to work they enjoy, whether it be through a returnship, their revived network, further study, creating their own business or a direct application. You can read some of their stories here.

For those of you who are still uncertain about your next move, you don’t have to take the extreme step of applying for a national TV baking competition, but do think about some small steps that could put you onto the path towards returning to work and read some of the posts highlighted below. Above all, remind yourself of Nadiya’s comments to The Times: “You may be scared, you may doubt yourself but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”


Recommended posts to get past your barriers:
Am I being selfish by wanting to work?
Where’s my confidence gone?
Tackling perfectionism: is ‘good enough’ not good enough for you?
Too many choices
Too few choices: advice on identifying post break options
Do all working mothers have to feel guilty?
Are ‘shoulds’ ruling your return to work decisions?
How to make time for your return to work job search

Posted by Katerina

How to make time for your return to work job search

Two recent conversations with returners have reminded me how difficult it can be for women to focus on their return to work activity: there always seems to be something more important or time-consuming for them to do.

As former professionals used to managing busy careers, women on career break often fill their lives with activities that keep them busy, engaged and feeling productive. As well as looking after family and home, they frequently take on voluntary roles or small paid projects, develop new hobbies and simply ‘help others out’.

The difficulty comes when trying to return to work: how do you fit a job search into an already busy life? The truth is that finding a new role, especially when you have left the workforce, is a job in itself.  Your return to work will only happen with dedicated time, energy and commitment.

Carving out this space is hard for returners for a number of reasons:

  • you might not be sure whether you are ready to return, so you don’t give it your attention to avoid having to make a decision
  • you don’t know how to get started on your return to work, so you procrastinate
  • you’ve made some small efforts and have been deterred by the response (or lack of) you’ve received
  • it’s the wrong time of year (eg pre-Christmas/Easter/summer holiday)
  • it feels selfish to be focusing on yourself after so many years of putting others first
  • you don’t know which of the other activities to cut out, in order to make space for your return to work plans
Here are some ideas on how you can start to create time for yourself, so you can address some of these barriers, both practical and psychological:

  • Start small – make a date with yourself!  It could be sitting in a coffee shop for half an hour after school drop off, on your own with the purpose of doing your own thinking and planning. If you can do this once, you can start to make it a regular habit and then expand the time you devote to it
  • Enlist a buddy – this could either be someone in the same position as you with whom you can meet regularly and share experiences and ideas. Or it could be someone who is simply there to support, encourage and celebrate with you and keep you on track
  • Give your search a project name – to give it focus and make it more like a work project
  • Sign up for a relevant course – this will enable to you dedicate time to your new direction, introduce you to others who might be helpful to you and signify that you are taking positive steps for yourself
  • Address your reluctance to put yourself first – by trying it out! This post on Banning Selfish may be useful
  • Delegate – perhaps you don’t have to keep doing all the things you currently do whether at home or elsewhere
  • Work with a coach – this will commit you to spending time (and money) on your return to work in a structured way and get you into the habit of giving time to this activity.
Remember that no-one else can do the work required for you, so your return to work will only happen if you give it – and yourself – the time and attention you deserve.
Other useful posts and links:

Posted by Katerina – Co-founder Women Returners

Do mothers need to Ban Selfish?

Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign has sent a strong message to young girls. It illustrates how powerful words can be in labelling ourselves and shaping our thoughts and feelings. Personally, I’d like to ban the overuse of a word that both holds back mothers from enjoying their work-family lives and can get in the way of a successful return to work. Mothers, let’s Ban Selfish!

How often before having children did we label doing something positive just for ourselves – playing a sport, learning a language, reading a book – as ‘selfish’? Never, that I can remember. In fact, we usually felt quite pleased with ourselves that we weren’t just slumping in front of the TV but were staying healthy or continuing learning new skills outside of work.

But I’ve noticed that a strange transformation comes over many women when children arrive. Suddenly doing something for ourselves starts to make us feel bad, rather than good … it becomes ‘selfish’.

In the last few months, I’ve heard mothers describe all of these as ‘selfish’:
* Going for a run on a Saturday morning / a yoga class on a Thursday evening
* Signing up for a Monday evening cookery class
* Re-reading Jane Austen on a Sunday morning
* Going to an evening work event to make new contacts
* Catching up on reading work journals for an hour on a Saturday

Taken further, some women describe their desire to return to paid work as ‘selfish’, usually if they don’t financially need to work but are feeling unfulfilled at home. It can be seen as a personal failing: “Why can’t I just be happy looking after my kids?”

By using the term ‘selfish’, we’re telling ourselves that we are lacking consideration for others and prioritising our interests above everyone else’s*.  In fact the opposite is true. We see these choices as selfish because we’re putting our needs at the bottom of the pile. Driven by caring for others, we can end up becoming martyrs to our family.

It’s time to remember that balancing your needs alongside the needs of your family is not selfish. It’s a healthy and positive attitude that is likely to improve your family life as you will be happier and more energised. Who wants a bored, frustrated and ‘selfless’ mother?

Are you ready to Ban Selfish?

Further reading
Am I being a martyr?

*Selfish definition: “Lacking consideration for other people; chiefly concerned with one’s own personal profit or pleasure”

Posted by Julianne

Are you trying to be a work-home Superhero?

Do you feel you have to do everything for your family and find it impossible to let go of even the smallest detail?   Do you tidy your house before your cleaner comes or run to school with a child’s forgotten homework?  Do you volunteer for lots of local committees and take on more than your share of work?  If so, you are probably feeling taken for granted and resentful of others who aren’t doing their bit.  And at the same time, you can’t see how you could possibly return to work when nobody else can do what you do!

If this sounds familiar to you, you are probably trying to be a superhero.  It is also likely that you behaved like this at work, before your career break, so it is even harder to work out how you could combine work with all your more recent non-work responsibilities.

What is behind being a superhero?

This superhero behaviour is common enough for psychologists to have recognised and researched it.  It is often referred to as pleaser behaviour as it arises from a need to gain approval from others (work colleagues, family, children).  To gain approval, the pleaser will do whatever is asked of them, hates to say no and will always say that they are ‘coping’ no matter what is going on.  The downside of the behaviour is that the pleaser doesn’t balance what they are doing for others with their own needs and the lack of balance builds resentment.

How can you get back to work without being a superhero?

  1. As mentioned in previous posts on unhelpful thought patterns, becoming aware of your pattern is the first step, so try to catch yourself when you’re about to put your hand up for a project or about to save your children from learning by their own mistakes
  2. Work out which of the non-work tasks you do that others could do instead. And decide which tasks don’t really need doing and just won’t be done when you go back to work
  3. Accept practical or emotional support.  Asking for help is not a weakness, we all need it.
  4. Get some practice with saying ‘no’ and learn to handle any unpleasant feelings and fears this brings up in you.  You might discover it is easier than you expected!
  5. Take care of yourself: build some activities into your schedule that are things you enjoy doing.  Read our post about guilt if you find this idea difficult
  6. Remember that you will be a more effective worker and more fulfilled parent if you balance what you are doing for others with taking care of your own needs too
Posted by Katerina

Are ‘shoulds’ ruling your return-to-work decisions?

I co-ran a workshop for INSEAD alumni last week on getting past the internal barriers that can keep us stuck when we want to make a career change: our fears, beliefs and ‘shoulds’. We’ve talked previously in this blog about fear of being selfish, fear of failure, and guilt. And we’ve touched on the limiting beliefs that can unconsciously hold us back, such as “there aren’t any good part time jobs out there” or “I’m too old to go into something different“. If you’re feeling stuck, there may be another mental trap you have set up for yourself without realising it – your ‘shoulds’. Do you recognise any of these …?

“I should look for a safe and secure job”
“I should stick with what I’m good at”
“I should stay at home while my children are young”
“I should always be available for my family”
“I shouldn’t waste my qualifications”
“I shouldn’t take a low-paying job” 

When we say ‘I should’ we don’t always mean “I want to” – we may just feel a pressure to behave in a certain way. It helps to understand the psychological basis for this. As we go through life, we develop certain values based on repeated messages we’ve received from other important people in our lives*. Often it’s from our parents, sometimes it’s our teachers, or it may be friends, or respected colleagues. If our father tells us enough times that we ‘shouldn’t waste our qualifications’, this can become an implicit rule that we live our lives by without questioning whether it is a choice that we ourselves want to make. These inner ‘rules’ can unconsciously keep you unhappily at home (or drive you reluctantly back to work) or stop you from changing to a more satisfying job when you do return to work.

Our values can be influenced by where we are living or the society we have grown up in. One of my clients, Isabelle, a French accountant, was full of guilt for taking a career break. Isabelle’s mother had been a ‘career woman’ who had told her that “women should earn their own money” and all her equally well-educated friends in Paris were working mothers and could not understand why she had not returned to work. She felt a push to return to a prestigious job even though she was concerned about not having enough time for her family: “I should be using my education” was how she put it. Another client from Germany faced a different set of cultural norms; Karin wanted to return to work but felt pressured into staying at home because it was the expectation in her town that mothers of primary-age children did not work. As she explained, “I feel it should be enough for me to be concentrating on raising my children”.

It’s worth listening to what you’re telling yourself or other people when you’re debating returning to work. We’re often not aware of the difference between our ‘shoulds’ and our ‘wants”. Next time you find yourself saying “I should” try changing it to ‘I want to’ or ‘I choose to” and see if it is still true. If you realise that this is not your choice, ask yourself if this is someone else’s value that you’re ready to let go of. Of course it’s not always that simple to get rid of a long-held belief, but maybe it will start to free you up to see a broader range of options.

* Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology, described back in the 1960s how we ‘introject’ other influential people’s values and suggested that we need to ‘shed the shoulds and oughts’ to develop our personal value system.

Posted by Julianne

Do all working mothers have to feel guilty?

“Since I returned to
work after my career break I feel guilty every day. Don’t all working mothers?”

Listening to this comment from a guest speaker at an event for
women returners and seeing the nods of agreement in the audience, I was not
surprised that many women decide not to go back to work even if they are feeling unfulfilled as full-time mothers. Who
wants to sign up to years of feeling guilty?

Do all working mothers feel guilty?

The premise that a heavy burden of guilt is the lot of the working mother seems to be fairly ingrained. Not a week goes by without some mention in the media. And we are just talking about working mothers here, no-one talks about ‘working father guilt’. Just recently …

“8 out of 10 working mums feel guilty” Justine Roberts reporting results of a Mumsnet poll at Workfest, Jun 2013
“I think all women feel guilty” Sheryl Sandberg, Woman’s Hour interview, Apr 2013
“Majority of mothers admit to feeling guilty for working” Daily Mail , Jan 2013
And it’s not just in the UK …
“Working mothers still plagued by guilt” Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 2013


I’m starting to feel guilty for not feeling guilty. As one of the 2 in 10 working mothers who don’t feel guilty, is there an implicit assumption that I don’t care enough about either my work or my family (or both)?

Psychological basis for guilt

It’s worth looking at guilt from a psychological perspective. What is the function of guilt?
“From a cognitive point of view, guilt is an emotion that people experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm. The emotion of guilt follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case.” Psychology Today

So guilt is not a consequence of caring. Healthy guilt is a sign that our conscience is working effectively and can be a useful emotion if it’s telling us that something needs changing. If guilt is a warning flag that our actions might be harming our children or our co-workers, then it’s served its purpose. But feeling guilty doesn’t make you guilty. Working can have a positive effect on family life (see previous post). Often guilt comes from judging ourselves by impossible standards (back to the Perfect Mother and Employee) or being influenced by the perceived judgements of others. In this case, it’s a destructive emotion that we are allowing to reduce our life satisfaction for no reason at all.

How to challenge guilt feelings when you are returning to work

Analyse the cause of your guilt feelings. Is the emotion telling you that you are making a decision that is inconsistent with your values? Do you rationally think that you are jeopardising your relationship with your family? If so, are you able to reduce your working hours, to shift your work pattern or to work from home some days? Do you need to think about a job or career change to get more flexibility?

If you consider your choices and the trade-offs you are making and do not want to make any changes (or are practically unable to do so), then recognise that guilt is serving no useful purpose and let go of it. Guilt is not a badge of pride for working mothers, just a rod we have created for our own backs.

Posted by Julianne

Do I really have to network?

Networking is an essential element of finding your way back to
work – and it can also be the most daunting!  For many people, networking means
entering a room of strangers or acquaintances, ‘working the room’ and leaving
with a fist full of business cards and the promise of some follow-up
meetings.  This is a very extreme example
of networking and isn’t likely to be the way you find your next role.  Nevertheless, networking will be an essential element
of your return to work strategy – so what’s getting in your way?



Why
do we find networking difficult?
Our
most common objections to networking are:
  • networking is only for political types. How
    true is this?   Are you being
    political in wanting to learn some new information, get ideas and advice, find
    a new role or develop your career?
  • lack of time. This is more a question of how important your job search is
    among your list of competing priorities.
    It will need to be near to number one, for you to put in the time
    and effort that effective networking requires.
  • shyness or reserve, not wanting to bother
    people
    .  This usually stems from
    lack of confidence.  It is really
    important that you start to work on your confidence level before embarking
    on your networking activity.  If you
    are completely lacking confidence, you certainly won’t find networking possible, let
    alone enjoyable. Click here for advice and tips on how to start to develop your
    confidence.  You need to believe you
    have something to offer the people you connect with.
 Some networking truths
It
might be helpful for you to think about the following realities of networking,
if you have any lingering objections to it.
  1. Networking is part of life.  Everyone
    does it.  The people you wish to
    connect with will all have been helped at some point in their career by
    someone with whom they have networked.
    They will all be networking to find information and to meet
    potential customers, suppliers, employees and employers.  You are not asking them to do anything
    out of the ordinary and you are probably doing it yourself, all the time,
    without even realising it.  When you
    ask someone you know for a restaurant, a plumber or a hotel recommendation, you are
    networking!
  2. Networking isn’t all about attending large events. Contacting a friend of a friend for a short chat about their role can be just as valuable.
  3. The most obvious reason why someone might be keen
    to talk to you is that most people are on the look out for new
    sources of information or insight and employers are usually looking out
    for people with talent and skills.
    You will always be of interest to the people you are meeting if you bring perspectives and insights, as well as your own
    network. When we’re working hard, we often don’t have time to keep up-to-date with industry articles and research; if you take time to read about your area of interest, you can bring this new information to your new contacts.
  4. Most people love to talk about themselves!  So, if you are asking about a person’s career
    path, their role, their training, their industry knowledge or their
    organisation they will often welcome talking to you.
In
the next post, I’ll discuss how to enjoy networking with tips and examples.

Is
there something specific you’d like to see included?

Posted by Katerina

Telling your story

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

Ex- investment analyst after a 10 year career break

If you’re planning your return to work after a long career break, one of the hardest questions to answer can be “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.

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, then talk about your career break and finish with where you want to go now.
  • Explain 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.

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 June 2018)

Women’s Business Council – good news for women returners?

The barriers to women’s career progression are back in the news with the publication of a report by the Women’s Business Council (WBC), looking at ways of
maximising women’s contribution to economic growth and assessing priorities in
removing the barriers that women face in playing a full part in business and
the workplace.  But does it say anything
new and interesting for women returners?
And will anything change as a result?
 
What’s new?
The
headline of the report is that there are 2.4 million women who are not working
and who want to work.  So this is
a report seems to be about women returners, the first time this topic has been
approached so comprehensively.  It
probably helps that Ruby McGregor-Smith CBE, the Chair of the WBC herself took
an 18 month career break and is now CEO of a FTSE-250 company.
As you
might expect, the report addresses barriers to our careers from start to
finish.  It breaks its recommendations
down into four areas: broadening girls’ aspirations at school (Starting Out);
flexible working and other support for working parents (Getting On); women in
the ‘third part’ of their working lives (Staying On); and female entrepreneurship
(Enterprise).
Two
aspects are new and of note:
·
The needs of women wishing to return to work
after a break are highlighted, along with support for parents who continue to
work;
·
It is significant, I think, that there is not
yet a recognised term for the ‘third part’ of our lives: it is a symptom of how
invisible older women can feel.
So the
WBC must be applauded for bringing these dimensions into public debate and to
the attention of the Government.
 
Will anything change?
It is
hard to see how in these difficult economic times, the Government will do more
than it is already.  Indeed its response
to the report does little more than reiterate the actions it has already
taken.  What the Government does promise,
however, is to:
·
Lead by example in incorporating the WBC’s
message and approach in flexible working, as a major employer;
·
Appoint a business champion for older workers
and to work with existing bodies to develop new approaches for this group;
·
Provide better web-based support for women
entrepreneurs and tackle the belief that they are less likely to obtain banking
finance than men
For its
part, the WBC will meet every six months to monitor progress and will report in
one year on what has been achieved.
So,
while the Government and business will be looking anew at women’s careers and
how to support them, the focus is mostly on continuing to do what they are
already doing for working women.  I fear
It might, therefore, take some time for the effects to trickle out into the
world of women returners.
What do you think of the WBC’s report
and the Government’s response? What measures do you think would make a
difference to you returning to work?
Posted by Katerina

Too few choices: advice on identifying post-break options

I’ve already talked about how we can get stuck when we see too many options. You may be experiencing the opposite problem – not being able
to think of any exciting and realistic options at all. Are you still searching for your (elusive) passion? Or are you not quite ready to let go of your old work identity and create a new one?

Maybe with time away from the workplace, you have realised that you drifted into your career but never really enjoyed it that much, and now you want to find a role you love. One client said to me recently “After working for many years without much fulfilment I’d like to follow my passion now … but I just don’t know what my passion is!” Career change advice to find your passion or your ‘dream job’ can be more harmful than helpful.  The reality is that we all have a number of possible paths we can take that could lead to satisfying and fulfilling work. Herminia Ibarra*, a professor at INSEAD who has studied many professionals and managers in career transition, suggests that the biggest mistake we can make is to delay taking a first step until we have settled on a destination.  She advises that the best way to move towards a satisfying new career is to learn by doing: try out a variety of things that appeal to you to any extent and say yes to opportunities that come your way to find out about new areas and create new networks (a project for an ex-colleague or a friend, volunteer work, a short course, …). See it as a journey of exploration, be open-minded, and you may well find a role that inspires you along the way.

Or maybe you did enjoy your pre-break career but it was in an area where you can’t see any interesting possibilities that could fit with your life today. You might
have been an investment banker or a brand marketing director and loved the excitement
of the job but can’t contemplate the 60+ hour weeks you’d need to sign up for
if you went back. However your work identity is so entwined with your old role that it’s hard to think of any interesting alternatives.

In this situation, a useful exercise is to create your ‘Ideal Work Day’. Think of all the activities you did in your previous
roles, regular and occasional. These might include meeting with
clients, developing new ideas, analysing data, recruiting, coaching, writing, researching, presenting, etc. Now choose the activities you most enjoyed and would include in your ideal day. This gives you
a starting point to think creatively about where you could find these aspects in another more
flexible role, either employed or self-employed. For example Marian recognised that she’d most enjoyed the relationship building
and presenting aspects of her consumer goods marketing roles which eventually led her into corporate fundraising. Acknowledge the sadness you may feel in letting go of your old professional identity and then focus on what aspects you can take forward into your new working life.
* Ibarra has written an excellent book for career changers “Working Identity”
Posted by Julianne