I rather excitedly returned to work earlier this month having had almost a year off following the birth of my second son. Returning to work the second time around offered an entirely new experience, why had no one warned me about this? Why did they just warn me about how different my second child would be, and how they would have hugely distinctive personalities, habits and traits from the first one? Unfortunately for me the new experience wasn’t positive either.
I was returning to work again as a freelancer for an organisation I used to be an employee at, and which I had been working for years. The major shift in the way I worked had been after my first child when I decided to resign my permanent job and go freelance so I could more easily juggle the demands of motherhood and career. That was a hugely nerve wracking time but turned out to be the best decision I could have made. At least, returning to the same arrangement the second time around wouldn’t be such a shock or upheaval, I thought to myself.
The night before did bring some of the usual anxieties: how do I help get not one but two children dressed, breakfasted and off to nursery, and myself ready and out the house in time for my train? (really, hats off to you working women with more than two sprogs); will I still fit in my work attire having lost none of the pregnancy fat I promised I would; mmm, oh yes, and can I still do my job?
Yet it was none of these that in the end put a dampener on my spirits. When I walked in the door and strode over to the work area I usually shared with five lively and (unwittingly) amusing salespeople, I found a lone computer sitting on a deserted desk with a mountainous stack of unwanted paper on one side and a huge empty space where people should have been on the other. It was MY computer sitting there in isolation shoved next to what, frankly, looked like preparations for a bonfire. My old colleagues had been ‘rehomed’ leaving my desk to rack and ruin and become a mere dumping ground.
Worse though, where were the friendly, familiar, smiley faces I assumed would be there to greet me? I looked around me to ask someone what was going on and bar a smattering of old timers I realised, with a pang of fear, I hardly knew anyone. So many people were new. My old boss had gone, old colleagues moved to a different floor, departments restructured and moved around, and an entire magazine which I used to work on and dedicated most of my career to had been TUPED off to a different company altogether. Hardly a soul welcomed me back, not because they were being rude but because they just didn’t know me, even though I am now one of the longest serving workers. Gosh so much had changed – spurred on, no doubt, by the spectral economic downturn – and I was in unfamiliar territory.
I had been already made aware, of course, of the major changes such as my boss leaving (something the organisation, to be fair, wasn’t obliged to do given I am a freelancer). However reading about it on email is not like feeling it in real life. Also just think, colleagues aren’t necessarily aware that the gradual changes they experience over the course of just under a year can add up to something representing quite a dramatic transformation to someone who has been absent all that time. They are just busy getting on with it all.
And realistically some change must be expected. Which successful businesses do you know of simply stand still? After all, the organisation had gone through some key changes while I was off with my first child. I coped with that just fine.
Yet this time was different, the pace of change felt far more accelerated. As I said, I guess it’s just a sign of the times. The organisation has been brilliant at supporting me but really not much can prepare you for feeling like everything is suddenly unfamiliar.
As a result, I actually felt lonely but rather weirdly, also a bit stupid, out of place, like a spare part. And feeling like that on top of the insecurity you can experience after such a long spell out of work can be a recipe for disaster if you are trying to get your career back on track. It can be tricky to explain how pressurised it can feel returning to work after maternity leave to those that haven’t done it. Many women suffer a crisis of confidence just because they have been absent so long and worry about their job performance. Then there’s the added stress of worrying how your little one is coping without you and hoping to god they are not sitting in the corner just crying. Your emotional state is about as stable as a straw mountain but the façade you have to give is cool, calm, collected, adding to the pressure.
Going back to a workplace that you then feel has changed beyond recognition can make it tempting to bid a hasty retreat to your desk, speak and interact with no-one and just bury your head in your work. That’s certainly what I wanted to do.
However, on the journey home that evening I had the chance to analyse the day, re-assess the situation and thought I should draw on all the great coaching I had been lucky enough to receive as an employee. I realised fading into the background is not a strategy that was going to get me back on the career ladder. So I devised a personal strategy with a few goals and aims. I thought I should share them, so here goes:
1. Accept change
It happens every day in business. Don’t bemoan the fact the place has changed, all the fun people have gone or old ways of working have been replaced. It will just make you feel worse about your working life. Get to know your organisation as it is now and accept that’s how it is. All the positive elements will soon make themselves apparent again. I resolved to do this after that first day, having realised that all I was doing was comparing the here and now with the ‘old days’. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling dealing with change but I decided I must switch my thinking, be adaptable and ride it out. The next day I started work with a new much more positive outlook.
2. Don’t isolate yourself and keep yourself to yourself
Not even if it is just because you feel you don’t know anyone anymore. Seek out old colleagues to let them know you are back and have a catch up, but then ask them to introduce you to new people. I went and said hello to as many of the people I had formerly worked with as I could, including making a special visit to some of the senior staff! It reminded me I had a place and history at the organisation and that I was valued.
3. Embrace new challenges and new projects
Take on projects outside your comfort zone. It will remind bosses why you are such a talent and give you the opportunity to work with new people and teams.
4. Enjoy your work
Remind yourself of the parts of the job that you find rewarding, stimulating and enjoyable and get stuck in again. It can be a real buzz re-discovering the joys of what you do as well as having some of your former identity back. For me I have loved getting to meet and write about new people again, the chance to make more contacts, to learn what was happening in the industries I write about. In other words, using my brain again!
5. Enjoy working life
It’s can be hard to arrange a night out but if you can join colleagues for an after work drink or work social event occasionally it can be a real tonic.
6. Weed out the negative
You should be too busy to have time to indulge in negative thoughts or feelings anyway!
Ok I can’t claim I have achieved all of this yet. After all, I have only been back at work a couple of weeks. Some of it such as the night out is work in progress and I admit, so too is being able to entirely eliminate negative thoughts. But the simple task of even devising a strategy and setting myself goals and aims has enormously helped my outlook and make sense of my rather overwhelming experience of returning to work. I am also reminded that if I want to ensure my work life is enriching and enjoyable only I can take charge and be sure that that is what happens!
Author: Rima Evans, free lance business journalist and editor, firstname.lastname@example.org