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Taking time off work for any reason - because of illness, to travel, to focus on a personal project, or for paternity, maternity or adoption leave - will almost always change your perspective and priorities.

When you return to work it can be a surreal experience because the way you feel about yourself may have changed. If you’re lucky, you may find that you have more confidence than before. But, more commonly, you might find that the pace and demands of being back at work leave you feeling lacking.

The truth is that work is part of our identity, whether we like it or not. We compare ourselves to colleagues and define ourselves by the job we do because, unless we work on an extremely part-time basis, we spend a huge amount of time at work and often we’ve worked hard to get to where we are in our career. When you leave for a while and come back, there is a shift in your identity. You have gained a different perspective and you have to figure out how ‘work-you’ fits into that.

So, let’s break it down to specifics. Here are a few of the most common challenges you may face when coming back to work, and what to do to help ease them:

Changed priorities and commitments 

If your time away was because of paternity, maternity or adoption leave, it’s fairly obvious what your new priorities and commitments are! You’ll probably find that you’re wracked with guilt - guilt about leaving your child when you’re at work and guilt that you have other commitments outside of work. This is totally normal.

If you were the kind of person that left work whenever the job was done, no matter how late the hour, then you’ll find it disconcerting to have to leave work at a certain time. It may feel like you’re slacking off - but, as long as you are working to the best of your ability, you aren’t! Before we have children, work can often be our primary focus (even if we don’t mean it to be). When we have them, it has to shift down the pecking order - for a certain period of time at least. 

This does not mean that work isn’t a priority or that you work any less hard than your colleagues without children, it simply means that you have to think more carefully about how you manage your time and try to compartmentalise work and life outside of work so that you can be a ‘present’ in both settings. 

The same applies to periods of ill health, especially if it's stress related. The focus should be on making sure that your work is properly prioritised. After all, you can’t be productive if you are ill. Sometimes these periods of leave are the wake-up call we need to make sure that work takes its proper place in our lives, without dominating it. Perhaps colleagues who haven’t taken extended leave could learn a bit too? Maybe sharing your experience with colleagues will give them the permission they need to think about how they prioritise their lives, even before having taken any leave themselves.

So it can be helpful to explore how your priorities have shifted. What'd changed? How are you managing to navigate these changes and what can you learn from others?

Working from home / hybrid working 

It's fair to say that working life has changed significantly in the last few years and you may be reentering a very different workplace than the one you left. With a greater amount of time spent working from home, it can be especially hard to acclimatise to getting back to work because your physical environment won’t change. It might be helpful to make sure that you have a couple of days, in your first week back, working with colleagues or going into the office. 

Trying to focus on your work without the psychological cue that a change of environment gives you can be especially tricky. If going back into the office isn’t an option, what could you do to change your environment or shift yourself into ‘work-mode’? Perhaps creating a kind of commute by taking a walk round the block or setting up a clear office space might help?

The trick is to create new habits that suit your working patterns. Set up cues and routines for yourself that get you in a work mindset. Creating habits is one of the quickest and simplest ways to adjust to change. Have a read of this blog to find out more about how habits can be positively formed - and why it can be hard to do this without giving it proper attention.

When you speak to your Voco match, share some tips with each other about how you could make home feel like work and how this affects your work identity and, as a result, your productivity.

Changed working patterns

It’s possible that if you have had a period of extended leave, your working patterns will have changed when you get back. Perhaps you are working part-time, you are now part of a job share or you are having a phased return to work. 

Whatever your working pattern, it takes time to adjust and it’s important to give yourself the time you need. If you are working part time it’s important that you don’t work full time hours. When it comes to identity - this can be hard. You need to let people know that your hours are different to before and make sure to manage your time and you boundaries effectively.

There are still, unfortunately, lots of stigmas around part-time work - particularly if you are working part time because of caring responsibilities outside of work. We hope you work for an organisation that genuinely supports you but, if not, it might be wise to find someone to speak to about this - your manager or someone from the HR / People team.

Remember, part time work doesn’t mean that you are less committed to your career than someone who works full time (or than the person you were before you took leave). It simply means that you are managing your life in a different way. A way that is more suited to who you are now. 

Take time to think about changes to your working patterns. What is going well, what not so well? How do you feel about it and how are other people responding? What more could you do to feel more comfortable with your new working pattern - or for it to be more manageable? Perhaps you didn’t change your working pattern, but now you have returned to work you think that you would like to. What could you do to make this happen?

What you can do to adjust

Here are some tips on what you can do to make your return to work, work better for you. 

Acknowledge your life-stage

The most fundamental step to take is to recognise that you are at a particular stage in your life. You are no longer the same person you were before you went on leave. That time has changed you and has made you rethink your priorities. Knowing this can make the transition back to work easier because you don’t need to try to be exactly who you were before.

Use this time as an opportunity to reassess what you want out of your life and career; what you wanted before, may not be what you want or need now. If your goals are the same, you may need to think about how you achieve them now - which might be different.

Ultimately, this transitory time will pass and you will find a way to create a new normality. Reflecting on this and accepting this will help you to make this transition easier on yourself. So, when you go through the self-coaching process, keep this in mind and don’t berate yourself if your goals, needs or career objectives have changed. 

Rebuilding / building relationships

Though it may feel as though nothing at work has changed but you, it’s important to remember that it has! Specifically, you shouldn’t assume that the relationships you had with colleagues before you left will be the same, nor their understanding of your responsibilities and working patterns. 

Make time to reconnect with people and meet any new people that might have joined. The best way to approach this is to think like a newbie again. Find out what’s important to the people you work with, what they are struggling with and share your thoughts too. 

If you are a manager, this is a particularly important process to go through with your team. Don’t forget to do this with your manager too. Though you may have been in contact with them while you were away, it’s crucial that you both set expectations that are inline with any new working patterns or responsibilities outside of work.

Resetting boundaries

Use this time to make sure that your work fits in with your life now. Try not to get back into negative patterns or stresses if you can avoid it. Just because you used to answer emails at midnight before returning to work, doesn’t mean you have to do that now. It’s never too late to make changes to the way you work and always helpful to reset your boundaries after any period of change.

Use your Voco conversations to decide what boundaries you need, compare notes with your partner and swap ideas on how to get what you need. 

Re-learning processes

People talk a lot about ‘baby brain’; a disparaging term to describe a new mother’s struggle to get back the mental capacity for work they used to have before children. But ‘baby brain’ is just a pejorative (and sexist, might we add) way of describing the psychological shift anyone can experience once their priorities have changed.

Any time out of work will mean that you might be slower to pick up processes that you used to find simple. That’s because your brain has made space for, frankly, more important things while you have been away. Processes related to work are only useful when you are, well, in work, so it’s no wonder you have forgotten your email password or how to file a document.

Don’t be too hard on yourself, ask all the questions you need and don’t be afraid that you’ll never get your work mojo back. You absolutely will.

In summary...

Returning to work doesn’t have to be hard if you acknowledge that things - mainly you -have changed. Use the transition time to figure out how you want work to be for you now and what you need to do to adapt. Shed any bad habits you had before you left and recognise that you don’t need to slot back into your previous ways of doing things if they weren’t working before.