How To Get Back to Work After a Break

I’ve just come back from my first-ever career break. I took time off to give birth to my son and spend uninterrupted time with him as I learned how to become a mother.

Now, as I return to work, I find myself tasked with writing this article and learning—alongside you—how to get back to work after a break!

Transitioning back to work can feel daunting. Post maternity leave, I’m a completely different person, with different priorities and concerns. I also feel like the “flow” I developed after years of working has disappeared, and I need to recreate it. I’ve also wondered (more than once) whether I can actually still do the job!

Your career break may have been for different reasons, but perhaps you have some of the same feelings. If so, come along for the ride as I share with you what I’ve learned about taking time off, dealing with a career gap, and actually rejoining the workforce. I’ll talk about:

What it really means to return to work from extended time off

People take time off work for all kinds of reasons. For some, this may happen after having kids and taking parental leave to care for their young children full time. Others may take a sabbatical as a break from the daily grind after years of working at a hectic pace.

Some may not have much of a choice and end up with an employment gap on their resumes due to being laid off—like many during the pandemic and its ongoing economic consequences. While for someone else, a forced break may arise because of personal health concerns or having to care for a family member with health issues.

These and other reasons are all valid and common justifications for taking a career break. However, for many of us, once that season of our life passes, we may want to get back to work. This could be for financial reasons, or it could simply be because we want to work!

My colleague, Nancy Bach, shared with me that when she originally took “time off,” she was planning to retire. Then, she found herself getting bored, which led her to return to the workforce, albeit in an entirely different career.

Whatever your reason, rejoining the workforce after extended time off can feel unnerving. You may doubt yourself. You may also find getting back into the groove of a work routine challenging.

Plus, as much as we wish things would be otherwise, there can still be suspicion or stigma among some employers against people who have employment gaps. This phenomenon is certainly lessening, but it does exist, so you must also prepare yourself to explain your break.

9 tips for getting back to work after a career break

Below, you’ll find some practical guidance for overcoming your doubts and preparing yourself to embrace your first day back at work again.

1. Push yourself out of your comfort zone

As much as you may have wanted to get back to work, when the time actually comes, it may feel jarring. I know it did for me. Adding work into the mix of my pretty chaotic current schedule seemed very daunting.

For a while, I obsessed over figuring out how I would balance parenting, work, and everything in between. But I realized the only way I would know how to do it is by actually doing it. So the only thing left was to jump in and start again. It’s a work in progress, and I’m certainly feeling out of my depth, but I’m definitely glad to be working again.

If you’ve had extended time off, working again may seem scary. You may harbor a variety of doubts about your skills and abilities. But if that’s what you really want, don’t let fear hold you back.

Push yourself to make it happen, even if you start with baby steps. If you’re looking for a new job, your first step may be to start working on your resume. Or if you’re considering a new career after your time off, your first step may be taking an online course. Whatever path you want to follow may be, give yourself a little push out of your comfort zone.

2. Start networking

If coming back to work involves looking for a new job, it’s a good idea to begin networking. After all, 70% of jobs are never officially advertised. Lean on your existing network and expand it as much as possible. Talk to people about what's been going on in the industry since you left. Find out who's hiring. Ask your contacts if they have any leads for you.

Networking can also be important and very useful if you’re attempting a career change and looking for work in a new field or industry. Your personal or professional contacts may give you a job referral that could help you break into a brand-new career.

3. Refamiliarize yourself with the industry

Before you dive into looking for new job opportunities, spend some time refamiliarizing yourself with your industry. Get updated on the latest goings-on, whether there are big changes, new tools, updated jargon, or even a new player in the market.

During the few months that I took my maternity leave, artificial intelligence writing tools became hugely popular in my line of work (writing). For me, this has meant learning and updating myself on how to make the most of these tools to become a better, more informed writer in the current climate.

Refamiliarizing could also mean bringing yourself up-to-date with the current job climate in your industry. Research companies that are hiring, review expected salary ranges, and attend conferences to get informed on the latest industry activities.

4. Be confident in your abilities

It’s likely that in the time that you’ve been away from work, things have changed. There may be new ways of doing things or new tools for you to learn. Don’t let this overwhelm you.

Be confident in your abilities and work experience. Know that you bring a lot to the table. Don’t hold back from highlighting this on your resume and in your interviews.

If you’re in the midst of a career change, make sure you highlight the value you can bring to a company if they were to hire you. Even if you don’t immediately realize it, you probably have plenty of existing skills that can transfer to your new career. Make a list of your technical (hard) and interpersonal (soft) skills. You can find a comprehensive list of soft skills here.  

5. Be as flexible as possible

Your reentry into the workforce may not go exactly as you imagine in your head. And that’s absolutely okay! Don’t give yourself strict deadlines or become too tied down by your own expectations.

You may go back to your old job and realize that you don’t really want to work the same way anymore. Or, as you start your job search, you may find yourself becoming overwhelmed by it. Some days you may even want to give up. This is normal. Take a break instead of pushing yourself to find a new job ASAP.

You may realize you want to work part time, or you prefer a remote role that allows you to work flexible hours or at least work from home. Or, you may try something entirely different and get your feet wet by doing some volunteer work first.

Whatever it is, be flexible with your approach. It’s okay to try different things and change your mind about what you want from the next phase of your career. Take the time to figure out what you need.

6. Consider career coaching

If you’ve had a long break from work or are perhaps in the process of searching for a new career, you may benefit from working with a career coach. They can help you address key considerations about why you want to rejoin the workforce and identify the kinds of roles that may be best suited for you.

An experienced coach can help you figure out what you want and need from your career going forward. They can guide you through the process of a career change as well and help you find your way to a new, more fulfilling role. In short, if you’re unsure of the next steps, a coach can help you find clarity.

7. Keep yourself updated on new software and tools

Updating your knowledge is especially important if you’ve had a long break from work. Take the time to improve your existing skill set and learn a few new skills while you’re at it. As I mentioned before, for me, this has meant learning how to use AI tools. For you, this may mean refreshing your software skills or familiarizing yourself with any new tools in your industry.

Don’t limit yourself to software and tools alone, of course. Take an online course, listen to industry podcasts, subscribe to newsletters, or read blogs and articles to stay abreast of the latest developments.

8. Refresh your resume, cover letter, and job search skills

Ready to kick off your job search? You’ll need to refresh your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile before you find your next job. Update these crucial documents to reflect your current skill set, situation, and desired job. If you’re interested in a brand new career, be sure to write a great career change cover letter that gets the attention of potential employers.

Don’t forget to brush up on job interview skills in preparation for the new job as well. Practice common interview questions and check out these tips to learn how to best explain your employment gap during an interview.

9. Explain your career gap

Some of you may be going back to your old jobs, but for many, a career break is often followed by the search for a new job. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking a break, you want to make sure you explain the employment gaps to potential employers.

Address any gaps in your paid work history instead of leaving hiring managers wondering about it. You don't need to be on the defensive and feel like you need to provide an excuse; the goal is to help the recruiter or hiring manager understand the reality of what happened. For example, if you took time off to be a stay-at-home parent while your kids were young, explain this in your cover letter and/or resume.

Remember, you’re not “just a mom” or “just a parent.” Raising kids builds and requires lots of new skills, so give yourself credit where credit is due. Stop and think about the skills you’ve gained while “mom-ing.” From time management and budgeting to volunteering and networking with your local mother’s group—it all counts! In your cover letter, explain exactly how the hard and soft skills you acquired translate to the skills required for your new career.

How to take your time and be patient about going back to work

As you prepare for your reentry into working life, remember to be kind and gentle to yourself. A friend gave me valuable advice,  that it’s important to be patient—with yourself and with the process of going back to work.

The truth is, the longer you're away from work, the harder getting back to work probably is, regardless of the reason for your absence. So take your time to ease back into things. Don’t expect that your life (at and outside of work) will spring back to exactly how it used to be before you stopped working. The situation has changed, and it’s very likely that you have too. Give yourself grace and allow yourself time to settle into the groove.

You may not be at your peak productivity and performance levels right away. Instead of giving yourself a hard time, focus your energy on establishing a new routine.

For example, I’m currently in the midst of figuring out what my new schedule looks like as I factor my son into it. I’m trying to structure my workday around my parenting responsibilities and it’s all very foreign and overwhelming right now. I definitely don’t feel like I’m as productive as I’d like to be … yet. But I keep reminding myself to be patient and in time everything will fall into place.

If you’re job hunting, don’t forget that your job search can be a process too. While you may be ready for tomorrow to be your first day back at work, the universe (and the job market) may have other plans. If job hunting becomes a tedious and protracted process, allow yourself to take time off from it occasionally. Take a break, do something fun, and come back to it once the stress has worn off.

Finally, don’t forget to celebrate the small (and big) wins along the way. Celebrate creating a new resume or reaching out to someone in your network for a job referral. Celebrate getting through your first day back at work. Celebrate completing your first task at work (for me, it’s writing my first article in four months). Just stop, take a deep breath, and pat yourself on the back for your accomplishments along the way.

Get prepared to reenter the workforce

I hope the tips above have been helpful as you consider your reentry into the workforce. If your old job or work environment no longer suits you, and you’d prefer something with more flexibility, consider becoming a freelancer.

Hot tip: Check out our guide on how to get started as a freelancer and the Upwork Academy to learn how to navigate Upwork’s talent marketplace to build your freelance business.

I became a full-time freelancer almost ten years ago, driven mainly by the desire to do work that was flexible enough to allow me to travel and live abroad as a digital nomad. Now, as a new mother, this flexibility takes on new meaning, and I’m finding great comfort in it.

I feel considerably less stressed than many of my friends who had to return to work in an office soon after becoming mothers. I have an entirely new routine now and a little human to care for. I’m not quite ready to send my son to child care yet, so I’m very grateful for the flexibility and freedom that freelancing allows me to work from home with my baby near me.

So, if you want to reenter the workforce but aren’t quite ready to go back to full-time work again, don’t want a corporate office career any more, or simply want a career change, freelancing may be a better, more flexible option for you. Working as an independent professional can give you the flexibility to create your own schedule and go back to work at your own pace. You can work the hours you want,  with the clients you prefer—a freelancing work benefit I can never overstate.

Ready to make freelancing your career comeback move? Sign up for a freelancer account on Upwork and get started today.

If you are communicating with a hiring manager for a job through the Upwork platform, please note that sharing your personal contact information, such as email address, phone number, or LinkedIn profile, is not permitted in cover letters or at any time prior to the start of a contract. Additionally, all pre-contract communication should take place through the Upwork Messages feature. Learn more about using Upwork Messages here, and see more details on sharing information on Upwork here.

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Author Spotlight

How To Get Back to Work After a Break
Radhika Basuthakur
Content Writer

Radhika is a self-confessed word nerd and content expert with over 15 years of experience writing content for businesses around the world. She is a cheerleader for flexible work, a passionate world traveler, and spends her free time alternating between a good book and a good hike.

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