How to support an employee returning to work

Article By
James Cumming
James Cumming
Posted On2nd March 2022
Posted On2nd March 2022
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Our featured blog this week is with Elizabeth Willetts, the Founder of Investing in Women – a female-empowering job board and community helping you find your dream part-time or flexible job with the UK’s most family-friendly and forward-thinking employers. She is an experienced recruiter with over 15 years of experience – both in-house at one of the Big 4 and from one of the UK’s largest recruitment agencies.

Liz, tell us about the transition of returning to work after a career break…

Many people take career breaks in their working life. Perhaps you have employees who have taken time out to look after young children or an elderly relative. Maybe they needed a break for health reasons, took a gap year, travelled the world, spent time volunteering, or were made redundant. Whatever their reasoning, know that career breaks are increasingly common. And there’s no such thing as a job for life!

But, often, people lose confidence whilst on their career break. They worry employers won’t want to hire them, and their skills and experience will be outdated.

So, if you have an employee returning to work after a career break and want to support them as they make the transition back to work, here’s my advice on how to help them thrive.

What do they want?

It can be easy to make assumptions based on our own experiences as to what the individual wants after a career break. You may assume a young mum doesn’t want to work full-time, or someone recently recovered from an illness can’t travel. But making assumptions can not only be awkward if you get it wrong – you also risk being accused of discrimination. Ultimately the individual may feel the role then doesn’t align with their career goals, become disengaged and leave.

I would always advocate for having a non-judgemental and frank discussion before someone starts. Listen to what the individual wants, whilst also considering your requirements to see if you can make it work. Keep the dialogue open with regular check-ins, and encourage an open-door policy, so employees feel safe confiding in you if they need extra support.

It also makes someone feel super welcome and appreciated giving them a call the week before they start, welcoming them to the team and highlighting how excited you are for them to join you.

Recognise you may need to upskill someone

I am a huge believer that you hire someone based on their potential to do the role. You can teach skills, but attitude is a lot harder to change. We all know how quickly technology changes and the need to learn and master new systems on a seemingly never-ending basis. Therefore, recognise you may need to spend some time investing in your employee, helping them get up to date with your systems and ways of working. Like I said – hiring the right attitude should be your number one priority when recruiting. If you have made the right hire – this investment will pay off dividends when they are up and running and making a positive contribution to your business.

Many large companies now offer Return to Work schemes. These are like graduate schemes in that they provide a structured programme that allows employees to learn and develop and earn ‘on the job’. If you have the resources and want to make several hires, it may be worth putting a formal scheme in place.

Informal support network

So many people cite their favourite job as the one with the best colleagues, or where they met a friend for life. Therefore, don’t underestimate the impact workplace culture has on retaining employees and helping them to settle in quickly.

A buddy scheme is a great place to start if you haven’t one already. When bringing someone new into the business (whether they have been on a career break or not), assign them a buddy. A buddy is usually a peer who has been in the business for some time and can show them the ropes – where the best lunch spot is, system hacks, or arranging a stakeholder meeting. Not only will assigning a buddy save you time (as you can offload some of the onboarding to them) – but it will also ultimately create a friendly and more unified workplace.

Essential pre-start reading

Before your new hire starts, it is helpful to send them some resources about your business to know what to expect. Employee handbooks are useful, as is information about your benefits scheme and how to access it. A good onboarding experience can make or break recruitment and retention – someone with a positive experience is more likely to stay with your company and recommend friends join (saving you time and money on future recruitment). A lousy experience risks the employee leaving soon after joining, resulting in you spending even more time and money recruiting and training someone new.

Help everyone to shine and recognise everyone’s contributions

It can be hard not to compare your employees to each other. As a manager, it is easy to see who is shouting the loudest and assume they are making the most significant contribution. But it is often the quiet ones working hard at the back who will ultimately contribute the most to your organisation.

In 2021, The Female Lead, in association with LinkedIn, conducted some research on the gender pay gap. And what they found was something known as the ‘entitlement gap‘. 44% of women felt less entitled to ask for promotions or pay rises. Men were more likely to ask for job offer increases and pay rises throughout their careers.

Therefore, as an employer, it is your responsibility to regularly benchmark your pay rises and promotions and make sure they are being used to reward hard and exceptional work, rather than just giving them to those who ask for them. Doing this will narrow any gender pay gap you may have in your business whilst improving your employer brand. Win-win!

So, there you have it – five easy ways to help all your employees – particularly those returning to work after a career break, thrive and achieve their full potential in your organisation. Any I missed? Let me know here.

Elizabeth is also a mum to two daughters – Emily and Annabelle (and a Labradoodle called Dougal). She is a passionate believer in the power of part-time and flexible work to retain women in the workplace and close the gender pay gap.

A huge thanks to Elizabeth for her thoughts and tips. For more information about Investing in Women and how we can help you find your dream job – one that allows you to shine at work without sacrificing time with your family, please visit the website here.

James Cumming is our MD and leads our Interim Transformation practice. If you’ve got a hard-to-fill role and need some help, get in touch. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.

If you would like to find out more about re:find and how we can support you and your business, then please get in touch.


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