Coming back to work after a sabbatical or career break is very different to coming back from a short family holiday. Getting back into the swing of work can feel like a real challenge.

People move on, routines change, and your role might feel different than it used to, given all the new skills and experiences you’ve had while being away.

It’s not all bad news, though! There’s a lot to look forward to and plenty of fresh opportunities to make your career goals happen.

Need help getting back into the swing of things?

In this guide, we’ll take a look at how to prepare for your return to work—no matter how long you’ve been away.

1. Think ahead

If your sabbatical or career break lasts for six months or more, start thinking about your return a few months out. For a shorter sabbatical, give yourself a month’s head start. That way, you’re not trying to rush your way through everything in the days before your return.

Think of the best ways to ease back into work, and get support from your manager or company to get you there.

If you feel like it, check in on work while you’re away. This isn’t for everyone—especially if you’re like one of the 39% of Europeans felt they needed a serious break from their jobs. If you need a clean cut, take it… and don’t feel guilty about it.

If not, check out some industry news, listen to podcasts, or scroll through your LinkedIn profile to see updates from work. You’ll ease yourself back into “work life” before sitting at your desk for the first time in a few months.

2. Make a plan

Speaking of preparing ahead, talk to your manager and see if there’s an official “return to work” plan for your company. (Most sabbatical policies will mention it.)

Some companies will give you some kind of structured return as you come back from a career break or sabbatical.

If your company doesn’t have a structured plan, don’t worry. You can work together to create a plan that suits you.

It’s important that your return to work reflects your own needs and isn’t hampered by a formal process. Think about what you want your return to the workplace to look and feel like.

Maybe you will go part-time as you find your feet. Perhaps you’re ready to jump head first into a new and exciting project. Either is completely fine; no two people are the same!

Eugene Fedorenko, Product Designer says:

"After 15 years at Wildbit, I went on an 8-week sabbatical during the summer of 2020. I was anxious that getting back to work would feel like an avalanche, but the reality was much calmer. Two things helped the most.

First, our team held ground and solved problems when they popped up, so I didn’t return to an overflowing backlog. Second, I spent the first week just catching up with projects, discussions, and the team. After that, I was ready to jump right in with a good sense of the situation and a solid plan for the next few months."

Either way, map out your first few weeks and schedule in plenty of time for figuring things out, settling back in, and catching up with everyone.

3. Catch up on your company, industry and team

It’s inevitable that things will have changed since you were back at work. That’s why it’s important to make time to catch up on your company, industry, and team.

Make sure your return to work plan features enough downtime for you to immerse yourself back in the world of work. You could:

  • Catch up with any changes in your team and the company
  • Introduce yourself to unfamiliar faces
  • Read up on any industry news and updates

Take your time, you won’t know everything straight away so don’t be hard on yourself.

4. Catch-up with your team

It’s great to jump back into the social side of being back at work. Meet with your manager and coworkers, catch up on what’s new, make friends with unfamiliar faces.

Sure, most of these moments might be work-related, but make time for social catch-ups too. Grab coffee or lunch and update each other on life and things you might have missed.

Talk about your sabbatical and the experiences it’s brought you, and your plans and goals for the future. (Chats about holidays are always welcomed!)

Some 34% of people feel they don’t have enough social interaction at work. This is a good way to close that gap—even more so when you’re coming back to work after a long break.

5. Have confidence in your skills

You’re an expert at what you do. Time away from the workplace hasn’t changed that.

Returning to work after a career break can make us feel lost or unsure of our skills or place, but you’re just as capable as before—if not more so!

Think about the different skills you’ve practiced during your time off. Maybe you’ve taken a sabbatical to figure out how to use a new piece of software, and could introduce it to the company for some super productivity gains.

Or, maybe you volunteered at an art gallery and have discovered a new way to help the visual merchandising team out with their displays.

Don’t forget about any soft skills you’ve learnt, too. Even if your career break or sabbatical wasn’t linked to your line of work at all, you’re always learning. Time away from the workplace can make us doubt our skills, but even those we haven’t used in a while aren’t gone. A few weeks back and you’ll be in your usual rhythm.

6. Take up some training

If you get the opportunity to brush up on existing skills or learn new ones, take it!

Returning to work feels different for everyone, but this can be a great way to ease yourself back in.

Ask your manager if there are any opportunities for learning and development. This can include:

  • Retraining on software you use
  • Learning new software or processes they’ve created since you’ve been away
  • Training for new skills, like an online course on leadership

If learning new things is what keeps you motivated, this is the moment to tackle a new challenge.

7. Get excited about your future

Sabbaticals and career breaks give you time and space to think about different aspects of your life, including your career.

Has yours given you a fresh lease of life? Take that excitement into the workplace with you!

Use your return to work as an opportunity to make moves on your new plans and career path. Speak to your manager about career growth opportunities, training, and how you want your role to look now and in the future. You never know what’s available until you ask.

If you have exciting new ideas about how you can make a difference, share these with your manager before you officially come back. Do you want to become a manager? Or change your job role slightly?

They might be able to help you make them a reality by shaping your job around your new career goals, or maybe put you on a different career path. It all starts with a chat.

On the other end of the spectrum, now is the perfect time to address the things you’re not keen on and want to fix.

Take boredom, for example: a third of people said boredom was the main factor in them considering a job move. Chat with your manager about what you haven’t enjoyed before, and look for ways to make your return to work a fresh start. It’s the ideal cure to Monday morning dread (if that’s what you’re worried about falling back into.)

8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Don’t be afraid to speak to your manager or HR department for help and support, if you need it.

Ask about starting out working from home or part-time if that’s possible. If you’re anxious about arriving at a desk full of to-dos, partner up with someone who can take some of those tasks off your plate for the first few weeks.

Sometimes returning to work can bring on bigger, more emotional support needs. It might be that your sabbatical was a way to reduce stress and avoid burnout, or that you needed to care for a sick relative. (Unfortunately, COVID has made this more common than we’d like.)

Coming back to work can trigger all kinds of feelings—but know that there’s often support available.

With only 30% of companies offering sabbaticals, the ones that do are forward-thinking when it comes to their team’s support. Read through your company policies or ask for a quick meeting with someone to talk through your options.

There’s always someone that can help solve the problem.

Ready for your first day back?

Returning to work after a long break is a completely new experience for most of us. Whether you’ve been gone for four months or twelve, it’s an interesting step to navigate.

Create a plan with your manager, and think about the support you need. Make your way towards some new career goals, or settle back into your old routine with your favorite coworkers.

Use this moment as an opportunity to create the kind of back to work experience you crave, whatever that looks like.

And remember: support is always there. If you need it, take advantage of it.