How to return to work after a period of unemployment

Returning to work after a period of unemployment may give you mixed feelings. On the one hand you may be keen to meet some new people and develop some new skills, but on the other, you may feel anxious and overwhelmed.

This handy guide should help to make your return to work as smooth as possible.

How do I regain my confidence after a period of unemployment?

It’s not uncommon for people who have been out of work for a while to report having issues with low confidence and self-esteem. There are many reasons why this can happen. Some people experience a loss of identity when they’re not working because they’re missing the daily routine of working within a team, meeting people, developing new skills and receiving positive feedback. Some people feel that they’ve forgotten things associated with their previous role, worry that their skills have become rusty and/or they might be concerned about being left behind by the constant evolution of technology.

Be kind to yourself

If you’re struggling with confidence, then it’s important to be kind to yourself; which starts with realising that you do have plenty to offer – it’s just been a little while since you’ve been able to put your skills into practice in a workplace environment. Try to focus on what you have been doing during your break in employment. If you’ve been caring for a sick family member, raising children or grandchildren or you’ve been recovering from an illness yourself, then it’s likely that you were using a lot of valuable skills during this time – you just might not have viewed it that way until you stop and think about it. For example, if you’ve been caring for a sick family member, you may have been using skills such as organisation, patience and empathy as well as demonstrating great resilience and strength of character.

If you focus on what you have achieved during your break (it may sound silly but do take the time to write down your strengths and achievements – the process itself is helpful!), then you should have an easier time finding your confidence and remembering how much you have to offer.

Brush up on your skills or learn new ones

If you’re lacking in confidence because you’re worried that your skills aren’t as sharp as they once were or you haven’t been able to keep up with the rapid change in technology, then one of the most helpful things you can do is to focus on refreshing and developing your skills. There are plenty of free online classes (for example, those on Future Learn), that you can use to help you update your skills in a variety of areas.

If you’re thinking about changing careers, then it can also be helpful to develop some new skills related to the role or industry that you’re interested in. Some roles may come with full on-the-job training, whilst others may require you to hold a specific qualification before you can apply.

  • For jobs that require specific qualifications, it’s important to do your research so that you can work out the most effective way to achieve this qualification. For example, if you’re required to complete a college or degree course, then you’ll need to check whether the course is accredited and/or recognised by the industry you’re going to be working in. You’ll also need to look into funding and work out whether there could be any grants or loans available to you, to help you cover the cost of the course. It’s best to contact each institution directly about this.
  • If the job you’re interested in offers on-the-job training, then there’s still nothing to stop you brushing up on your skills before you apply, as this can help to increase your confidence and employability.

Generally speaking, employers will want to see that applicants are flexible and willing to learn, and being able to demonstrate that you’ve recently worked on developing your skills could really work in your favour.

There are a few ways that you can brush up on your skills before you start applying for jobs. For example, you could take a relevant course either online or at your local college or adult education centre or find a charity or organisation to volunteer for on a weekly basis. Volunteering can be great for developing your skills, will also expose you to industry contacts and in some cases can even lead to a paid opportunity.

Reach out to old contacts

Reaching out to people that you used to work with is a great way to find out about interesting job vacancies, as well as getting job application tips and industry-related advice. Even if you’ve decided that you don’t want to return to the type of work you were previously doing, it’s possible that some of the people in your network are currently working in industries or roles that appeal to you – or may know someone who does. If you don’t already have LinkedIn, then it’s worth setting up a profile. This is one of the most efficient ways to search for and reconnect with people that you’ve met throughout the course of your career and keep up with them if they change jobs.

Putting yourself out there and meeting people is one of the key ways to boost confidence and feel supported during your job search – so don’t be shy! Chances are some of your old contacts would love the opportunity to catch up with an old friend or colleague.

How do I approach the application process when returning to work after a period of unemployment?

Refresh your CV and cover letter

If you’re planning to return to work after a long period of employment, then it’s probably been a while since you’ve put together a CV and cover letter. Chances are you’ll have years of skills and experience, so it’s about translating them onto paper to create something that you can feel proud of. Your CV and cover letter are opportunities to sell yourself to prospective employers and show off everything that you feel makes you the right person for the job (which is why it’s important to feel confident that you are the right person for the job!). So, make sure that you highlight your skills and achievements as much as possible, giving relevant examples.

It may be appropriate to give details about your employment break in your cover letter, depending on your individual circumstances. It’s a common question we are asked, so our article Common CV gaps and how to explain them offers more detail on this. For more help with your CV and cover letter, you can visit the CV section of our site. Here you will find CV and cover letter templates, which you can download, plus tips and advice on how to create a CV and cover letter that will really help you stand out from the crowd.

Be honest about your circumstances

Whilst it’s important not to make your employment break the main focus of your job application, you should always be honest about your circumstances if asked.

However, this doesn’t mean that you have to give specific details about why you haven’t been in employment. For example, if you were off work because you were recovering from a serious illness, then there’s no need to give details about which illness you had or which treatment you received – unless you’re going to need additional help and support put in place at work. Or if your long employment gap is because your job search has lasted a lot longer than you hoped for, then it’s okay to tell employers that you’ve been looking for work, but simply haven’t come across the right opportunity yet. Try to keep your explanations as brief as possible – confidently let prospective employers know why you had a break from employment, but don’t over explain or give unnecessary details that could shift the focus away from your achievements.

It’s much better to be honest about your circumstances than to lie and be found lying, or to commit yourself to something that you may not be able to manage without support. Employers are human beings too and providing that you can confidently explain your situation and show them that you are the right person for the job, they should be understanding.

If you need some help with structuring your cover letter, you may find it useful to download our template that is specifically designed to help you explain CV gaps.

Always be interview ready

Once you start applying for jobs, there is no telling when you may be called to participate in an interview – either in person, over the phone or via video chat – so it’s a good idea to always be prepared. This preparation includes things like having an awareness of what kind of questions you may be asked and what interview etiquette may be expected of you.

It’s also a good idea to make sure that you have something appropriate to wear to an interview in case you’re called in at short notice. Employers will generally expect you to follow a formal or smart-casual dress code depending on the nature of the role you’re applying for. If they don’t specify what you should wear, then it’s always best to go for a more formal approach to show that you’re serious about the position. If you feel out of place when you turn up, it’s always easier to dress down a little (by taking a tie off for example) than it is to be scrambling to make yourself smarter.

With years of life experience under your belt, there’s plenty of reasons to feel confident going into your next interview. Just be sure to have read up on the latest interview techniques so you can go in feeling fully prepared. You may be surprised at how much of a confidence boost it can give you. The interview ideas section of our website offers more tips on getting yourself interview ready.

I’m feeling really overwhelmed by the idea of returning to work. Is there anything that I can do to ease myself in gently?

Consider temporary or volunteer roles

If the thought of going back to work full-time or on a permanent basis makes you feel uneasy, then there’s nothing wrong with easing back in by applying for a temporary role or doing some volunteering first. Getting back into the swing of work can be challenging if it’s been a long time since you last had a daily work routine, so sometimes doing something with a low commitment level or that you know is only for a fixed time period can help you to adjust before you look for something more permanent. If you’re not entirely sure what kind of work you want to do, then this can also be a great way to “try before you buy” and explore your options.

A temporary or voluntary position can also help you to brush up on your skills. Chances are you will feel less performance pressure in “temporary” situations than in a role that you are looking to do long-term, which can make it easier to relax and focus purely on developing your skills, rather than making a good impression.

Get into a routine

If you haven’t had to follow a set routine for a long time, then going back to work can be a bit of a shock to the system. If you would rather not take on a temporary or volunteer position as a precursor to something more permanent, then it can still help to get yourself into a routine during your job search. Having a routine can help to give us direction and purpose, and it can also help with adjusting – both mentally and physically – to a working pattern again.

Not everyone finds the same routine helpful, so it’s up to you to decide what best suits you. However, as a general rule it’s a good idea to incorporate things like exercise and a regular sleep pattern to keep you feeling refreshed and energised. It’s also likely that your new role will involve mixing with lots of new people, so you might want to incorporate something interactive into your routine – like meeting up with or calling people from your network a couple of times a week. Connecting with new or unfamiliar faces can be a great confidence booster that may help ease those return-to-work nerves!

Look after yourself

Returning to work can be tough both mentally and physically, so it’s important that you look after yourself as best you can – both during your job search and also when you start a new role. This means being kind to yourself throughout the process by accepting that your best is all you can do and prioritising things like getting enough sleep, eating a healthy balanced diet and being active where possible.

It’s also important to recognise the valuable role that friends and family can play in supporting you through your return to work. Whether the process is rough or smooth, it may help to have someone to lean on or celebrate with, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

And finally…

The rapid growth and change in technology is one of the biggest challenges that people of all ages face when they consider returning to work after a long period of unemployment. Initially this can seem daunting, but this change is also responsible for a number of fresh opportunities opening up – so it helps to look at the opportunity it could bring, rather than as something to be feared.

If you’re feeling nervous about making a return to work, then try to remember that it’s normal to feel this way when you take steps outside of your comfort zone! It’s completely necessary for us to experience change if we want to continue to grow and develop. So by deciding to challenge yourself in a similar or completely different career role, you could be setting yourself up to embark on a new and exciting chapter of your life…

Have you recently returned to work after a long period of unemployment? Do you have any additional suggestions that you’d like to share with others? Email us at [email protected] or post on the community forum. We’d love to hear from you!

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