Career advice

9 tips for returning to work

How to build your confidence and competence in your role after an absence

How to build your confidence and competence in your role after an absence


Picture: iStock

Summer 2018 truly excelled itself, but all good things must come to an end. Tans are fading, children are going back to school and the nights are drawing in.

Those who managed to take a break during the past few weeks will know it often takes a couple of shifts to settle back in. But being away from nursing for longer can make it much harder to slot back into things.

Rollercoaster of emotions

Nothing stays still for long in healthcare and all the changes – clinical, administrative and within the nursing team – can leave you feeling like a fish out of water. Whether the break was your choice, such as maternity leave, or enforced due to sickness or other personal reasons, stepping back into the workplace can feel overwhelming and unsettling.

The aim is to ease back into the professional role in a positive and confidence-building way.

Although you may be glad to get back to familiar routines, you will also likely experience a rollercoaster of emotions. Don’t worry, this is normal; nursing is an intense, all-consuming job and after you've stepped outside the clinical area for a prolonged period, it is easy to doubt your abilities. But, with time and patience, you can become the confident and competent nurse you once were. 

It is important to be mindful of how you speak to yourself; try to turn down the critical voice in your head. Thoughts such as ‘I’m useless’ or ‘I used to be able to do this easily’ serve no useful purpose and will drain energy and make you doubt yourself even more.

Focus on what you can do

Accept that this is a process of relearning. Focusing on what you can do rather than what you believe you can’t will help you feel more positive about the situation.

These things take time. As a nursing student, you would have had doubts, but you got there one day at a time. You will again.

Here are some tips:

  • Coming back only when you feel ready will help you gain a sense of control. If you do have to return earlier, focus on the positives. Nursing is hard enough and if you begrudge being back at work it will feel impossible.  
  • Be prepared. Sort out any practicalities well in advance, both at home and at work. Don’t let childcare or other issues with dependants ruin the first few days back.
  • Be open and honest with yourself and your manager. It’s okay not to know everything, and together you can work out a plan for the next few weeks or months.
  • Consider whether you need any additional training. As well as formal return-to-practice courses, there are plenty of shorter options for updating clinical or managerial skills, as well as courses aimed at improving confidence and assertiveness.
  • Network with other nurses in similar situations. If you don’t know any local nurses, online forums can be a useful source of support. Get support from an occupational health department, union or other professional body.
  • Act ‘as if'. Despite the rollercoaster of emotions, outwardly you need to remain calm. Patients will still expect the same level of care, diligence and attention that any nurse would give. Lift those shoulders up and say ‘I can do this’. But remember only to work within your sphere of competence.
  • Don’t expect too much of yourself and watch your energy levels – you will likely feel more tired than usual. If a phased return isn’t possible, ask if you can use your annual leave to come back on shorter hours.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. Just like you, they may appear calm on the outside, but feel otherwise inside.
  • Be patient. Keep a reflective journal and make a point of looking back every week or so to monitor progress.

Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance journalist and health/life coach

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