In 2002, I thought the hardest thing I would ever do would be to force my body to exit a perfectly good plane. I’m afraid of heights: I get sweaty palms in all-glass elevators, a slight feeling of nausea on Ferris wheels and a need to stand glued to the wall of any balcony higher than 10 stories.
It was hard. There was air pushing against my face with the force of 10,000 hairdryers, while every cell in my body was screaming against the will of my brain to remain in the plane. When the time came, I took the literal and proverbial leap and fulfilled my (then) life-long dream of skydiving.
The feeling of elation at accomplishing something I never thought I could do was short-lived.
I had a "bad" landing. In skydiving terms, bad landings are often critical and can be related to a parachute not opening. In my case, the parachute opened, but I landed with the force of jumping off a 6-story building, which resulted in several of my vertebrae crushing together on impact.
I spent three months in a back brace and the better part of a year in physiotherapy until I could put on shoes and socks without using hangers. I was off work for four months. Despite the gruel of the daily grind (showering was a challenge without assistance), nothing could have prepared me for the biggest challenge of all: returning to work, as a woman from non-maternity leave.
When I returned to work, I had hopes of a speedy integration back into work life. Work was difficult after my back brace came off, since I could not sit in a chair for more than 90 minutes. There were a few changes made that helped me acclimate to my previous role: modified duties, which reduced physical in-chair time, and knowledge-transition meetings for changes to processes, products and role responsibilities. Despite these changes, I did not feel like a valued and contributing member of my team.
I sensed the discomfort and disbelief of those around me. Ultimately, I began to resent that counterparts returning from medical leave, also on modified duties, did not seem to experience the same isolation and discountenance that I perceived.
Years later, and now at global professional services company Accenture, I recognize there were critical activities that could have paved a smoother journey for my return to work:
Open dialogue between manager and employee: What is the employee capable of? What interests them? Where do they need the most support?
Standard expectations for employees returning to work: Man or woman, maternity or medical leave—defined expectations for the role when modified to account for specific needs. The idea of “fairness” needed to be more than a perception, it needed to be a practice.
Regular checkpoints: Integration progression, boredom, challenges and career growth are all topics that will help to keep returning employees motivated and part of the team.
While some of the accountability for re-integration lies with the employer, making the decision to “own” my return dramatically changed my outlook at work and ultimately transformed my career over the next decade.
Here are a couple of concepts that I now apply to every new role and to any difficult situation:
Nobody knows what you know
So it’s up to you to remind them. When you have been absent from work, people may forget all the great work you have done and are still capable of doing. Your peers and managers can’t be expected to know if you have sharpened your skills during your time off, have already ramped up on the latest changes or have simply retained all of the information from before your leave. The best and sometimes only champion you have at work, is you.
Be bold, be brave
This isn't a new revelation, but the idea that when you believe it, you can sell it, really does work. You have a voice–speak confidently, respectfully and, when necessary, out of turn. It can sometimes be difficult for women, in particular, to contribute their input without apologizing. You don’t have to be sorry for having a great idea or a conflicting opinion. Beginning an idea with “Sorry….” informs your listeners that you lack confidence in what you are saying. Believe in your contributions, believe in yourself. Choose to be heard, and be heard.
Being able to hold your own as a woman is still a challenge in today’s work culture, especially if she is coming back to work after an extended leave. The stereotype that a women has to work twice as hard for half the respect is still common across many industries and employers. This presumption can be shattered by acting with the knowledge that you are already an equal: While you may have something to prove as an employee, you have nothing to prove as woman. Standing up for yourself by contributing ideas, putting yourself forward for opportunities, or addressing issues and concerns in a direct, immediate and factual manner will not only build self-confidence but will also build credit and acknowledgement with your clients, peers and upper management.