How everything and nothing changes, when working abroad or having a baby

How I felt on my return from working abroad is the closest parallel I’ve been able to find in terms of how it can feel to return from maternity. The nose dive in self-confidence in particular.

I was in the States for almost a year the first time. My return date coincided with the end of the summer holidays, so like most other young people of my age, I headed straight to the local pub.

Rather than the anticipated excited questions about where I’d been, what I’d been doing, instead I got, ‘Oh, we thought we hadn’t seen you around for a while.’ Talk about anti-climax.

And then came a really weird realisation that the very same people who hadn’t missed me, were still here, doing the same thing, a whole year later. Nothing had really changed for them (or so it seemed to me), yet I felt fundamentally transformed. This incongruence left me feeling disconnected, slightly annoyed, and frustrated.

The second time I worked away, I was in the Middle East for two years, and by this time I had two very small children. The experience of balancing so many spinning plates, so far away from everything and everyone I knew, stretched me almost to breaking point – it was seriously tough. So a return back to the UK into the same, familiar business was welcome, and provided immediate relief. Until I realised that everything had changed.

The entire top team of the organisation had been replaced. I didn’t know how it worked anymore and my sponsors and mentors who had previously looked out for me were no longer there. Very disconcerting.

Yet again, people assumed I was the same person who had left. It was as if the two years hadn’t happened. My company had little experience of sending people abroad so, perhaps not unexpectedly, there was no programme of support, no help with re-integration, no careers advice, nor any attempt to capture or understand my skills and experience, both of which, contrary to the assumptions made by most, had not been frozen in time. A parallel experience perhaps, for those returning from parental leave?

Like many people who come back after a stint abroad, I ultimately chose to leave the company. This decision was in sharp contrast to how I felt after returning post maternity. Because of the brilliant support I had been given by a couple of key managers, I felt motivated to stay, and was fiercely loyal to both them and the company. But on my return from a tough two year overseas assignment, the lack of support really left me feeling underwhelmed.

So I made a choice. I decided that I might as well put my energy and effort into somewhere new. Having joined the company as a graduate, thirteen years earlier, I moved to a competitor. Funnily enough, into a significantly bigger role.

Companies can do so much more to support employees as they go through the life changing experience of starting a family or working abroad. What companies do, or don’t do at these critical moments has a direct impact on retention.

And after all, nurturing and taking care of those within an existing talent pipeline at a crucial time in their lives is a lot less expensive than having to recruit and train from scratch.

Helen Sachdev is one of the Founders of WOMBA as well as being a senior executive, a Trustee with both the CIMA UK Board and Leicester University Student’s Union, and an Executive Coach. She is a mother of two who is also committed to making the world a better place for working parents.