Imposter Syndrome and the Return to Work

Apr 23, 2022

One of the biggest triggers of imposter syndrome is returning to work after a period of absence. This comes up time and time again through the research I do, when I conduct webinars, and talking with clients in my programmes. 

Returning to work can be a scary time - technology has moved on, you forgot how to do your job, you’re out of the routine. Add to that the fear that you no longer belong, that you’re no longer good enough to do the role you previously excelled in.

When we think of the return to work, we typically think of women returning from maternity leave. But people can be out of work for a long period of time for various reasons - a period of travel (like me!), a career break, time out to care for relatives, a period of unemployment (also me!), or a period of illness.

The most forward-thinking companies have plans and programmes in place to deal with those returning to work after a period of absence. There are employee resource groups (ERGs) to connect with others in a similar situation, and programmes to ease you back in gently to the work environment.

When I returned to work after travelling for 16 months - much longer than your average maternity leave - I didn’t realise it at the time, but I definitely needed additional supports. The shock was real, and my work suffered as a result. My boss couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and I couldn’t understand what was wrong with my performance.

Without the support of a return to work programme, and even the support of my boss, I found work a real struggle for a long time while I settled back into the routine. Upon reflection, I don’t think it was imposter syndrome because I felt I had so much more to offer and should have been hired at a higher level to begin with.

But, I recognise that many people in that situation *do* feel like imposters when returning to work. Will I remember how to do my job? Do I deserve to go back to this? My colleagues will soon realise I am a total fraud and have no idea what I’m doing! My colleagues think I am so much more capable than I actually am…

So what can we do about it?

On the latest episode of the Happier at Work podcast, Sarah Courtney and I talk about the parallels between the return to work and imposter syndrome. You can listen to the full episode here.


I offer the Imposter to Empowered programmes to corporates as part of the transition back to work. If you’d like to know more, you can find details here.

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