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The M Dash

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How to Prepare for a Successful Leave from Work

Take your time, sans stress.

By Deanna Pai

Taking a leave of absence from work can be hard, whether you’re expecting a baby, taking care of a sick parent, or recovering from a surgery. But life happens, and while leave can be a way to take a step back to focus on other priorities, it can also pose huge personal and professional shifts. And more often than not, the impacts of those shifts disproportionately affect women.

I’m feeling it firsthand: As a self-employed person on the brink of maternity leave, I’m already struggling to manage my clients’ expectations,  prepping for two months without an income, and grappling with how and when to make a smooth return—all with a baby in tow. While my husband is a huge help, when it comes to my business, it’s all on me.

The pressure isn’t just my imagination at work. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that 53% of Americans think that mothers would do a better job caring for a new baby than both mothers and fathers would, while a substantial share say women would generally be better at caring for a sick family member. And the latter is a growing issue, too: A 2019 study found that taking care of older relatives leads more women than men to leave the workforce early, causing them to miss out on years of earnings and potential promotions.

The good news? There are still ways to prepare for and establish your leave in a way that can benefit you. One big advantage: “Paternity leave, bereavement leave, and other kinds of care leave are more common than they used to be, and more organizations have policies around leave than they did before,” says Lindsey Pollak, workplace expert and author of Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through the Changing World of Work. Here, experts share how best to handle navigating a leave of absence.

Make (and Communicate) Your Plan

Whether you’re an exec, self-employed, or in a new role, creating a plan will go a long way. Start by thinking about the culture of your organization. “Some organizations are incredibly supportive, helpful, and positive, while others might be more challenging,” says Pollak. If you’re not sure what your company culture is on this front, she suggests speaking confidentially to people who’ve taken leave at your workplace, as well as human resources. What do they wish they’d known? What would they have done differently?

While some circumstances, like taking care of a family member or a sudden illness, don’t allow for advance planning, other types of leave may be on your radar months in advance. If that’s the case, “be proactive about how you’re going to communicate the leave to people you work with, how you’re going to prepare for that leave, and how you’re going to reenter after that leave,” Pollak says. “When possible, you want to give thought to all of those questions—because the more comfortable, prepared, and strategic you are about your leave, the more you can influence other people’s reactions to your leave.”

Pollak recommends being able to answer three key questions: When are you coming back? Will you be available at all? And finally, what should someone do if they need information that you have? Even if the answers may vary or be totally unclear based on the type of leave you’re taking—for instance, caregiving for an elderly parent might not give you a firm return date—confidently communicating what you know will still go a long way toward making everyone comfortable with it.

If you’re not sure how much time to take, overestimate it. “Plan to take the maximum amount of time possible,” says Jenni Gritters, a writer and business coach. “You can always come back in a small way earlier than that, but protect the time you have.” It’s the equivalent of under-promising and overdelivering, and it ensures you’re not back to work before you feel ready.

Have Some Financial Padding

First: Determine whether your leave is paid. For contractors, it may depend on where you live, since some states now offer paid-leave programs. “As a freelancer or small business owner, you can opt into these programs,” says Gritters. “You pay a very small percentage of your income every quarter into the program. Then, when you need to take leave, you file for those benefits.”

Without paid leave being a given, many are on their own when it comes to footing the bill for time off. If that’s the case, you might have to budget for your leave the way you would anything else. “Have a very firm grasp on what your “need number” is—in other words, those expenses in your budget that are fixed, like rent, insurance, and childcare,” says Tamara Bates, a former financial advisor and founder of The Dots Between, a financial coaching program for artists. She recommends having six to 12 months’ worth of your monthly “need number” saved in advance.

However, budgeting only really works if you can anticipate and plan for your leave. If it’s more of a surprise, know what not to do—and that’s tap into retirement savings. “Even if you have a 401k, and you’re able to take a loan for that, do everything except drain investment assets you have for the future,” says Bates. “People think they can turn around and put that money back in, but they usually can’t—and they miss out on that compound interest over time.”

Instead, she suggests having a line of credit you can access at a fairly low interest rate; having a home equity line of credit on hand may be helpful, even if you don’t end up needing it. (And unless you use it, you don’t have to pay interest.) Another option: “If you have an investment account—not a retirement account, but taxable investment accounts—most brokerage firms have security-backed loans. So you’re taking a loan out against the value of your stock portfolio,” she says. “Those usually have a much lower interest rate than a personal loan from a bank or a business loan.”

Set and Enforce Your Boundaries

Think about your boundaries early. “Setting boundaries around what you need your leave to look like is the best starting point,” says Gritters. How accessible do you want to be? And, when it comes to communication, “what’s your comfort level?” says Pollak. “You want to anticipate those types of questions, because people can encroach.”

The key word here is “anticipate”; unless you set the boundary ahead of time, you might feel pressured to decide in the moment and potentially regret it. Then, stick to your boundaries. While it might be tempting to shoot off an email or two while your newborn’s asleep, that can create the expectation among colleagues that you will be checking email and inadvertently invite more contact.

That said, if your boundaries might change as your leave unfolds—maybe you have the space, time, and desire to check and reply to emails, or, conversely, you will be offline for the rest of the month—communicate it accordingly. “Maybe you love your work and want to be involved. But if you want to take your leave with absolutely no contact, then you want a statement for when people reach out,” Pollak says.

Anticipate Your Return

If possible, plan your return before you head out; you’ll be much better equipped to plot out your gameplan while you’re still working versus when you’re sleep-deprived or stressed out from caregiving.

For example, set a date to talk to a handful of key people to discuss your plans once you’re back. (Gritters recommends six weeks.) Returning to work “can be a momentum game, and it can take time to ramp things back up,” she says, “so start planting seeds before you come back—talk to clients, make plans, and get the ball rolling in a small way that feels doable to you.”

Then, once you’re back, revisit your professional goals—and give yourself some grace. “Think of your goals as goals you’ll still achieve, but put them on a longer timeline,” she says. Stretching that out will keep you from putting too much pressure on yourself.  And if you have brand-new goals—or feel ready to leave old ones behind—go with your gut. “Adapting your business needs and goals is necessary to function in a sustainable way,” she says. “When something happens to you, like a major illness or having a child, your priorities change. Give yourself that break.“

Written By

Deanna Pai

Deanna is a writer and editor in New York City. She enjoys reading, hiking, and not moving to the West Coast.

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