Asha Patel talks to workingwise.co.uk about how she returned to work after a long career break to care for her children and how, with the support of her employer, she has not only grown in confidence and moved to a new role, but taken on additional responsibilities such as mental health support.
Asha Patel took a 10-year career break to bring up her children and says that, although the transition back to work was challenging, she felt fully supported by her employer, Phoenix Group. “They made me feel like I was still a valuable employee,” she says. “That has allowed me to grow.”
That growth has involved a sideways move last year to a role as Internal Service Manager, a role which means Asha can use her people skills, something she also employs in her role as a wellbeing contact and in supporting interns and something that she has honed in her 10 years whilst caring for and supporting her family. She says: “I love being around people and the people side of my job means I can use my softer skills.”
Asha has worked since her school days. Her first job was as a Saturday girl in Superdrug at the age of 16. Brought up with a strong work ethic, she also worked her way through university where she did a business management degree.
She graduated in 1996 with a keen interest to work in the financial services sector and took a job with International Financial Data Services in Essex, relocating after she got married. She then moved to the City in 1999, taking a job at Baring Asset Management while she worked on acquiring her chartered management accountancy qualifications.
Asha loved working in the City and enjoyed Asset Management. She was going from strength to strength and becoming more involved in project management when, in 2001, she became pregnant with her first daughter. During her maternity leave in 2002 Asha wanted to continue learning and so went to evening college to study Beauty Therapy, something of a personal interest.
Maternity leave also made Asha reflect on her own upbringing. Both her parents worked and she spent a lot of her childhood in childcare. She wanted to have more time to enjoy being a mum and asked her employer for flexible working, when she returned in 2003 and worked a three-day week.
Over the next two years she was promoted. It was early days for project management – the field was just developing – and it gave Asha an opportunity to prove herself as a manager as she worked alongside IT and Finance experts. She was lucky to job share with her manager who was also a working mum.
In 2004, Asha became pregnant with her second daughter. During her maternity leave her husband was working in Birmingham and as a result, in 2006, the family decided to relocate to Warwickshire. Asha wanted to continue working part time, but options within her skillset were limited locally. She decided to become a stay-at-home mother. This meant she was also able to help her mother when her father suffered a major heart attack and died within 24 hours. “That was a re-evaluation of life for me,” says Asha. “I was in my early 40s and could not help but think that my dad worked all his life, spent minimal time with us, then retired and 14 months later passed away. I thought life is too short and one has to think about what is important here and now. For me it was being there for my girls in their early years, and re-building my career at a later date.”
Drawing on the courses she did in her first maternity leave, she also started offering beauty treatments, including facials, massages, manicures and pedicures to local clients. It kept her connected to the outside world and meant she was able to use her business knowledge. Her husband was often travelling for work so she worked around her children. Living in a small village with little footfall, Asha wasn’t, however, able to scale the business up. On the upside, she saw her children grow up.
It was not until her second daughter was starting secondary school in 2016 that she approached a dad at the school about opportunities for restarting her career in project management. He worked for Phoenix Group and helped secure her an interview for a project support analyst role. It was a full-time job.
Asha wasn’t keen to work full time because of her family responsibilities both to her daughters and her mum after her father died. So after her probation period she asked to do a four-day week. “It was the best thing for me and my wellbeing. It meant I could pursue a career and also enjoy a quality weekend. Flexible working wasn’t so much of a thing at Phoenix then and I felt super lucky and I often tell colleagues it is always good to ask,” she says.
She found returning to work after such a long break challenging. She felt the need to prove herself again and to brush up on all her work skills, but she says her manager and team were very supportive. Today she supports new joiner initiatives and she tells them not to be too shy to ask for help, or to even say ‘can you explain that again, I did not quite understand the task’.
She says she wishes she did a lot more of this in her early career days. Since re-starting here career Asha says, “she is a big advocate switching plans in life and older workers returning to work after a career break”. She says “older employees come with a lot of advantages. Like myself their attitude to work is deeply entrenched and born from parents and grandparents for whom tough manual work and long hours was the norm. They will also have experience, and a lot of transferable skills, and are most likely to be experienced in interacting with people, and are enthusiastic employees who are ready to learn and be prepared to undergo training”.
Since joining Phoenix she has worked on various different projects, regaining her confidence gradually so that she could in time take on a more ambitious project – the Standard Life acquisition programme. From then until 2022 she worked on large scale programmes supporting change delivery.
Last year she decided that she wanted to take on a new challenge and she applied for the role of Internal Service Manager across the Pensions & Savings team. It involves meeting key stakeholders, understanding what services they provide and monitoring whether they are meeting their targets. “Meeting the key subject matter experts and their leaders and senior stakeholders allows me to see what they want from us and creates stronger relationships,” she says. “It’s a complete new side of the business where I have minimal knowledge and very different from the weekly and monthly nature of project management where everything is about delivery.”
Asha has also become involved in wider Phoenix initiatives. She is a Mental Health and Wellbeing contact, meaning people in the organisation can talk to her about personal issues that are worrying them and she can signpost to any additional support. She says her experience of being a mum and carer helps with this. She also provides early careers support for interns on short-term placements.
Phoenix has several networks that she can plug into for additional information and advice, such as a mental health network which organises guest speaker talks and various road events. The organisation’s corporate charity is the Samaritans and it places a strong emphasis on wellbeing. “There is so much you can do to feel included and to be you,” adds Asha. She is also on the professional young people’s networks and that enables her to keep in touch with what younger workers’ concerns are and to understand these better. “It’s a very multigenerational workplace where there are talented people from all backgrounds, and each one is able to bring their whole self to work” she says. “The buzz is about being around a safe environment where harmony exists and respect can be earned.”
Asha works from home most of the week, but likes to come into the office too. She also travels to Edinburgh once a month. “Phoenix trusts me to flex when I need to, which is very empowering,” she says.
She adds that she has seen Phoenix grow, evolve and strengthen since 2016 and is grateful that they see career success and recognition not just as climbing up the ladder but also moving sideways, as she has done in the past year. She says: “They have grown in the financial sector, but remained small enough to value and respect and recognise everyone as an individual.”
*Phoenix Group is sponsoring workingwise.co.uk’s National Older Workers Week which runs from 20th to 24th November.