In the UK, and globally, surveys suggest huge numbers of people are thinking about packing in their jobs, while in the US it’s been dubbed ‘the Great Resignation’. But is this a real desire for change or just a pandemic fug?
It has been termed “the Great Resignation” and a “turnover tsunami”. But whether it is because of a shift in priorities during the pandemic or simply a desire for a change, many people have left their jobs, or are thinking of leaving. In the US, the department of labour reported a record 4m resignations in April 2021.
A Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers worldwide revealed that 41% were considering quitting or changing professions this year, while in the UK and Ireland, research by the HR software company Personio found 38% of respondents were planning to quit in the next six to 12 months.
But how do you know if you are in desperate need of change or just in a pandemic fug. Here are 17 questions to ask yourself to help you clarify your thinking – and your future.
Should I even consider staying?
If work is causing you significant mental or physical distress, perhaps because of bullying or chronic overwork, it may be that you have to quit, says the psychologist Lee Chambers.
If it feels like a question of self-preservation, “something that is effectively pivotal to you feeling like a human being, it’s almost as if that decision needs to be made for you,” he says. “Otherwise it’s going to have an increasingly negative impact on your health.”
But, he adds, you must be brutally honest with yourself. “What are your frustrations? What’s that primary sticking point, the one thing that’s really tipped the balance so this question has become prominent in your mind?”
The more precise you can be about the cause, the greater clarity you will have. Drill down not only into your role and responsibilities, but particular projects, pay, potential for progression, workplace culture, workload, colleagues, company values and any recent restructures or takeovers.
“The ‘why’ question is where everyone starts, but the first answer you give yourself is rarely what’s really going on,” says Eleanor Tweddell, the founder of the post-redundancy coaching consultancy Another Door. She suggests writing down every thought and feeling you have about your job for 10 days.
How did I get here?
As you consider your next steps, it can help to zoom out to see those that led you here: why did you take this job? What has been your career path so far?
Reflecting on your past can help put your present situation in perspective and lay a blueprint for your future – if only by underscoring your own agency. “Knowing that it’s not the first time you’ve taken a step in your career can make another one feel less daunting,” says Chambers.
How long have I been feeling this way?
It may help to think about when you were last consistently happy at work. If it’s been years, predating the pandemic, Chambers suggests it might be time to act. It is easy to keep giving it another six months, he says – “but there’s a reason why you’re feeling that way”.
If, however, your dissatisfaction is more recent – say, since February 2020 – “a lot of that is pandemic-related,” says Chambers. Now that restrictions have eased, it is easy to underestimate the impact of the disruption and stress of the past 18 months. But “most of us have not been through something as serious or significant as this, ever”, he says. With the future still uncertain, it could be that your desire to quit is rooted in wanting to exercise some control over your life, or feel as if you are making progress. “But a change of job is not actually going to change the [wider] situation,” says Navit Schechter, a cognitive behavioural therapist.
It’s also worth considering whether you may be burnt. If so, talk to your manager about taking some time off.
What do I actually want to do?
This can be the hardest question to answer. It’s not enough to think about what’s wrong with your current role, your dream job or even your passions, says Tweddell. “The strongest question you can work on is how you want to live, and how you want to be. We don’t think of our values enough, yet this is where our resistance and conflict often sit – making a career and life change has to be about more than career for it to be fulfilling.”
How would my perfect day be different?
Tweddell gets her clients to come up with a clear picture of their “ideal tomorrow”, with no detail too small or idea discounted. They repeat that exercise three times over a six-week period. “It’s great to see what changes, the clarity of what’s going on for people,” she says. “People will always have the answer of what to do next after this exercise.”
What do my friends and family say?
A trusted sounding board can help you to understand your own thinking and propel you towards a decision. “They often see things in us that we don’t see in ourselves, which really helps in the search for future positions,” says Chambers.
Conversely, it is hard to make a big life change without the support of those closest to you, especially if there are financial pressures. By involving them, he says, “you have allies on that journey and some accountability”.
What would I be giving up by quitting?
Change inevitably means compromise, says Tweddell. Being clear about what you would be saying goodbye to – friends, benefits, stability, a familiar routine – may clarify whether you are really prepared to give it up. “It helps people to create a solid foundation for change: they will make the move with eyes wide open,” she says.
What could I gain by quitting?
“We’re often so quick to say what we don’t like: this question probes people in a different direction,” says Chambers. “By thinking positively, they tend to light up a bit – because they realise they actually have a lot to give.”
Especially if you have been with your employer for a long time, you may have lost sight of your market value, says Amanda Reuben of Bijou Recruitment. “Often people come to me because they’re not feeling valued.”
If you have repeatedly been passed over for pay rises or promotion, a new job could be a reset, says Reuben. Moving to a new company has also been shown to bump up your salary far more than increases within a role.
Have I explored every option with my employer?
Some of what you want from a new job, you might be able to secure in your current one. With your perfect-day plan as a guide, see what you can negotiate – such as flexible working, a different reporting line, reduced hours or higher pay.
“Often the value to you as an individual is huge, when for the business there’s not a huge difference,” says Reuben. “When you’ve been somewhere for 10 years, you become so compliant – or complacent – you don’t actually think about what you could do differently.”
Should I wait until we’re back in the office to make a decision?
“If you know you want to change, waiting isn’t going to change that,” says Reuben – plus, she adds, it is easier to search for a new job while working remotely.
But if you’re undecided, it may be worth holding off to see how your employer navigates this transition towards hybrid working, says Chambers. “For many, it’s going to be make or break. Most employees have given an awful lot over this period and are waiting to see if they’re going to get the return.”
The key is to be clear with yourself about your own needs and desires, so that when the dust settles, you can act in line with them.
Should I quit over my toxic boss?
If your company is big enough, says Reuben, you might be able to change your reporting line or otherwise put some distance between you. “But in a small organisation, you can’t get away from them.”
Human resources may be able to help; only you know whether it’s time to cut your losses. “If there’s nothing you can do, and you decide your mental health is more important, the answer does become clearer,” says Schechter. “Ideally make those decisions before breaking point.”
Reuben says people often don’t understand the full toll of their toxic workplace until they start at a new one. “You see transformations … It’s like leaving a bad marriage. People put up with so much for the sake of a salary.”
When should I quit over stress?
When it is consistently negatively affecting your overall quality of life, says Schechter. “Is it getting in the way of sleep, are you unable to be present with your family outside work time, are you cancelling social plans or working on weekends?”
Health impacts are also relevant: you may find yourself getting sick more often, or your blood pressure rising.
Before dismissing this as just a busy period, says Chambers, it’s important to make sure that it will actually pass. “If there’s an endpoint, that helps you to make an informed decision: ‘Am I going to be able to tolerate it until then?’”
If you have a history of stress, it could be that work triggers something in you that a change would not necessarily address, says Schechter. “A lot of the pressures people feel come from their own beliefs – about making mistakes, for example, or not being seen as good enough.”
In some companies, however, bullying or overwork is structural. Schechter asks clients to reflect “on a Sunday night, before the work week starts: what is it that they are most dreading?”
Another way to identify the source of your distress – your situation, or your response – is to ask yourself if a capable friend would struggle with what is being asked of you: “Would they experience the same feelings, or would they handle it differently?”
If you’re putting yourself under pressure, therapy could help to unpick the underlying reasons and equip you with coping strategies.
Are my expectations realistic?
“There’s a lot out there that says ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’,” says Chambers – which can fuel the falsehood that there’s a perfect job out there. Being your own boss in particular is glamorised – “but it’s bloody hard work”.
Ask yourself if you are really ready for a learning curve. “There is an energy cost for quitting your job and starting with a new employer – especially at the moment, when you might not meet your team in person,” says Chambers.
Reuben says that many people who come to her to explore their alternatives end up deciding to stay put in their current role: “They realise ‘it’s not so bad’, or ‘it suits me’.”
Can I really afford to leave?
Appetites for risk vary, says Tamsin Caine, a chartered financial planner – but three to six months’ worth of living expenses is a recommended safety net if you plan to quit then look for a similar job.
Changing career or moving to self-employment warrants more: at least enough to cover 12 months of living expenses and any startup costs. “You’ve got to think: ‘What is the worst that can happen?’”
But in weighing up whether to quit, “it’s not just about the salary,” says Caine. Your current employer may have a generous pension or expenses policy that should factor into a cost-benefit scenario, especially if your plan is to cover it all yourself as a freelancer. It also pays to be very clear about your current finances.
Could caring less about work help?
It’s been easy for work to take over our lives, especially while working from home. Common sense steps to protect wellbeing and boundaries can make a big difference to our ability to cope, says Schechter. “When we get enough sleep, eat well, do exercise, talk to our friends, take time out – all that makes it easier.”
It could be that you find your career has come to stand in for your identity. If so, Schechter suggests spending some time defining your values and investing in relationships, hobbies and interests outside your job – if only to ease the transition later.
“It can help to build up that personal identity so that the work identity isn’t so important: there’s something else there that equals it, and betters it. Otherwise, how else do you know how to spend your time?”
Is now the right time?
The job market remains highly uncertain, Reuben says: it could take as long as six months to find a new job. “It’s a brave person who says ‘I just want a change – I’m going to find something’ at the moment.”
Unless your current work situation is abusive or intolerable, Chambers says, “you can take it step by step”. Indeed, spending time to reflect on the past, unpick the present and project into the future can make everything that comes later easier.
For example, if your ultimate goal is self-employment or to change careers, you might start to fill in gaps in your skillset, find a mentor or build your savings. “Asking yourself these questions can make quitting an empowered choice,” Chambers says.
Why can’t I make a decision?
“There will never be a moment when everything aligns and every box is ticked,” says Tweddell. “At some point you have to just decide and trust yourself to make it work.”
She suggests clients set a date and time to make the decision and put it in their diary. “You can play with ideas, ask questions, think, reflect all the way up to that date – and then you make the decision and do it,” she says. “Whatever you decide, you’ll feel very liberated because you are owning what happens next.”
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