All of the professional advice I’ve ever been given has insisted that pausing is the enemy of progress. Quitting is unacceptable unless it’s for a promotion, and taking time out is only valid if you’ve got a doctor’s note. A few months ago, I went against all of these warnings and decided to quit my job – like thousands of others.
After a lot of thought, I decided to apply for a Masters – and I got it. In any other year, under any other circumstances, maybe I would be totally content continuing on the career path that I’ve set into motion. But after graduating in my bedroom and embarking on a year of working from home, there was a niggling doubt that I had unfinished business to attend to. I love my job and the team I work with, but with most of my friends scattered across the country and none of the social perks of an office, I felt increasingly isolated. With a hint of guilt that I was being ungrateful, I wondered if sticking to the path I thought would lead to career success was worth the creeping unhappiness.
Most people I told were thrilled for me, but there were a couple who asked if I was absolutely sure that I wanted to risk quitting a job I was lucky to have. Their doubts came from a place of genuine concern: the sensible thing to do, surely, was to continue on the path I was already on rather than go on a detour. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned this past year, it’s that there’s no reason for a linear, one-size-fits-all path to success: contrary to the school career advisor’s warnings, I realised that taking a break from the rat race wasn’t the end of the world. When that gut feeling says that taking a fork in the road will make me happier, I’ve found that it’s best to listen.
I’m not alone. Last week, the United States Labor Department reported the biggest jump in resignations for more than 20 years and in the UK, surveys have found that around a quarter of workers are prepared to quit their jobs rather than go back to working in offices full-time. A recent Harvard Business Review survey found that 75% of Gen Z respondents had left a job in lockdown, and cited their mental health as part of the reason why. Half of millennials said the same. Compare that to the baby boomers, of whom only 10% said they’d quit jobs for their mental wellbeing.
When we asked our IG audience, 72% of them said they’ve left or considered leaving a job in the past year. Reasons varied from a lack of fulfilment and a search for a better work/life balance, to a “toxic environment” and a realisation that it wasn’t their “dream job.” As varied as the responses were, the common theme was that quitting was seen as a form of self-care. And self-care was the reason tennis star Naomi Osaka cited, too, when she made the decision to put her very high profile job on hold and pull out of the tournaments she had trained all year for, for the sake of her mental health.
Saying that, I recognise that not everyone can have the luxury of choosing what they think would make them happiest. Of our respondents who considered leaving but hadn’t made the step yet, not being able to afford to leave (35%) was the biggest obstacle holding them back, followed closely by an uncertainty around what they’d do instead (33%). I know I can press pause without worrying too much about the consequences: at least when the existential stress of what I’ll do after my Masters hits me, I’ll be in good company amongst fellow students. But the accessibility of quitting as a form of self-care means that for some, the practicalities have to come first.
The world of work is changing rapidly, especially with constantly-evolving tech taking over almost every industry. Where once you could choose a career and feel confident that it would see you out until retirement, the modern employee is likely to switch careers and change track a lot more than they did a few decades ago. For those in jobs that allowed home working, we had the brief taste of a different balance – one where flexible working was advocated for rather than dismissed as logistically impossible. And it opened our minds to what life could be like if we strayed from the path we had chosen at the tender age of 18, feeling too far along to turn back. We’ve shifted to recognise mental health as paramount – even, contrary to previous belief, above your job. Suddenly, quitting your job isn’t the last-resort result of burning yourself out to the point of exhaustion, but part of the process towards avoiding that outcome. It’s no longer a failure, but an opportunity for growth – and it’s about time we recognised it as such.