The great career re-evaluation: ‘I wanted to work in a completely different way’

The pandemic changed how we work, but it might be changing why we work too

Coined by US academic and organisational psychologist professor Anthony Klotz, the phrase “the great resignation” caught fire last year.

Klotz twigged four trends unique to the pandemic that he believed, when combined, would lead to a wave of resignations.

The trends were an existing backlog of resignations as some workers chose to stay in their jobs due to uncertainty created by the pandemic, widespread burnout, a re-evaluation of priorities and values, and the reluctance of some to give up remote work.

“Workers saw that quitting their jobs gave them a chance to take control of their personal and professional lives,” Klotz said.

In the US at least, his prediction came true. In November 2021 alone, a record 4.5 million American workers left their jobs, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the preceding five months, 24 million Americans did so. It was more a tsunami than a wave.

In Ireland, there were signs of disruption too. More than four in 10 Irish workers in a survey by Workhuman published in September said they planned to quit their jobs in the next year. In a 2019 survey, that figure was just 21 per cent. The main reasons given mirrored those identified by Klotz. A desire for greater flexibility and higher wages, a better work culture and a different boss also featured, and burnout and stress were significant factors too.

More than ever, we are looking for purpose in our work and we are less likely to tolerate a work culture that jars with our values

Indeed, surviving hard things has a knack for focusing the mind. Working from home was a welcome break from a pointless commute, but the past two years have taken a toll.

Dealing with a deadly virus, homeschooling children and caring for older relatives while trying to work was hard. Coming out the other side, we are less tolerant of things that make life harder unnecessarily.

"Our standards have really risen for happiness," says founder of Clearview Coaching and author of The Career Book, Jane Downes.

“The pandemic has given us a rare chance to stop and re-evaluate our priorities. We are not willing to tolerate a career that is not working for us. Now we want what’s best for us.”

Work-life balance is part of it, but not all. More than ever, we are looking for purpose in our work and we are less likely to tolerate a work culture that jars with our values, says Downes.

"Our experience certainly is that the great resignation is real," says WorkJuggle founder Ciara Garvan. Her company connects skilled professionals to contract, remote and hybrid roles.

“I am sometimes surprised by the calls we get from very senior people in very good jobs looking to make a change.”

People have gone through a lot and have had time to think, she says.

“I see people questioning the whole ‘career ladder’ asking, well, what does success look like for me? What makes me happy?”

People are reworking their lives to include some of the upsides of the past two years. They want more autonomy.

“If someone is going to force me into the office, then I’m going to rethink what I’m doing, that’s definitely happening,” says Garvan. “There is a big difference between picking up a child at 4.30pm and picking them up at 6.30pm. People are weighing that up.”

For Carlow woman Lucy Gernon, the pandemic brought time to take stock. With a Masters in Science, she held management positions in the pharmaceutical industry for 18 years. A self-confessed high achiever, her self-worth and value were linked to her achievements, she says.

“I worked my ass off. I hit every single goal by working more than I lived. Every KPI was green, consistently. I got the coveted ‘exceeds’ or ‘out-performed’ end of year rating,” she recalls. The happiness she anticipated on reaching each goal however never quite materialised.

Life was busy too.

“I have three children and I remember so many nights putting them to bed so that I could go back on the laptop, or snapping at my kids because something really important would happen for work. When I look back on it, it was all because I wanted to achieve. It was a massive driver for me.”

Having enjoyed managing and mentoring others at work, the idea of a career in coaching bubbled in the background.

Home-working during the pandemic gave Gernon a glimpse at another life.

“Like everybody, I was at home. I wasn’t commuting. I saw what my life could be like. I could get my kids breakfast, drop them to school, pick them up from school... I loved it,” she says.

I suddenly felt, why am I working in a job that doesn't fulfil me? I know I want to do something else

“I thought, I’m never going back to that rat race. I can’t do it, and if I can help anyone else to find a better work-life balance and find their way of doing things, that’s what I’m going to do.”

The death of her father-in-law in September 2020 was the trigger for change.

“He was just 66, he was healthy, he was fit and after seven weeks, a short battle with cancer he was gone,” says Gernon. “I suddenly felt, why am I working in a job that doesn’t fulfil me? I know I want to do something else.”

She began a professional coaching course shortly afterwards.

Handing in her notice in December last year was “terrifying”, she says.

“I was sick, I was nervous, I was, ‘what am I doing?”, she recalls. “I developed a twitch in my eye that was so bad it wouldn’t go away. It was because I couldn’t make a decision. But then I just flipped the mindset to, ‘What if it works?’ I listened to that voice. I just went for it and what’s happened is amazing.”

Gernon’s business, Powerhouse Revolution Coaching helps high-achieving women figure out their path. She also has a podcast.

“It’s going unbelievably well,” she says.

Her clients include women in some of the biggest multinationals in Ireland and overseas and she sees huge demand.

“The thing that comes up all the time is they don’t want to be on the hamster wheel any more. They want to experience more of life. The pandemic has definitely helped people to seriously take stock."

Gernon has received Government funding under Skillnet Ireland for the Female Leaders Academy, a course she has designed to provide female leaders with the skills to increase their leadership impact, confidence and well-being.

“I feel so happy because I get to work from home, I get to work my hours around my children and I get to work with the most amazing women so that they can find the career that supports the life they deserve. It is so rewarding. I get to express a whole other side of myself that I could never do in the science field. It just feels more me.”

"The great resignation" was never only about people quitting work entirely. Indeed the number of people employed in the Irish economy has risen above 2.5 million for the first time. That is nearly 150,000 higher than total employment prior to the pandemic in 2019, Central Statistics Office figures show.

In such a booming jobs market, movers are seeking better pay and conditions. They have their pick of roles. Figures from Hays Recruitment show 51 per cent of employees anticipate moving this year and 84 per cent of employers intend to recruit.

"This is the highest number of employers anticipating recruitment in over five years," says chief executive Maureen Lynch.

“It’s a very active market and employees looking for new opportunities have never had as much choice,” she says. “I have been in the industry for 22 years. The Celtic Tiger years is when we have seen this much choice.”

I wanted to work in a completely different way, have a better work-life balance and hopefully do lots of different things that I was interested in

Workers told they can’t continue to work flexibly are switching to companies where they can. Others are becoming self-employed contractors in order to better control and direct their own work and hours.

Wellbeing has become a more prominent factor for employees too, says Lynch.

“Employers are investing huge amounts of time and money in wellbeing and it is cited as one of the big challenges over the next 12 months,” she says.

Having meaningful work is becoming more important for people too.

“Purpose and the ‘why’ is very important to individuals. The evidence and the research shows it’s really important that employees get satisfaction. Stimulating work is key for them.”

For former RTÉ broadcaster Aengus Mac Grianna, the pandemic accelerated changes in his career. The process had started when he took redundancy from the State broadcaster in 2018.

“I wanted to work in a completely different way, have a better work-life balance and hopefully do lots of different things that I was interested in that would enable me to work after 70 and beyond,” Mac Grianna says.

When the pandemic hit, he was studying Old Irish and World Religions at Trinity. He hoped to progress to a Masters in International Peace Studies. When classes went online, poor broadband at his Meath home was problematic. It gave him pause for thought.

“Either I would have to go back and complete the year or move forward in my plan. I just said no, I’m jumping forward.”

He left the course and began the Masters in September 2020, graduating last month.

“The pandemic confirmed some of the decisions I had already made, but it crystalised a lot of the outstanding decisions that I needed to make,” he says.

He has begun a new work life too, as an OPW heritage guide at Brú na Bóinne.

“I saw the role advertised and I thought, ‘I’d like to do that’,” he says. “I have a degree in geography and I have always been interested in megalithic monuments. Any time we had visitors, I would bring them, I just loved being there.”

He began work as a seasonal guide last year has just started taking tours again for this summer season.

“I really, really enjoy it. It’s the excitement about what sort of people are going to come through during the day, the questions and interactions people have with you. When I see people engaged, I’m just so energised by that.

“I’ve had people say, it’s a bit of a leap, but when you think about it, no it’s not. I’m part of a production team to provide an experience for people. I have an audience and I have a story to tell.”

The seasonality of the role allows him to do other things throughout the year. “It’s that variety and that flexibility that I really love.”

The questions he asked himself during the pandemic reflect a wider societal sentiment, he feels.

“Lots of people around me were suddenly asking the same sort of questions – what kind of work-life balance do I want, what sort of fulfilment do I want, is earning a certain amount of money important and how much money do I need to live on? Being able to say money is not the overall thing – obviously we all need money to survive, but what can I survive on that allows me to do lots of different things? The freedom that brings is really incredible.”

I've always had to go to work, and work physically... I could have done 20,000 or 30,000 steps in an evening. Now, I don't have to be in a workplace

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the hospitality industry was amongst the worst affected. For the thousands made unemployed by closures, resignation wasn’t a choice. A Government scheme to support workers to retrain however has brought a welcome career change for some.

Having owned and run Asian restaurants in Limerick for 20 years, Kate Lam and her husband made the decision to close for good.

“We closed pretty much the second week of the pandemic. Our lease was due for renewal and you wouldn’t renew when you didn’t know what was happening,” says Lam.

With the youngest of their four children still in secondary school and her husband nearing retirement age, the pandemic upended their plans.

“We were looking to continue for another few years but we had to stop, there was no choice. I thought, okay, what do I do now?”

Aged in her mid-40s, she knew she didn’t want to run a restaurant for another 20 years, but did want to equip herself to work until retirement.

“I wanted something a bit new, a bit more refreshing. I thought, here I am, I’m in a position now where I can take a break and reflect. I’m in a position where I can consider doing something different. Do I try something different or stay with what I know? I really wanted to make the change to be honest.”

Lam is now retraining as a network engineer as part of Women TechStart, a Government-backed scheme to give women a path to work in the technology sector. The course includes a work placement.

“I’m really excited. It’s a different medium of working. I’ve always had to go to work, and work physically in an environment. I could have done 20,000 or 30,000 steps in an evening. Now, I don’t have to be in a workplace.”

There are things about being the boss she won’t miss.

“It will be nice for somebody else to shoulder the responsibility... but there is still a level of autonomy, design and innovation that I had as a self-employed person.”

With family in Canada, Australia and Hong Kong, her new career brings greater freedom to move.

“It will be nice to go for extended visits and not lose time at work. If I want to spend a summer somewhere else, I can bring my laptop. I can be gone and still work.”

She is enjoying all the new learning.

“Mentally, it’s more engaging. It gives me much more flexibility. It just suits me really well.”

How to change career

Thinking of changing direction? Then give it the necessary thinking time, says founder of Clearview Coaching and author of The Career Book, Jane Downes.

“If you are not allocating time to this, you are not planning it correctly. Be strategic. Don’t go pulling any ripcords until you know your game plan.”

The first step is to examine your situation.

“Ask yourself what’s working for you and what’s not,” says Downes.

Then identify your strengths.

“You need to do an objective analysis of what you have to offer – that means auditing your strengths and thinking about how to play to those strengths in a career.”

Your preferred work environment is the next thing to consider.

“Think about the kind of work that makes you feel good – what are the skills you would like to be using every day?

“Consider your values too, and the type of culture you would like to work in,” says Downes.

If you value autonomy and trust for example, a conservative, rule-bound organisation won’t be a good fit. If hitting sales targets isn’t doing it for you anymore, think about what else motivates you. Be realistic.

“About 20 per cent of most peoples’ work is boring, even if we love what we do. There will always be some stuff that we just have to do. Look for 80 per cent interest and connection with a role. Make sure that work isn’t draining the life out of you and spitting you out at the end of the week. It should give you some energy.”

Before you do anything, do the sums.

“You’ve got to know what your bottom line is, what income you need to keep things going,” says Downes. “There may need to be a little sacrifice in the short term for long-term gain. Investing in upskilling is going to cost us. We may need to consider doing the job we don’t want to do for a while longer until we are ready to make the jump.”

Set some goals.

“You’ve got to have a vision – what does success look like for you in 12 months, two years, or maybe your master career plan is five years away. What steps do you need to take now to get there? Maybe you could take a sideways move to reshape things. That’s a sacrifice, it’s not a money move. There has to be some sacrifice in career change.”

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