As soon as gyms in the UK went into lockdown in 2020, personal trainer James Jackson quit his job. “I just knew that I had to transition to an online way of working,” says Jackson, 33, from Manchester. “The gym is a busy place, and I couldn't imagine it being as popular again. I felt that If I hung around too long, I'd miss out on a good opportunity.”
But making the decision to leave was difficult. Jackson had spent eight years building a thriving career and a loyal client base. “It was terrifying to quit,” he says. “Being a personal trainer was all I knew.” He also found other people’s opinions hard to handle. “My boss thought that I was making a rash decision and letting my emotions get the better of me,” he says. Most of his colleagues agreed. “They thought that I was rushing into a bad decision. I was already anxious at having quit and their remarks put more doubt in my head.”
Unless you’re walking into a glossy, new, upgraded role, leaving a job to head in a different direction can be hard, upsetting and even leave people feeling like a failure. Faced with the prospect of quitting, Denver, Colorado-based organisational psychologist Melissa Doman, MA, says, “typically speaking, people still self-criticise. For many people, their job is heavily tied to their identity and their self-efficacy”.
Still, despite these factors, indications are that many people want to leave their jobs. In fact, 41% of all workers are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a recent global survey by Microsoft. In the US, a record number of workers quit their jobs in April 2021, and similar waves are anticipated in nations including the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. There’s even a name for it: the Great Resignation.
There are multiple reasons for this trend, from people re-evaluating what they want from their careers during the pandemic, to the stress of juggling home and work life, or even discontent with employers. Whatever the motivator, many who choose to leave their current roles will find the process emotionally challenging. ‘Quitting’ often comes with negative connotations, both from the people around us and from ourselves, even if we have good cause.
But the upheaval caused by the pandemic – and the sheer number of potential quitters – could help us remove the stigma around resignation, and reframe it as a more positive choice.
"I was already anxious at having quit and their remarks put more doubt in my head" – James Jackson (Credit: Courtesy of James Jackson)
Doman says social stigma around quitters fundamentally comes from “a very old school idea that when you get into a job or career it's for life – and that's something that just isn't true, or based in reality anymore”. This idea plays into the popular narrative that the surest route to career success is hard work, persistence and even a willingness to suffer for a better end result. In other words, all qualities a quitter doesn’t seem to have.
Research suggests that quitting stigma most affects people who leave a role without another job to go to. While people who quit for better opportunities benefit from staying on a recognised career trajectory, a 2018 study showed HR professionals and the broader public perceived people who had left employment as altogether less competent, less warm and less hireable from the moment they became jobless. The only way to mitigate this stigma was to offer proof that they left their job due to external factors, rather than quitting voluntarily.
These judgements can cause strain: quitting without a concrete plan also leaves people more likely to suffer feelings of emotional distress. The negative feelings the brain can cycle through after quitting can be significant, with shame, guilt, fear and a sense of failure all common reactions. On top of this, “if you quit a job and don't have something else lined up, that is very psychologically uncomfortable for the average person,” says Doman. “Emotionally and neurologically, the brain doesn't like uncertainty or ambiguity.”
The negative feelings the brain can cycle through after quitting can be significant, with shame, guilt, fear and a sense of failure all common reactions
Two common responses are spiralling anxiety over whether quitting is the right decision, or freezing with fear at the thought of moving forward into an unknown future. Personal trainer Jackson fell into the first category. Quitting meant selling his car and moving back home with his parents as well as giving up the only job he knew. He was left with “crippling anxiety” that meant he couldn’t sleep for a week.
Complex emotions are also common if there are difficult circumstances behind your decision to quit. Kristin White, 40, from North Carolina, US, went through a period of “grieving” after quitting her job as a health and wellness coach. “I remember saying to my husband, give me a month or two to get over this because I'm really sad. Work was my project, my pride, and then that was gone,” she says.
White left a successful corporate career in 2015 to look after her mental health after she had her first child. She subsequently established her own wellness business, but when lockdown hit in April 2020, she faced the twin challenges of pivoting her business online at the same time as home-schooling her young children. She remembers feeling like she had “her tail between her legs” as she let stakeholders, professional contacts and even friends know her business was closing.
"I remember saying to my husband, give me a month or two to get over this because I'm really sad" – Kristin White (Credit: Oksana Mink)
The public aspect of quitting can be difficult to navigate for many people. “People will give feedback whether you like it or not,” says Doman. “And often the social perception when someone quits is ‘Oh, they couldn't hack it’.” White still remembers stinging comments from her wider social circle implying that she had to quit her corporate career because she wasn’t successful enough. “They have haunted me,” she says. “I felt immediately judged when I became a stay-at-home mom instead of a corporate, working woman.”
As anxiety set in, Jackson had to fight the instinct to ask for his old job back, but part of him knew his colleagues’ negative reactions were based on their own worries for the future. His boss, especially, found it hard to accept that Jackson was quitting to focus on online training. “I think he knew deep down that the way people work out and keep fit was about to change forever. He didn't want to lose the brick-and-mortar business that he'd worked so hard to build up,” he says.
For workers who want to quit, but feel hesitant about doing so, Doman advises focusing on personal reasons for quitting rather than the wider narrative about quitters, and keeping the decision in perspective. “You’re not deciding your role for the rest of your life – you're just deciding on the next job, or the next decision,” she says.
Also important is asking for advice from the right people at the right time. After making a decision personally, she advises speaking to other quitters who have found success through the process and are less likely to see the decision in a negative light. “Those are the people to ask because you're at the beginning of the journey, and they are on the other side,” she says. “Don't ask the people that haven't been through the process, because how can they help you?”
People will give feedback whether you like it or not. And often the social perception when someone quits is ‘Oh, they couldn't hack it’ – Melissa Doman
Rising numbers of quitters in recent months may mean there are more people who can offer informed advice than ever. HR expert David D’Souza, from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) based in London, UK, says this in itself may lessen stigma around quitting among hiring managers, as the pandemic has brought about such a period of economic and social upheaval that widespread changes in employment are inevitable. More broadly, he says “the idea that someone needs to stay in a job beyond the point of the organisation treating them well or meeting their needs is outdated”.
Research also offers some hope that the unique circumstances of the health crisis could make the rarely acknowledged positive attributes of quitters more desirable. Business leaders ranked adaptability and flexibility the most essential workplace traits for the future in a 2021 study on resilience by Deloitte, for example.
Jackson’s instincts turned out to be right – eight weeks after quitting his job he was hired by an online training company. He feels his new job has better long-term prospects, and he prefers his office hours to the 60 hours a week he was doing as a personal trainer.
Having only been unemployed for a few weeks, Jackson was honest with his new employer about being a quitter, a decision he says helped them establish a more genuine working relationship. “It got us off on the right foot,” he says. In the end Jackson found quitting “strangely empowering”, but it is not an experience he is keen to repeat.
White also feels that things may have worked out for the best. She is relaunching her business, “but this time, it's actually smarter and I have a better idea of what I want to do”, she says. Her husband continued working both times she quit, and she feels “privileged to have the choice” to stop working, even though doing so was personally painful.
This is a message Doman agrees on – for many people, quitting is simply not a financial possibility. For those who can quit, but are hesitant, she advises: “Try to temper the fear and the uncertainty. The fact that you're making the decision that's right for your life and your career is a privilege. And it’s an opportunity.”