Why does quitting your job still feel so hard?

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.