Lisa Felepchuk had what most people would consider a dream job. As the editor of S/ Magazine, she spent her days doing glamorous things, like jetting first class to the Paris couture shows. But despite the lavish opportunities, she longed for more independence. And as someone who suffers from chronic headaches (a result of endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome), she also wanted a schedule that would allow her to look after her health. So she did something many of us only dream about: She quit after almost three years on the job. “I was looking for the freedom to work somewhere other than an office and the ability to be my own boss,” she says.
The 32-year-old bid adieu to her luxe Toronto life in favour of a new kind of glamour: She and her boyfriend are working as freelance writers while travelling around North America and living out of a 1983 Westfalia van—with no bathroom. “It’s still stressful, but it’s a stress that I have control over,” she says from a park bench in Regina that’s acting as her temporary office for the day. “I can take the time and pay more attention to my health when I’m not on the 9-to-5 anymore. I can take a nap if I need to.”
I can relate. I was three months into what I thought was the career-making position of my dreams as a senior web editor when I started experiencing severe anxiety. I’d had panic attacks in the past, but this was constant and most certainly job related. The position, it turned out, wasn’t what the hiring manager had described during the interview process. I worked overtime to meet my boss’s unclear objectives and made a huge effort to ingratiate myself with a team that was less than thrilled to have a new member. The harder I tried, the more I realized that I needed to leave. I handed in my resignation and started my own writing and editing business, and I haven’t looked back. I love the freedom of setting my own schedule and the challenge of meeting my own business goals.
That was four years ago. At the time, I felt alone in my decision to ditch a secure position (with benefits!) when so many of my peers were jobless. But fast-forward to 2016 and quitting is suddenly en vogue. While previous generations may have clung for dear life to the idea that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” today we’re more likely to be inspired by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus Andromedon’s decree that “quitters are America’s unsung heroes.” A 2016 global survey from business services firm Deloitte suggests that quitting is, indeed, top of mind for millennials—44 per cent of workers in this cohort say that, if given the choice, they’d ditch their current gigs in the next two years. Compare that to the baby boomers: Another U.S. poll shows that more than 40 per cent of that generation stayed with their employers for upward of two decades.
Business researchers say this trend reflects a “lack of loyalty” and suggest companies need to step up their game in fostering and growing young talent by providing mentorship, encouragement and a clear path to leadership roles. That’s likely true. But I don’t buy into the clichéd idea that millennials are fickle and disloyal, which has been the subject of headlines over the past few years. In fact, they might be onto something. Approximately 8 per cent of Canadian adults will experience major depression in their lifetime and 5 per cent will have an anxiety disorder, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. It seems that many people, millennials or not, are looking for ways to boost their happiness. For some, quitting their job could be the first step.
But why are so many of us unhappy at work? According to a study published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, researchers found that people who gave up chasing unattainable goals (read: trying to get a promotion while dealing with time-sucking illness) to focus on more realistic things (read: asking your supervisor for a reduced workload) reported better feelings of overall health and demonstrated more normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The idea is that, over time, constant disappointment may lead to ongoing stress, depression and anxiety. “That can start a cycle where the emotional distress disrupts other physiological systems in the body,” says Carsten Wrosch, a psychology professor at Montreal’s Concordia University and the author of the study.
April Brown followed her instincts when they told her to quit her job as an account director at a large PR firm in Toronto. After six years in the high-stress position, the once-outgoing 32-year-old realized she was depressed and isolating herself from friends and family. “I was coming home from work and having emotional breakdowns,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in my apartment crying by myself and sometimes drinking alone after long days.” After resigning last March, she spent several months travelling, but she struggled with the idea that quitting meant she had failed. “My job was how I defined myself in many ways,” she says. “I couldn’t understand what all that hard work was for.”
Then, Brown and a close friend decided to make good on a dream they shared to become moteliers. They joined forces (and cash) and purchased a motel in Prince Edward County, Ont., slated to reopen as The June next spring. Once this new plan was in place, Brown truly began to see a shift: She started being social again without feeling like she had to fake being happy. “The emotional breakdown left my ego pretty fragile,” she says. “But running this motel and successfully dealing with all that comes up in a day has just made me stronger and more self-confident.”
Mapping out the next step is key in reaping the benefits of quitting, suggests Caird Urquhart, a life coach based in Toronto. But she also warns that walking away isn’t always the solution. “The whole work-life balance thing is very trendy,” she says. “The idea that you have to quit your job to find something better or find more freedom—some people can take it a little bit too far…. There’s a time in life when you need to work hard.” For most, that means the beginning years of their careers.
We should recognize, too, that those who are able to up and quit are in a particularly fortunate position. Eran Sudds, 37, who is based in Tsawwassen, B.C., didn’t dislike her career as an event coordinator. She had benefits, job security and a good salary. But the stress of the job began to take a toll. “I had to go to the hospital for chest pains, which [doctors] diagnosed as a panic attack,” she says. “I was stressed about a job I wasn’t invested in.” It was the first time she’d ever experienced severe anxiety.
Around that time, Sudds devoured the memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert—the patron saint of quitters. Inspired by the book and encouraged by her husband, she quit her job to travel and pursue photography. “I know I was very privileged to have a husband who could support me and the luxury to travel and take jobs that paid less,” she says of her experience, which she wrote about in Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It (Riverhead Books, 2016), a 10-year anniversary collection of essays by women who were inspired by the book. “But there are ways you can change your life that don’t have to be so huge,” she adds.
Urquhart suggests making a pros-cons list. She also coaxes her clients to be specific about what they dislike at work. If overtime is a major stressor, for example, talk to your boss about tweaking your schedule. Another place to start is looking at your life outside of work, says Donna Ferguson, clinical psychologist at CAMH. Are you getting enough sleep and exercise? And do you have a social life? For Ferguson, making your life less about work, and more about you, can be the healthiest place to start.
If you do decide that quitting is the best option, know that it’s not the end of stress. I’m working harder than ever to keep my own business afloat. And while Felepchuk’s new life may seem carefree, she’s supporting herself with corporate writing gigs. She has also launched a travel and lifestyle blog called LietCo. But now, she says, the extra hours are worth it. “It feels so much more fulfilling to be working on my own projects and to be in charge of my own destiny.” Sometimes, quitters really do win.
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