Is It Time To Finally Quit Your Job?

by: susan adams

On Sunday I got a Facebook message from a friend in Abu Dhabi, asking if I’d written a story about when it’s OK to take a sabbatical from work, “especially when you are in your mid-40s (like me).” This friend, a former journalist, has a high-paying job in corporate communications. But, she wrote, “Desperately want out for six months–but I am terrified I won’t get another job at the end of it. I am curious to know how people who take a half ‘gap’ year at this time of life are viewed.”

It may seem like a strange time to write a story on quitting your job. With unemployment stuck north of 9% and hiring sluggish, why would you walk away from a good salary and benefits? One consequence of the dim hiring picture is that many workers have stayed in jobs they don’t like, fearing they won’t find work if they leave.

In an effort to answer my friend’s question, I checked in with one of my best career sources, Eileen Wolkstein, a longtime coach in New York City. I also interviewed a woman I’ll call Karen, who left her job as a high-powered lawyer at the end of July because she wanted to take time to look for a new position.

The bottom line: It takes courage, planning, soul-searching and financial resources, but it can be totally worth it to resign and take some time for yourself. You will find work again, if you engage in a serious search that involves diligent networking and careful follow-up.

According to Wolkstein, the top reason to leave a job is when it gets “toxic.”

“There are people who get to the point that it’s destroying them psychologically, physically, emotionally, practically, everything,” she says. “If you’re being abused, and it’s just a horrible situation, you may have to give it up even if you don’t have a new job.”

Your first question has to be: Can I afford to leave financially? Wolkstein says it’s great if you have a cash reserve, but many of her clients have gotten creative about supporting themselves during a leave. Rent out your expensive apartment and move into a cheaper sublet, for instance. Take in a roommate.

For Karen, it was a matter of sitting down with her husband and looking at their family finances. They’d sold their home in Washington, D.C., for a windfall profit and together agreed they’d use those funds to support Karen’s time off. If you’re married or cohabiting and supporting a family, it’s essential to get a buy-in from your partner.

Karen and her husband also settled on a time frame. She’d give herself six weeks off and then start a serious search. If she didn’t find a dream job by April, she would take on temporary work.

Then there is the emotional piece. My friend in Abu Dhabi is struggling with anxiety about not working after decades of full-time toil. “I have a dreadful paranoia about being unemployed and not earning money, stretching back to the days when my family was really poor,” she wrote me in an e-mail. “Part of me thinks that I just can’t afford the luxury of indulging in this fantasy of a sabbatical.”

Wolkstein sees these kinds of emotions among her clients. “People are afraid that if they get off the roller coaster, they’re going to stay home and watch soaps and eat bon bons,” she says. “You have to really look at what you’re afraid of.” Some people identify deeply with their occupation. Without it, who are they?

Karen recommends garnering support from the people who matter to you. For her, that included her parents and her close friends. She also did a lot of reading about changing careers, including the book Second Acts: Creating the Life You Really Want, Building the Career You Truly Desire, which inspired her to put together an emotional support system.

Before you leave a job, try to negotiate an arrangement with your current employer. For Karen, the issue was having enough time to pursue informational interviews and networking. She’d set up a meeting, and then have to cancel because of pressing deadlines. Perhaps your boss will let you cut back to four days a week.

Do leave on good terms when you’re ready to go. Karen helped hire and train her successor. Her employer has been more than happy to be her reference. “It’s a great thing,” says Karen. “I can say, if anyone wonders, ‘I left on my own terms. It turns out it wasn’t the right thing for me. You’re welcome to speak with my previous boss.'” Wolkstein notes that some of her clients have negotiated nice severance packages when employers were looking to reduce head counts.

As of today Karen has two consulting gigs lined up, and two promising interviews. She’s been networking effectively and her plan is working well.

My friend in Abu Dhabi is lucky. Her supportive husband makes an excellent salary. She’s got savings of her own. Her main complaint about work: she’s bored. An industrious person, she is craving time to do her artwork, to study a language, to write. My advice: She should work through her emotions, offer to help her employer find a successor or phase out her position, do some thinking and planning about what she might want to do with her time off, and then go for it.