Thinking of quitting your civil service job? Here's what you should consider first

The “great resignation” has prompted many to change jobs. But could you get more satisfaction from the job you already have? Here are six questions to help clarify your career path
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By Dame Una O’Brien

07 Jul 2023

The prediction of a coming “great resignation” seemed to emerge from nowhere in the spring of 2021. The idea was that, dislocated and disrupted by pandemic lockdowns, many people would reassess lifetime priorities, leading exceptional numbers to change job or even give up work for good. 

Dropping this prediction into an interview with Bloomberg News in February 2021, Professor Anthony Klotz, now at the UCL School of Management, probably didn’t imagine it would resonate so widely. But as an expert in organisations and why people quit work, he accurately pinpointed that disruption caused by external forces inevitably throws up questions about our jobs and where work fits into our lives. 

Across the UK economy as a whole, we’ve seen some evidence of the great resignation, with a larger than expected number of people in their 50s and early 60s giving up work for good. 

So what’s been happening in the civil service? Results from the 2022 Civil Service People Survey, published in March, show turnover is up. It’s the highest it’s been for a decade – not quite a great resignation, but significant nonetheless. 

The top reason given for leaving or moving job was the quest for higher pay. But the second and third reasons – a desire for career progression and ambition for more interesting work – set me thinking. What if these aspirations driving churn in the workforce reflect a wider yearning for more fulfilment in our jobs? 

Finding and changing job is no small thing and, even if all goes to plan, evidence suggests it takes at least six months to get to grips with a new role. Instead of scrolling through job adverts, is there yet scope to improve satisfaction with the jobs we already have? 

My perspective these days as a coach and mentor is focused on how we can act as individuals. If you’re weighing up whether to leave and yet wonder if and how you could get more out of your job by staying, it could help to do a stocktake. 

Here’s a selection of questions to get the ball rolling. Everybody’s different but I’ve found this sort of exercise works best when writing out my thoughts by hand, or talking them through with a trusted friend or colleague who is, crucially, a good listener!

What brought me to this role in the first place and how did I feel when I first got the job? 

A reminder of the initial attraction and reason for taking on a job is a useful starting point when calibrating your current situation, and reconnecting with your original purpose and excitement.
When I think about my best days in this job, what actually happens? 

"Look at what’s going well, what gives you energy, and what drains you"

“These are the days of our lives,” as the song goes, so look at what’s going well, what gives you energy, and what drains you. Where might there be scope to reduce time spent on energy sapping activities and do more of the things you find motivating? 

How long have I been in this role, and how will I know when it’s enough? 

There’s no right answer, but this is one where it’s important to think ahead to your CV and a future interview; numerous short-term assignments always raise questions about how willing a candidate is to see things through. 

Am I making the most of the career pathways available within my department and the civil service professions? 

Support for developing your expertise within a profession is the best it’s ever been in the civil service. Taking advantage of these opportunities and being part of a professional network can help restore motivation in your current job and connect you to wider opportunities in the future.

How could I make further contributions, and what’s holding me back? 

It’s worth considering one or two constructive ideas to bring more challenge to your role to discuss with your line manager. For example, is there scope to mentor or train junior colleagues? Can you suggest practical improvements to the way work is done? Is there a cross-departmental project where you’d like to be involved?

What other possibilities do I have for growth and development? 

Sometimes the best place to look is beyond the job. Wherever you live, there are opportunities to get involved. Volunteering is a great way to get more stretch, develop new skills and expand your horizons. 

Don’t let the great resignation turn into the great regret

One of my favourite writers about finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life is Paul Dolan. In his book Happiness by Design, he shows it’s a lot easier for us to “nudge ourselves happy” in small but effective ways than to try to be a different person or adopt a completely different lifestyle. 

What have we got to lose by applying this insight, and taking stock of the jobs we have now before we get too drawn towards the great resignation? 

Dame Una O’Brien is a leadership coach with the Praesta partnership and a former permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care

This article first appeared in CSW's summer 2023 issue. Read the digital magazine here

Read the most recent articles written by Dame Una O’Brien - Civil service leaders must get better at deep listening


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