The pandemic has spawned a worldwide movement with millions of people now ‘lying flat’ – the term coined in China that means quitting work entirely for a better quality of life. Anna Moore meets women who have embraced this revolution.
Right up until March 2020, Charlotte Thompson* had never questioned her career choice. ‘Teaching was my calling,’ says Charlotte, 36. ‘My own teacher had told my parents I should teach. I loved children, I was a big sister in a large family, always looking after younger siblings.’ She taught for 12 years, the last four in a small school in North London where she had a year six class. ‘It was like a home,’ she says. ‘I absolutely loved it there.’
Fast forward to this autumn – as pupils and teachers returned to classrooms, Charlotte didn’t join them. She resigned from her job and has made no plans for the future. She may volunteer somewhere. She might take up running. Beyond that, she wants to focus on home and family – her own children are seven and five. ‘I don’t want to be a 1950s housewife, but it would be lovely to get a handle on the house,’ she says. ‘I want to make sure the children have a proper meal, that their rooms are tidy, their sheets are clean, they’re reading every day and playing with friends after school. The summer has been lovely and I’ve purposely not thought beyond it. I’ve signed myself off.’
Charlotte may not feel like part of a worldwide movement, but millions have emerged from the pandemic with similar feelings ‒ and made similar decisions. In the US, this trend has been dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’ after the country’s Department of Labor reported a record four million resignations in April. A Microsoft survey of 30,000 workers worldwide found that 41 per cent were considering leaving their profession, while in the UK and Ireland, research suggests 38 per cent of us are planning to quit work in the next six to 12 months.
In China, this ‘signing off’ is now known as ‘lying flat’, after Luo Huazhong, a 31-year-old factory worker who opted to leave his job, bike 1,300 miles to Tibet and survive on savings and odd jobs. In an online post in April this year, he described this as ‘chilling’ and ‘lying flat’ – his post went viral before being removed by censors.
For Charlotte, the pandemic changed her job beyond all recognition. She had to be physically in the classroom to teach the vulnerable and children of key workers, while simultaneously giving online lessons to the rest of her class. On her screen she saw parents sitting beside their children at home, sometimes filming her with their phones – and they’d often get involved in the lessons, shouting out answers, correcting other children and suggesting different ways to work out answers. At the start and end of each day, she had online ‘checking in’ sessions to support children struggling with lockdown – often isolated and unhappy, and involved in arguments on social media. ‘I was seeing children breaking down in their homes and not able to help them.
‘We were also expected to have medical knowledge, with guidelines changing regularly, and parents not necessarily agreeing with them,’ she continues. ‘I think the teaching unions’ demands and the way they were reported in the media meant there was a lot of hostility towards teachers – and I really felt that. The truth was that most of us wanted children back in the classrooms.’ Each month brought more pressure. ‘Parents would email constantly and then get angry if I didn’t reply immediately. I was always checking my emails ‒ I’d pull over in the car to do it!
‘I had to take my own two children to school with me and they were there before most children had even had their breakfast; then we didn’t get home until 6.30pm. There was no time to read or play,’ she says. ‘When schools reopened fully in March, we said we were going to focus on “wellbeing”, but in reality there was immediate pressure about meeting targets for the children who had not made progress. Some children had forgotten how to work in the classroom. Emotions were frayed. There was no let-up.’
At school, Charlotte functioned on pure adrenaline – but away from work, she was increasingly fragile. ‘I felt on the edge of a panic attack,’ she says. ‘I struggled to get out of bed on a day off. Once I drove to the shops and couldn’t get out of the car. I was beginning to have some very dark thoughts. When the head teacher started talking about the next academic year, I thought, “I can’t do this. I will break.”’
Instead, after a weekend where she and her husband took a good, hard look at their finances, Charlotte made the decision to stop work. The following Monday, she resigned. According to Dr Robyn Vesey, Organisational Consultant at Tavistock Consulting, the pandemic shifted the way we feel about our jobs for several reasons. If we did not feel looked after by our employers, or valued, or supported at such a critical time, it’s not surprising that we’d be reluctant to remain. ‘We’re willing to give our time, talent and energy but we expect to get something back,’ she says. ‘For some workers, that trust in their employers was breached when we were most vulnerable and that felt like a betrayal.’
At the same time, the pandemic has made us acutely aware of our mortality. ‘That illusion of limitless time has been shattered,’ she says, ‘so people are asking how they want to spend the time they have left.
‘Work gives us a feeling of achievement and agency in the world, but the pandemic has challenged that too,’ she continues. ‘We’ve all seen how little control we have and that might lead people to re-evaluate and look at the smaller-scale stuff, the areas we can control.’ For Charlotte, that could be the tidy rooms, the clean sheets, the good meals.
Natasha Stanley, Head Coach at career-change consultancy Careershifters, agrees. ‘Pre-Covid, when people came to us wishing to change their jobs, there was often one event that had tipped the balance ‒ the death of a family member, or an incident at work – which had changed their perspective. The pandemic was an event experienced by everyone at the same time.
‘There was a shift in priorities, an appreciation of home and family – especially for people spending more time with them than they’d been able to in years. For those on furlough, or suddenly working from home, the pandemic was the first opportunity they’d ever had to get off the treadmill. It was a pause. Many people had been going at high speed since leaving school, then university, then catapulted into a job. This was their first space to ask, “Hang on. Do I want this?”’
All this rings true for Teb Moema, who had a gruelling but glamorous career in fashion and beauty when the pandemic hit. ‘I’d always been ambitious in a very corporate way,’ says Teb, 36. ‘My dream was to be sales director of a major brand by the time I was 40.’
Teb worked in learning and development for major brands, a role which involved long hours and lots of travel. Before the pandemic, she and her partner had left London for rural West Yorkshire in search of a slower life, but her work remained full-on: she survived on four hours’ sleep. In January 2020, she was working in the US. In March, just days before lockdown, she was scheduled to fly to Dubai. ‘I didn’t feel comfortable going but my employer was really pushing me to go,’ says Teb. ‘I refused – and if I hadn’t, I’d have been stuck in Dubai for months because everything shut down immediately. That impacted how I felt about my employer. It felt… icky. They hadn’t put my interests first – but that’s what it’s like in the corporate world.’
During the months that followed, working from home gave Teb a chance to ‘nest’ for the first time. She dabbled in DIY and transformed her former junk room into a beautiful home office. Her patch of ground outside became a flourishing garden of flowers and vegetables.
The loss of Teb’s father at the height of the pandemic was another catalyst for change. ‘He had been in a care home so we hadn’t been able to visit him, then we had to have a Covid funeral,’ she says. ‘I started to think of all the times I’d said no to spending quality time with my family because of my career.’
Working with flowers, growing and arranging them, which she’d never done before, provided comfort and solace. In August 2020, Teb attended a short course at the Tallulah Rose Flower School in Cumbria. ‘It was so rewarding. I got lost in it and started thinking about how I could turn a hobby into a career.’ In April, Teb resigned from her job and launched a floristry business, Moema Floral Design.
‘If there’d been no pandemic, I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it,’ she says. ‘Lockdown gave me breathing space, and I discovered the joy of being at home. I’m still catching up on years of poor sleep – but now I get eight hours a night. I see my family every month. Instead of foreign travel, I’m enjoying England. I’d never go back to my old life.’
Jessie Kelly*, 34, has been through a similar journey. Before the pandemic her job as head of content for a well-known beauty brand was her ‘identity’. ‘It 100 per cent defined me,’ she says.
While working from home during lockdown, she began to feel differently. ‘I realised how much I enjoy working on my own,’ she says. ‘At work, you’re a human drop-in centre, constantly called over, pulled into meetings. It’s hard to get anything done so you’re always having to stay late. I realised how much I hated the commute, too. Getting ready to go out, then travelling across London and back, took three hours out of my day.’
Jessie’s partner, who worked in sales, was experiencing similar feelings – and their decision to get a puppy in lockdown made them both even more reluctant to return to their old lives. ‘This is going to sound really weird but when I was a teenager, I had a cleaning job and looking back on it, I realised that’s the job I enjoyed the most,’ she says. ‘It’s so simple. You can see the results of your work immediately. I listened to music the whole time and had a nice level of kinship with the other cleaners.
‘It was so far removed from the office environment, which is about “smart objectives” and things that to me are meaningless and made to create more admin for people. I’d learnt to hate it. I just want to do something practical.’ Jessie is now working out her notice and has signed up for a dog-grooming course. Her partner is taking a course in animal behavioural therapy with the intention of becoming a dog trainer. ‘Dogs enjoy everything about the world and they’re constantly putting life into perspective,’ Jessie says. ‘They’re also ridiculously cute and fluffy! I’d rather be around dogs than in an office.’
Both Jessie and Teb are happy to sacrifice a chunk of their (formerly substantial) income for more time to themselves, a simpler life. However, neither is under any illusion that money doesn’t matter. Teb has taken on a bit of freelance consultancy work in her old profession while building her new life. Jessie plans to do the same. Charlotte, too, is fully aware that she can’t stay ‘signed off’ for ever – she has chosen to remain anonymous in case she finds herself applying for another teaching post at some point in the future. She and her husband have decided they can afford to live on his income for one year.
Beyond that, she isn’t sure.
‘When I resigned, I felt devastated because my career was my identity,’ says Charlotte, ‘but now I’m looking forward to the year ahead. It feels like this should be a luxury, but to me, stepping back was more of a necessity. It’s about taking time to heal ‒ then I’ll see what happens.’
NEED A WORK/LIFE RETHINK?
Natasha Stanley, Head Coach at Careershifters offers her advice
- Don’t do it alone. Find people who have made similar moves or are doing what you’d like to do, living the way you’d like to live. Build a crew to inspire and support you.
- Act things out. Find a way to test your plans in a small way. Don’t sign up for a two-year course when you might discover you hate it; find short workshops, try shadowing. Sample things in bite-size ways.
- Seize the moment. In many ways, this is the least scary time to leave your job because there is so much change and reinvention taking place. People have been on furlough, there have been redundancies, everyone is rethinking. Deciding to step down will cause less shock and surprise than ever before.
*Some names have been changed.