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‘I want to do the things that matter to me’: Pandemic spurs search for jobs with purpose

Fernanda Cunha got some help from sons Benjamin, 4 (left), and Alex, 9, as she made bath products for her business.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

It can take a big push to make a drastic change. And when it comes to people’s work lives, there has been perhaps no greater disruptor than the COVID-19 pandemic. Many got laid off, or were suddenly allowed to do their jobs from anywhere. Some got sick, while countless others worried about their safety.

However they got there, the global health crisis has caused people to take stock of their careers — and then take a leap they might not have had the freedom, or courage, to make otherwise.

For Anna Jackson, it meant quitting school, founding a tech startup, and moving back to Massachusetts to be closer to her grandmother.


Sam Quady, a cook who lost his job at the Ritz-Carlton, Boston, enrolled in a coding boot camp and landed a job as a software engineer.

Fernanda Cunha was planning a sabbatical from the corporate world but wound up homeschooling her children in Malden instead, and launching her own cosmetics company in the process.

“People are really trying to figure out a way to keep the best parts of what the pandemic gave us, which is this slowed-down, home-centric, connected pace of life,” said Kathy Robinson, founder of the Boston career-coaching network Turning Point. “The search for meaning and purpose and ‘What is it all for’ is absolutely a thread.”

The number of people considering a professional change appears to be at an all-time high, Robinson said, and more movement is expected as vaccinations increase and employers start calling people back to the office. In this liminal moment before our post-pandemic lives begin, many people are reevaluating what they’re doing with their lives. Driving it all is a nightmarish pandemic that has made people realize life is short — so why not get a better job now?

Career experts say they are seeing stirrings from people of all ages, from twentysomethings rethinking their career paths to baby boomers starting their own consulting firms.


A recent poll conducted by LinkedIn found that two-thirds of respondents had either left their jobs in the past year to pursue a “passion project” or were considering doing so. In Boston, a quarter of the professionals polled said the pandemic has made them want to pursue more fulfilling jobs, according to a survey by the staffing agency Robert Half.

Around 25 percent of jobs were vacated voluntarily last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest rate since 2016. And that could mean more people jumping ship this year as the labor market stabilizes.

Those who were laid off, or who no longer have long commutes to contend with, have had time to rethink their careers. Conversely, some people have never worked harder and are completely fried — or they aren’t happy with how their employers have treated them.

In some sectors, particularly hospitality, some jobs may be gone permanently, and those that remain may be less appealing to workers fearful of a continuing boom-and-bust cycle.

More than anything, the pandemic is shaking off the forces that keep people stuck in careers that don’t suit them, Robinson said: “It’s almost like Stockholm syndrome: You convince yourself that it’s fine.”

The floodgates have already started opening in high-burnout industries such as consulting, and in human resources, which grappled with the impact of COVID daily, said Tracy Burns, chief executive of the Northeast HR Association. And as more companies expect workers to report to the office, the exodus is likely to spread.


“There’s some of the ‘Life is too short’ feeling,” she said. “And then there’s this other, ‘Oh hell no, I’m not coming back.’ "

Gaia Uman Borrero fled Cambridge for her parents’ house in Brattleboro, Vt., last spring, while continuing to work remotely as a research assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital. After spending six months there with her partner, the couple moved to California, renting Airbnbs in different towns that allowed them to surf and hike.

Uman, 25, has a background in the mental health field, and as she saw the need for access to those services grow, she felt an urge to get back in. So she quit her job and started working for a San Mateo, Calif., online mental health provider as a clinical recruiting coordinator.

“I decided to follow what I’m passionate about,” she said.

It’s unclear if there will be an onslaught of resignations as things ease back to normal, said Thomas Kochan, codirector of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. But employers who haven’t treated their workers well will surely suffer.

“The companies that did a really good job of managing the workforce, showing flexibility, showing concern, staying in touch, are going to be rewarded with loyalty,” he said. “Companies that seem to have just focused on, ‘How am I going to keep my business going?’ and lost sight of their workforce responsibilities are the ones who are going to pay the price.”


But even organizations that typically don’t have much churn are starting to see more employees leave.

At Teknor Apex, a plastics compounding company in Pawtucket, R.I., about 10 of 400 professionals have left in the past few months, more than normally leave in a year, said chief human resources officer Donna Sinnery. One person is starting a business, another moved closer to family, and a third landed a dream job.

“How do you combat that?” said Sinnery, who recently moved to Florida to be closer to her grandchildren and now works remotely. “A lot of people experienced loss, and I think people just had a life reflection on ‘What’s important for me?’ "

Women, who experienced major upheaval during the pandemic as child-care demands soared, seem especially ready for change. One in four women had started setting up a business, and more than 60 percent were hoping to switch careers, according to a survey last year by the professional women’s network AllBright.

Cunha has already done both. Cunha, 41, of Malden, used to spend most of her time traveling in South America for her job as a business development manager, and was unhappy being away from her family. Even when the pandemic put her travels on hold, she knew the role wasn’t right for her, and she quit last fall.

She had planned to take a sabbatical from the corporate world and attend a yoga retreat in India, but ended up homeschooling her two young sons instead. She got restless quickly, though, and enrolled in an online entrepreneurship course, tapping into her engineering and chemistry background to start making her own organic cosmetics. This longtime dream came to be only because Cunha had “the head space to think.”


Fernanda Cunha makes a bath bomb for her business, Confluence Skincare, at home in Malden.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

“I want to do the things that matter to me instead of adjusting my life around my job,” she said.

Similarly, Anna Jackson, 28, founded her own tech business after fleeing to North Carolina from New York, putting medical school on hold and quitting her job at a dermatology clinic. Jackson, now pregnant and able to work anywhere, and her husband are moving closer to her grandmother in Hingham. “COVID may just have been the exterior factor needed to nudge me over the edge,” she said in an e-mail.

Some workers are running from sectors that were devastated by the pandemic, including food service and hotels. Among restaurant employees, 53 percent are contemplating leaving their jobs, according to a report from One Fair Wage and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center.

After Sam Quady was laid off last spring from his job cooking at the Ritz-Carlton, Boston, he found himself with both time and generous unemployment benefits on his hands, so he enrolled in a Galvanize tech boot camp. Now he’s a software engineer for a health care-related startup, making more money and working better hours, instead of anxiously waiting for the hotel to reopen.

“It’s a very odd circumstance where I feel like it’s the best possible thing that could have happened to me,” he said, “and it’s been the cause of so much misery and suffering for other people.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.