Two years ago, I wrote about how social workers grapple with the thought of leaving their organisations. I have given a few tips for supervisors to broach this matter with their supervisees (read about them here). It is a difficult conversation, but a necessary one when you begin to see the signs - listlessness about work, not wanting to commit to long-term projects, showing negativity towards management and colleagues, and signs of burning out.
Yet, there will come a time when social workers would have made the decision to leave. Whether the circumstance surrounding the departure is good or bad, workers will go through a sense of loss, and naturally, the grief of leaving the organisation.
Grief is a natural process
While some may argue about the empirical evidence of the stages that individuals go through in grief, it is undeniable that you will experience some form of loss immediately after submitting the letter informing your manager of your intent to leave.
The process of planning how cases need to be tied up, terminated, or handed over to colleagues for follow-up can be daunting for some. It is a constant reminder that your time with the organisation will soon be over. Colleagues might unconsciously express resentment over having to take on the additional load from you. They might have expectations on the standards of case recordings and administration that you may not possess, leaving you feeling guilty and unaccomplished. You might feel that you have let your colleagues down.
Clients might feel abandoned and transfer their anxieties of losing their worker in forms of anger, desperation, or sadness. You may try to assure the clients that those taking over their cases are as competent, if not better. Still, you realised that the relationship which was built over the years will soon end. You will no longer be part of their struggles - to share the pains, and celebrate their small successes. You feel a loss of usefulness to the other.
And then, there are other clients who you might not have the chance to meet and process the departure with them because of your limited notice period. The guilt of suddenly disappearing from them adds to the 'unfinished business' that you bring with you in your grief.
What has Maslow got to do with it?
When your identity is tied to the work that you do, and the organisation that represents the values you uphold, then, leaving the organisation is akin to losing your own 'self'.
Maslow (1987) places the need to belong as part of the hierarchy of needs that individuals strive to satisfy. Beyond home and family, the work environment is the next most common place for developing relationships, affiliations, connectedness, and being part of a group for most adults.
Social workers, especially, look upon colleagues to offer support when encountering difficult cases and challenges with the systems. Supervisors offer guidance and develop the workers' competence. You develop a sense of belonging in the organisation because you feel accepted, affirmed, and appreciated. Upon leaving, it is a system of emotional and professional support that you will lose. Even when there is the promise of growth in the new setting, you may fear the uncertainties of starting and building new relationships, which might not be the same.
Some colleagues may grow to become friends who celebrate the joys of life transitions like marriage, births, and deaths. Leaving the organisation may not signal the severance of this relationship. However, it means they are no longer as immediately accessible to you as they were before.
Maslow also offers insight into another form of loss - your esteem. While some may leave the organisation for better prospects of a higher post, others might just be making a lateral move to another organisation. Having to start from the beginning to establish your worth to the new organisation can be challenging, impacting your self-esteem.
How I overcame the grief of leaving my organisation
I left my position as the leader of an organisation. With that, I left behind wonderful colleagues and friends, projects that I felt needed time to nurture and grow, and clients and beneficiaries that I journeyed with over the years. I thought I left behind my accomplishments, my networks, and my identity.
During the process, I made time to speak to people that matter to me. I received love and well-wishes that accompanied me in my journey forward. For many, I remained contactable for them to reach out. At the same time, I made effort to reach out to them when I need to, and when I sense they needed me to.
Most importantly, I took time to ponder what work means to me. I began to see that renewing my purpose will allow me to let go of the grief of past losses, and accept the possibilities of the future that awaits.
Lawson. K (2018). Why you should take time to mourn during career transitions. The New Your Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/23/smarter-living/why-you-should-take-time-to-mourn-during-career-transitions.html
Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.).Pearson Education.
McLeod, S. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. SimplyPsychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html#:~:text=There%20are%20five%20levels%20in,esteem%2C%20and%20self%2Dactualization.
Read more about it
York, J (2021). Quitting – particularly without a job to go to – can be emotionally challenging and carry stigma. Can the Great Resignation change that? BBC. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210823-why-does-quitting-your-job-still-feel-so-hard