To Liam, a content developer, the job offer seemed almost too good to be true: a higher salary, the ability to work from home, and the opportunity to learn a different industry. But two months in, the new position has lost its luster. Having never met his co-workers in person, Liam feels disconnected. He misses his old colleagues and his status as a longtime employee and resident expert. At the new company, Liam feels overwhelmed by all he doesn’t know about the industry. He’s beginning to think he shouldn’t have left his old job.
Liam is not alone in second-guessing his decision to change jobs. In a recent survey by Joblist, 26% of people who quit their previous job say they regret the decision. And with more than 50 million Americans quitting in the past year, that’s a lot of regrets. Since the Great Resignation began in 2021, people have been resigning in record numbers as the pandemic caused them to reassess their professional and personal lives.
But some are finding the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. In the Joblist survey, 42% of people who had quit their previous job and found another said the new job hasn’t lived up to their expectations. With only a couple of months at the new company under their belts, some people are already contemplating another move. But should they jump ship so soon into their new venture?
The neuroscience of regret
Regret is a feeling of remorse and responsibility for the negative outcomes of our choices. In our minds, we compare the outcome of a decision with what could’ve been if only we’d made a different choice. When the comparison is to our disadvantage, we experience regret.
Regret is so ingrained in mammals that even rats experience it, which could indicate the emotion evolved as a way to learn from past mistakes. In a laboratory experiment, rats were trained to wait for a flavored food pellet or circle around a maze to a differently flavored pellet with another wait time. Sometimes, a rat skipped a cherry-flavored pellet it liked because it didn’t want to wait, only to find an even longer wait elsewhere in the maze for a banana-flavored pellet it liked less. When the rat realized its mistake, it looked back toward the cherry pellet, and neuronal activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the ventral striatum (parts of the brain involved in decision-making and reward-processing) indicated it was thinking about cherry, not banana — which the researchers interpreted as rodent regret.
Similarly, when a new job doesn’t live up to our expectations, we might think with longing about our old job. Neurologically speaking, regret is very different from disappointment because we feel a sense of personal responsibility when we experience regret. Both in humans and in rats, regret, but not disappointment, is strongly correlated with neuronal activity in the medial OFC. Interestingly, people with injuries to their anterior medial OFC do not experience regret and are unable to adjust their behavior to avoid it.
If you’re feeling resignation regret, it may be time for some serious self-assessment. First, don’t fall into the trap of rosy retrospection, which happens when we recall negative experiences in a more positive light. We remember what we didn’t like about our old job, such as a bad manager or a long commute, but the negative emotions associated with the memories have faded. To get a more objective picture, ask family and friends what they recall about you during that time. Did you seem happy overall, or did you constantly complain about how annoying your manager was? Accept that you may be downplaying negative aspects of the old job while mistaking familiar and comfortable for a good fit.
Next, make a list of pros and cons for the old job versus the new one. In addition to obvious pros, such as a higher salary or a more flexible working arrangement, don’t forget to list less tangible positives, including a better work-life balance or the opportunity to learn new skills. With everything listed on paper, you’ll get a better idea of why you’re feeling regret and whether it’s truly justified. Then, you can explore your three major options:
1. Stick it out
Regret is a normal part of major life changes. Even if your old job was truly terrible, there were probably at least a couple of enjoyable aspects that you miss. The regret you’re feeling could also be new job nerves as you adjust to unfamiliar colleagues and responsibilities, especially if there’s a steep learning curve.
But don’t let feelings of regret keep you from fully engaging in your new workplace. Give yourself a goal to accomplish in your new position. Maybe it’s making it to the six-month mark, completing a major project, or learning a new skill. If you’re still unhappy after reaching this goal, it’s perfectly reasonable to start looking for another position. Or, you could have a frank discussion with your manager about why the position isn’t meeting your expectations and whether there’s anything they can do to help.
2. Explore other opportunities
If you decide to look for another job, learn from your regrets. Make sure you evaluate new opportunities through a critical lens. Seek out former and current employees to get their perspectives. During the interview process, be able to articulate why you’re leaving your job so soon, and how the experience helped solidify exactly what you’re looking for in a new role.
But it goes without saying, don’t quit your job before thoroughly researching and securing a new position. According to the Joblist survey, the No. 1 reason for resignation regret was not having a new job lined up, and the job market being more difficult than anticipated (40% of respondents).
3. Become a boomerang employee
Maybe your pro/con list showed that your previous position really was better, and you truly made a mistake by quitting. If you didn’t burn any bridges at your old company, it’s possible they’d take you back as a “boomerang employee.” Although rehiring an employee who previously quit was once taboo, a recent Workplace Trends survey featured on Bamboo HR indicates that 56% of HR professionals and 51% of managers say they give high or very high priority to boomerang job applicants who left in good standing.
It’s worth reaching out to your old company to inquire if a return is possible, especially if you were a high performer. However, remember that you left your old job for a reason, and unless conditions have changed, those same frustrations are going to resurface. But if that annoying manager has since left the company or you’re able to negotiate a higher salary or more flexible working arrangement, a return to your old job could be a great option.
After making a pro/con list and deciding to stick it out until the six-month mark, Liam’s nostalgia for his old position gradually faded. He’s worked hard to learn as much as he can about the new company’s products, so much so that co-workers are starting to turn to him for advice. The company began having quarterly in-person get-togethers, allowing him to know his colleagues better. Sometimes, Liam thinks fondly of his old position and co-workers, but he realizes now that what he thought was resignation regret actually isn’t.
Author: Laura Cassiday, Ph.D.