On a Thursday morning, I went into work, expecting it to be a day like every other. But I was back home by 11am. That morning, I didn’t think anything of it as the team sat in silence during my presentation. I was unaware of my colleague shuffling uncomfortably next to me. My manager then arrived and asked me for a quick chat. I was excited. I’d recently voiced some issues and I thought I was going to be told I’d been heard. I was told that yes, I’d been heard, but that it was me who’d have to go.
Getting fired isn’t like what you see on The Apprentice. No one shouts "you’re fired" at you. In my case, the f word was never used. But we both knew what this was. I was told that my contract, which was coming to an end in a couple of months, wasn’t going to be renewed. But until that moment, I was under the impression that I’d be staying at the company. I was in charge of brand and marketing for an early-stage technology product and the presentation I gave that morning was the launch plan for the following year. It was a plan I thought I’d be executing.
Getting fired isn't like what you see on The Apprentice. No one shouts 'you're fired'.
I have resisted inventing a tidy narrative of why it happened, tying up the loose ends and absolving myself of any responsibility. Life isn’t like that, it’s always messy. After my manager told me they were letting me go, everything was a bit of a blur. I recall that I was told not to blame the company’s culture. I was repeatedly told that this wasn’t about my performance – this was about me. They said I was obviously miserable and this was the best thing for me.
I wasn’t happy. It was true. But I’d wanted to make it work and I hadn’t considered quitting. I was naive about what I had the power to change. Half the team were located elsewhere and there were communication difficulties. Along the way, I’d lost the respect and the trust of that team. I was feeling lost in my personal life, my mental health was suffering and I wasn’t handling the challenges well.
I maintained my poise. "Thank you," I said. "It was a shame it turned out like this but I understand, and – could I go home now, please?"
I walked back into our tiny office and quietly packed up my things. The CEO came over, but I ran out. I didn’t want him to see me cry. I walked out of the building as fast as I could, and once I was outside, I burst into tears.
Once home, the emptiness of the day stretched out before me. A couple of now-former colleagues sent me kind messages. I got a call from the person I’d be handing my work over to. He said that this had happened to him once, and I’d look back and see it as a good thing.
I wasn’t ready to hear that yet.
Once home, the emptiness of the day stretched out before me.
I told my friends. The best ones called me immediately. They reassured me that I didn’t need to feel embarrassed. My mother came to meet me for lunch. She said I was in shock and she told me to take it easy for a few days.
When my boyfriend had suddenly died six years ago, my mother told me that anything in comparison would feel easy to handle. She was right but the feelings that came next actually felt a lot like my experience of grief. And just like back then, anger was my emotional weapon of choice. I ranted and ranted – anger numbed the painful sting of rejection.
This wasn’t a redundancy. It wasn’t something I could blame on the economy or a failing industry. This was about me. Someone else now has my job. I’ve sat in countless meetings about people who were going to be let go. I know the sorts of things that are said. I even once had to fire someone myself. I just never thought it would happen to me.
I've sat in countless meetings about people who were going to be let go. I even once had to fire someone myself. I just never thought it would happen to me.
I was fortunate that money wasn’t an issue. I had enough saved in the bank and an affordable living situation. And so, having just turned 29 years old, I was left purely with the psychological impact of what had happened. And I felt deeply, deeply ashamed.
Studies show that this is a common reaction. One found that 25% of men experienced feelings of shame when unemployed, while another conducted by the University of East Anglia found that being fired from a job has a significant impact on mental wellbeing and being fired negatively affects us for over five years.
People rarely admit to being fired, and I quickly learned why. Meeting new people became a chore. When I couldn’t give them an answer for what it is I do, their inability to place me made them hostile. One woman asked, "What did you do wrong?" At least she was being honest. It’s what everybody else was thinking.
My circumstances even lowered my chances in the dating market. On the apps, when I told men why I wasn’t working, they wouldn’t reply. At a wedding, I sat next to the only other single person there. When I told him my story, he said I sounded bitter. It was like I had an infectious disease that people were frightened to catch.
The stigma of unemployment is real. The longer a person is out of work, the less chance they have of getting back into the labour market. In our culture of workism – where we tie our identities to our work – when we lose our jobs, we lose our sense of self.
This, of course, has a negative impact on our mental health. Depression and anxiety are 4-10 times more prevalent among people who have been unemployed for more than 12 weeks. Unemployed people are 2-3 times more likely to die by suicide than those in work.
The worst thing that could have happened to me in career terms has happened and it has made me fearless.
I’d always been good at work. It was my life. I’d enjoyed success at a young age. I was global head of communications for a successful and prominent startup by the age of 26. Without the distraction of a busy job, I had to confront who I really was. It was frightening. I’d never stopped to do that.
It all changed one day when I met a former colleague for a coffee. It was high summer and as the sun streamed down on our faces, he said: "I want to do what you’re doing."
I almost fell off my chair. He said he craved time and space to think, he wanted to work out who he really was and what he wanted to do. He saw my position as an aspirational one and, slowly, I began to agree with him.
Finally, I had the chance to explore other careers. I was also loving not working. I never got bored. I had time to do all those things we talk about; I could actually read The New Yorker. I went to events that challenged my perceptions. I could hear myself becoming a more interesting person, one whose brain was thinking and not just about the drudgery of work emails.
I loved off-peak life: an empty gym, no queues at the post office, no commutes nestled into the armpit of a smelly stranger. I met up with people on maternity leave and freelance creatives for lunch. I had a lot more time for friends. I became someone who was always on time. The lifestyle and the freedom suited me and I was so happy with the person I’d become, that I began to realise that it would be impossible for me to return to normal office life.
Depression and anxiety are 4-10 times more prevalent among people who have been unemployed for more than 12 weeks.
So I set up my own consulting business. It went very well. I have a new definition for success – it is freedom and fulfilment from a varied and purpose-fuelled life, inside and outside of work – and I can proudly say that I’ve reached it.
I’m now self-employed and the most enjoyable thing about it is that my self-worth is no longer at the mercy of others. My success and my happiness isn’t in the hands of an employer. It doesn’t depend on whether someone deems me compatible with their culture or likeable or submissive to the hierarchical structures. It’s about delivering good work that helps my clients get their job done. Without fail, so far, they all like what I do for them and the fact that I’m loving the work has to be part of the reason why.
The worst thing that could have happened to me in career terms has happened. It has made me fearless. I know that I’ll always be able to make money. I no longer waste energy being frustrated by working with people I don’t want to. My mental health is the best it has ever been. I’m a better friend. I set my own pace and structure my working days in a way that suits me. I’m very productive. And now, there’s only one man who I set my alarm for in the mornings – and that’s the personal trainer I now have the time to see and money to pay for.