Should You Ever Go Back To An Old Job?

Photo: Ketut Subiyanto.
When COVID restrictions were first imposed, Tori found the exciting world of her job at a New York PR firm suddenly got a lot smaller. Boxed into a little studio apartment, the pressures of working from home began to get to her.
"I couldn't separate my working hours from the rest of my day and I felt pressured to be available, to work more because I could, to maintain business when other companies were doing layoffs," says Tori, who is now 26. "I think I just kinda broke."
She joined the so-called Great Resignation and became part of a wave of people who quit their jobs after the pandemic hit. After a year of freelancing and working for two other agencies, she had a better handle on how to manage her work-life balance. Her former boss had kept in touch and, one day over lunch, she asked Tori if she was happy. "I told her I was happy but kind of bored," she says. Eventually, Tori decided to go back to her old job. So far it’s going well.

Even if you previously got on well with colleagues, it's crucial to think about how things may have changed. Returnees might encounter animosity or distrust among colleagues who may have attributed their departure to a lack of loyalty or commitment.

"I always feel appreciated, respected and celebrated when it's due," she says. "I'm really content."
The career ladder doesn’t always go straight up. Sometimes you get stuck on the same rung for years; sometimes you hit a glass ceiling. Maybe you decide to switch ladders altogether. And sometimes you circle back to a place you thought you’d left behind. But making the decision to go back is not easy. How do you know you’re not just being susceptible to the grass-is-greener thinking that led you to leave in the first place?
It’s a conundrum more people than usual may be facing, now that we are three years into the pandemic. Recent research by HR platform Paychex found that 80% of American employees who left their jobs during the Great Resignation regret it, a phenomenon the company is labelling the 'Great Regret'.
Alison Stevens, Paychex’s director of HR services, recommends thinking long and hard before rushing back to an old job. "There’s nothing wrong with going back to an old employer but I’d encourage anyone considering it to try to put themselves back where they were when they left," she says. "They need to resist the urge to look at the situation through rose-tinted glasses and be realistic about the reasons they left, what they were looking for when they did, and what returning to their old company would give them now."
For Edinburgh-based Hannah, 28, jumping back into an old job in her early 20s gave her a chance to earn good money and reconnect with colleagues with whom she had got on well, but she says it was "only a temporary fix". 
"I first started this job when I was at uni part-time," she says. "It was doing internet car sales at a call centre and it had incredibly good commission. It allowed me to leave university with no debt and money to travel afterwards."
Since she was paid well and liked the people she had met there, it was a no-brainer to go back full-time when she returned from travelling. "It was a relief in that I didn’t have to learn anything new. All the things I was doing were very much the same, and with the same people in the office. But quickly it got very boring and repetitive."
Hannah left after a year and since then has done all kinds of jobs, from luxury ski chalet hosting to her current gig as a tarot teacher. But she is glad she learned the lessons she did from going back to that call centre job. "I now know I need a lot of variety in my work."
While money and perks are important, the Paychex research found that the top thing workers missed about jobs they left during the Great Resignation was their colleagues. This was especially the case for women, who were 31% more likely than men to miss coworkers when they switched jobs. But even if you previously got on well with colleagues, Stevens says it’s crucial to think about how things may have changed. Returnees, she says, might encounter "animosity or distrust among colleagues who may have attributed their departure to a lack of loyalty or commitment". 
Sheree, 30, had a negative experience returning to an administrative job when she was in her 20s, after taking a temporary promotion to work as a personal assistant. When that stint was over, she went back to her original role to find that older colleagues resented her for having taken the opportunity. "Because I had been promoted and some of them had been there a long time, they saw it as me getting ahead of them and taking a job – that they’d never even applied for," she says.
The behaviour created a bullying environment, with her coworkers even unfriending her on Facebook. "They left me out of work emails, they left me out of chats, they left me out of events. It was getting so bad, it was hard for me to do my job because they were leaving me out of team emails that I needed to perform my duties."
Thankfully she was able to leave after sticking it out for six months, but she still looks back on it as "one of the worst periods of my life".
Even if you find yourself welcomed back by colleagues, there will likely be something else that wasn’t working in your old job, which is why you left in the first place. In a best-case scenario, taking time away might help you fix that. Some, like Tori, may find a break provides more balance. Others are able to negotiate a better salary upon their return.
Ella*, 28, is taking a route many are now opting for: freelancing for her old company but not going back to being a full-time employee. Having left her job at a magazine to train to be a social worker, Ella ended up struggling with the career change. She left without a plan. "I had been so stressed, I decided, I don’t have the capacity to make another decision about my next life step."
After taking some time to regroup, she got in touch with her old boss, who it turned out needed some work done. Then more offers of work came in. "As I started settling into that lifestyle, I realised I could do that and have it not mean five days a week," she says. "I started to see it as an option in a way I hadn’t before. It was a bit of a Goldilocks moment. I tried this and I didn’t like it. I tried that and I didn’t like it. But for now, this is just right."
*Name changed to protect identity