Career regrets? Here’s what workers wish they’d done differently

young male employee starting thoughtfully out of an quiet office window next to a desk
Image: Morsa Images/Getty

Millions of workers have quit or switched jobs in recent years, whether as a consequence of the pandemic and the workplace truths it revealed, or simply as a natural part of their career progression.

However, what’s also clear is that the pandemic – and pandemic-era working – has prompted more employees across all levels of seniority to think about what parts of their job they want to change, or what they would do differently if they had an opportunity to start again.

According to a survey of more than 1,000 professionals by software firm Skynova, financial decisions, learning and developing skills, and exploring different career paths top the list of things that workers wish they had done differently in hindsight.

Professionals with five or fewer years of experience most wished they had developed more skills, Skynova’s survey found, while those with six to 15 years of experience most regretted not negotiating their salary more aggressively. Seasoned professionals, categorized as workers who were 16 or more years into their career, wish they had contributed more towards their retirement funds.

SEE: Want flexible working or better benefits? Here’s how to negotiate with your boss

Skynova said it hoped the findings would help working professionals, and particularly those in the earlier stages of their careers, to “prevent some of the most common regrets that crop up among seasoned career professionals.” Namely: invest in your retirement fund, fight for better pay, and seek out upskilling opportunities.

Career regrets varied between age groups, with researchers noting that professionals in the middle or late stages of their career have more time to look back upon and can offer sage advice to younger employees.

Exploring different careers

While contributing to retirement funds (39%) negotiating better pay (37%) and further developing skills (35%) topped the list, a third of mid-career and seasoned professionals said they wish they had chosen a different career path. Just over a quarter (26%) wish they’d networked more, and 21% wish they had looked for opportunities that better aligned with their aspirations.

Changing jobs more frequently and, conversely, not switching employers too early in their careers also stood out in hindsight, while others said they wished they’d not stayed in their comfort zone and had evaluated job satisfaction more extensively.

Regrets of early-stage career professionals largely centred on developing skill sets (41%) and negotiating salary more aggressively (39%) – although 33% wish they had chosen a different career path.

Similarly, when asked what they would have done differently pre-career, mid-level and seasoned career professionals said they regretted not researching careers more (41%), not travelling (30%), not speaking to teachers or counsellors about possible career paths (28%), and not having a desire to form a career (21%).

Skynova said these results indicated that educators and employers needed to do more to “communicate basic information about career paths and the skills needed for them”, an issue that is becoming more urgent as employers face growing skills shortages, particularly in technology.

SEE: Tech jobs have an image problem, and it’s making the skills shortage worse

The survey also found that professionals working in IT were the least likely amongst respondents to wish they had chosen a different career path, but most likely to wish they had further developed their skills sets. By comparison, 39% of respondents in both the education and retail industries and 37% in government wished they’d gone down a different job route.

Intent to quit

Researchers also looked at professionals’ motivation for quitting their jobs in 2022. Financial considerations once again elicited the highest number of responses, with 71% saying they were not being paid enough, 40% blaming a toxic work environment, and 36% citing heavy workloads.

A lack of strong leadership and the fact their job differed from their expectations were both cited by 35% of respondents.

“If you’re a working professional, chances are you can relate to some of the regrets shared by others in this study,” said Skynova.

“If you’re an employer looking for ways to retain your key employees, improving compensation could yield dividends across all experience levels and industries. Support for continuing education, especially among younger workers and particular industries, may also contribute to stabilization.”

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