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The pandemic pushed people to reevaluate their jobs. Meet 5 who reinvented themselves

From left: Cati Bennett, Frank Ruiz, Carla Stickler, Jack Elliot and Kristin Zawatski transformed their lives as a result of the pandemic.
Beth Nakamura for NPR; Christopher Gregory for NPR; Taylor Glascock for NPR; Amanda Lucier for NPR; Vanessa Leroy/NPR
From left: Cati Bennett, Frank Ruiz, Carla Stickler, Jack Elliot and Kristin Zawatski transformed their lives as a result of the pandemic.

We've all heard about the Great Resignation, as 4.4 million U.S. workers quit their jobs each month in 2021. But in some ways, the shift just as easily might have been dubbed the Great Reinvention.

Scores of people changed jobs in search of higher pay, better working conditions and career development opportunities. And as remote work brought on by the pandemic continued, many found it easier to relocate to a new city or devote would-be commuting hours to the pursuit of other interests.

Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at London's UCL School of Management, says that while resignation rates in the U.S. had been steadily increasing over the past decade, a combination of factors — including burnout, the autonomy of remote work and the existential reflections wrought by the pandemic — pushed many people to reevaluate what they were giving and getting from their jobs.

And Klotz would know: He's credited with predicting the Great Resignation and coining the term last May.

Consider: Half of employees surveyed in a fall 2021 U.S. Catalyst/CNBC poll said they intended to make career changes as a result of the pandemic, with most citing the desire for location flexibility. And a Prudential survey conducted in February found that 22% of workers switched jobs during the pandemic, with another 50% actively looking for a new job. Of those who changed jobs, one-third said they took a pay cut in exchange for better work-life balance.

"I think people are reinventing themselves in a way that the time and energy they put into their days pays them back at a higher rate, psychologically speaking, than it did in their prior job or whatever they were doing before the pandemic," Klotz explains.

Change is here to stay, even as we move past the pandemic

Importantly, not all workers were afforded such opportunities. Many low-wage, gig and essential workers weren't able to work from home or change jobs.

That said, according to Saba Waheed, research director at the UCLA Labor Center, the pandemic ignited conversations around work and working conditions across many sectors — discussions about livable wages, accessible child care and family leave, for instance — that she hopes will continue even as many industries return to pre-pandemic operations.

"For me, the 'change' is actually about reconsidering work, leveling the playing field between worker and employer, and being able to make demands on work conditions," Waheed tells NPR over email.

NPR's Morning Edition spoke with five people who reinvented themselves amid the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic as part of its Work Life series.

Their journeys are as varied as the individuals themselves, from a stay-at-home mom who became a hospital chaplain to a Broadway performer-turned-software engineer. But they all have one thing in common: Their stories illustrate how the pandemic has been a personal and professional turning point for so many people, many of whom are unlikely to look back.

Klotz predicts that the next two to five years will likely see many companies collecting feedback and experimenting to figure out how best to invest in employees, with the end goal of making the world of work more sustainable for everyone. That will continue to be important long after COVID-19 restrictions.

"We haven't exited this environment where we're surrounded by threats to our well-being," Klotz said, citing examples such as Russia's war in Ukraine, the recent spate of mass shootings and the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade.

"I think organizations are saying, 'Employees don't check that stuff at the door,'" Klotz says. "We have to invest in their well-being and understand that we're in an environment where the stressors are not just coming from the work itself or the workplace."

A Broadway performer finds her voice as a software engineer

Software engineer Carla Stickler sits with her "Grimmerie," a behind-the-scenes book about <em>Wicked</em>, at her home on June 29 in Chicago. Stickler worked as a Broadway performer, appearing in <em>Wicked</em> as an ensemble member and understudy for Elphaba.
/ Taylor Glascock for NPR
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Taylor Glascock for NPR
Software engineer Carla Stickler sits with her "Grimmerie," a behind-the-scenes book about Wicked, at her home on June 29 in Chicago. Stickler worked as a Broadway performer, appearing in Wicked as an ensemble member and understudy for Elphaba.

Carla Stickler, 38, had wanted to be a singer since childhood. After years of practice, high school performances and touring the world in the companies of several musicals, she made it to Broadway in 2010 as part of the ensemble cast of Wicked and the understudy for Elphaba, aka the Wicked Witch of the West.

The work was grueling — eight shows a week in addition to being on standby to fill in as the lead.

Stickler enjoyed her work, but five years of dancing in 4-inch heels on an angled stage in a heavy wig took a physical toll. And the schedule meant she routinely missed out on holidays and other social events.

"I spent more time at the physical therapist, at my personal therapist, in the gym just trying to care for myself than actually having any sort of like a social life," she said. "And I was like, 'This is not ... the way I think I want to live the rest of my life.'"

Stickler left Wicked in 2015 but kept a foot firmly in the musical theater world as she got a master's in theater education, taught voice lessons and even filled in as Elphaba in emergencies.

A photo of Stickler as Elphaba in <em>Wicked</em> sits next to a framed map of New York City in Stickler's home in Chicago. Now a software engineer, Stickler previously worked as a Broadway performer.
/ Taylor Glascock for NPR
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Taylor Glascock for NPR
A photo of Stickler as Elphaba in Wicked sits next to a framed map of New York City in Stickler's home in Chicago. Now a software engineer, Stickler previously worked as a Broadway performer.

But that was a lot of hustling without much job security (or health insurance, considering she didn't work enough hours to get it from the show). In 2018, when a friend who had left his job as a composer to become a software engineer told her about his experience, something clicked.

Stickler went home and Googled "how to code." She taught herself using free online resources, then signed up for an intensive boot camp — while still teaching and performing. To her surprise, coding — like musical theater — allowed her to be creative.

"In acting, we use our bodies to tell a story," she says. "In programming, we use code. "It's just a different medium. Painters use paint; coders use programming languages."

Stickler was initially hesitant to tell her theater friends and co-workers about her coding pursuits, as she wasn't ready to fully commit to leaving the arts and didn't want to be labeled a failure if she did.

But when COVID-19 hit and Broadway shut down, everyone was suddenly in the same boat — forced to find other work. So Stickler took the leap and applied for tech jobs.

She ended up taking a customer-facing role for the first year. While it wasn't the job she had in mind, it gave her health insurance and stability.

"It gave me the opportunity to feel safe and secure in a time when the world was a mess, and it allowed my husband and I to both realize that we did not want to live in 650 square feet in Brooklyn anymore," she says.

They bought a house in Chicago to be closer to their families. Then she landed a remote software engineering role.

Still, Stickler says it doesn't yet feel totally natural to introduce herself to people as a software engineer, as opposed to a Broadway singer. She says she feels the need to explain what she used to do, in part because she doesn't fit the stereotype of a typical engineer.

But that's an idea she is actively working to challenge, for herself and for others.

During the pandemic, Stickler connected with a group started by other performers-turned-engineers that aimed to funnel actors and artists toward coding resources. She said many are now working software engineers, and it's been inspiring to see them realize how much they are capable of — something she herself experienced.

Stickler says she feared switching careers would mean she was no longer an artist. But she returned to Broadway during January's omicron surge for a brief stint as Elphaba. And she's still singing, even if that's just at her local karaoke bar for now.

"This whole journey has been terrifying, if I'm being honest. ... I was just kind of taking a leap of faith and hoping that it would work out," she says. "And it's ended up being this incredible thing in my life and I'm beyond grateful that I was able to do that."

A stay-at-home mom felt trapped, now she's a hospital chaplain

Cati Bennett, a chaplain resident in the VA health care system in Portland, Ore., stands in her backyard in Vancouver, Wash., on June 23. She became a hospital chaplain during the pandemic.
/ Beth Nakamura for NPR
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Beth Nakamura for NPR
Cati Bennett, a chaplain resident in the VA health care system in Portland, Ore., stands in her backyard in Vancouver, Wash., on June 23. She became a hospital chaplain during the pandemic.

Cati Bennett, 36, left her job in university administration when her second child was born in 2019. She was gearing up to reenter the workforce right as the pandemic hit.

She retreated inside with her two kids while her husband, an intensive care unit nurse, was thrust onto the front lines and put up in a hotel room between shifts. All of the resources that she had previously relied on as a stay-at-home mom — library story time, playgrounds, babysitters — were gone.

Their family's world "got very small very quickly," Bennett says, adding that there were days that passed without her talking to another adult except through screens.

"I felt trapped," she says. "It was like I had these people on the phone who loved me, who loved my kids, saying they wished they could help and they couldn't."

Bennett was depleting her own resources caring for her kids and her husband, and even a few months into the pandemic she knew the pace wasn't sustainable.

Bennett contacted an acquaintance who was running a training program for volunteer chaplains at a hospital in downtown Los Angeles and had encouraged Bennett to get involved over the years.

Bennett, who has a master's of divinity, had never been drawn to chaplain work. She considered it to be "for extroverts or people who really like to pray ... and I just never saw myself that way."

But, driven by desperation, she started volunteering at the hospital in 2020, well before vaccines were available. Bennett recalls being terrified at first — and not just of being so close to sick patients.

"That was less scary for me than people asking me to pray, honestly," Bennett says, explaining that she was worried she would mess up or disappoint.

She ended up making a cheat sheet with a couple of different prayers to keep in her pocket but didn't use it as much as she'd expected. In fact, she has found that chaplaincy work is more about being present with people and discussing whatever they are experiencing.

"And sometimes those conversations lead to questions about God or death or what happens after death," she adds. "But generally, it's just about people. And that is the only reason why I could do this work."

It wasn't easy, and Bennett experienced a lot of grief herself. She remembers taking a break one day during winter 2020 to look out her window, only to see three refrigerated morgue trucks. Another time, she met a nurse who, on her last day before quitting, said she was asked to deliver another body to the morgue — and because the hospital was out of body bags, she was told to start doubling up.

"And in that moment, I don't know, it's like ... it's tragic, but it's inside this giant heap of tragedy," Bennett says. "To not be present to my own sadness and confusion about what was going on, that would mean that I couldn't see what was happening for her when she had to stack two bodies in a body bag before she went and ate cake and said goodbye to her friends in the nurse break room."

But her job was also full of meaningful moments, like getting to spend an uninterrupted hour with a patient who was dying — a relatively long time compared with medical professionals on her interdisciplinary team, who were often forced to rush between multiple patients.

"That is also joyful work for me, because while it's hard, it feels sometimes like the only work worth doing for me," Bennett says, adding that she is grateful to be afforded trust and have access to so many people's stories.

Bennett's career shift has also affected her family: They moved to the Portland area for her residency program. After getting certified, she aims to work part time to be home with her kids and then move to full time as they get older.

"I was worried about pretending," she says. "I think that was what I was most worried about, like pretending to have the answers, pretending to have this great wall of faith. And so I've been really pleasantly surprised to find that that is not what chaplain work is, that it is exactly the opposite. That I get to be more honest than I've ever been in my life."

A period of reflection led to the end of a marriage, a career pivot and a new wardrobe

For Jack Elliott of Portland, Ore., the pandemic was a time of reevaluating relationships.
/ Amanda Lucier for NPR
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Amanda Lucier for NPR
For Jack Elliott of Portland, Ore., the pandemic was a time of reevaluating relationships.

When the pandemic hit, Jack Elliott started rethinking the relationships in their life — starting with their marriage.

"We realized not too long into the pandemic that our marriage had an expiration date," they say. "And by November of 2020 we had decided that it was best for us to have an amicable split."

That probably wouldn't have happened so fast without the pandemic, says Elliott, who started reevaluating other relationships in their life, especially the unhealthy ones. During this time of reflection, they ended up breaking off contact with some friends as well as their mom, for whom they said their safety and happiness were never a top priority. Then came their career.

Before the pandemic, Elliott, 34, worked as a case manager for a housing program, meaningful work that came with a lot of challenges and stress. They wanted a job where they could still better people's lives, "but in a way that was more true to what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it."

After months of job hunting, Elliott -- who lives in Salem, Ore.landed a role at the Oregon Health Authority, with more leadership responsibilities and other opportunities.

As a nonbinary person, they had previously felt boxed into a certain public image, feeling the need to wear button-down shirts and slacks instead of clothes they felt comfortable wearing. But during the pandemic, at their new job, Elliott traded in their dress shirts for overalls.

"It's a funny thing when you feel more confident in the world's capacity to accept you for who you are at face value," Elliott says. "Like when you work in a place where people see you on screen and in like a floral jumper and in a shirt with some flowers on it and say like, 'Oh cool — it's Jack, hey Jack' instead of like, 'That's kind of an interesting outfit' ...

"That, I think, for me has helped me feel a little less fearful of opportunities and challenges," Elliott says.

All of these changes have added up, empowering Elliott to embrace new personal relationships and professional opportunities, all while living more authentically. Looking through photos, they say they're even smiling differently -- more easily and genuinely -- now.

In the early days of the pandemic and their divorce, Elliott recorded a message to their future self along the lines of, "You and I both know that what you're going through right now is incredibly difficult — whatever it is — but I promise you just like all the times before you're going to get through this." And they offer similar advice to others going through struggles.

"I think that when you start healing yourself from whatever it is you're healing from, whether it's a divorce or bad relationships with your parents or trauma or whatever, there is a point of no return ...," they say. "And that's when the best stuff happens. And I just want to encourage anyone who's going through that right now: Just keep going. It's so hard and it's so beautiful and so worth it."

An actor flipped the script to become a bilingual theater teacher

Frank Ruiz, photographed near his Harlem home in New York City, is an education outreach associate and teaching artist at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, N.J.
/ Christopher Gregory for NPR
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Christopher Gregory for NPR
Frank Ruiz, photographed near his Harlem home in New York City, is an education outreach associate and teaching artist at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, N.J.

Frank Ruiz, 24, had steady work as an actor before the pandemic, performing at regional theaters and touring internationally with The Wizard of Oz. But it wasn't necessarily the kind of musical theater work he had set out to do.

Ruiz, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua in the 1980s and 1990s, says the jobs he was doing didn't really speak to his identity (or his physical strengths, as many involved more technical dancing than he had been trained to do).

"I think it was the musical West Side Story when I had an idea, like, 'Oh this is something I could do,'" he recalled. "I learned more and more and wanted to really explore telling stories that resonate with who I am ... And I never really got the opportunity to do that."

Ruiz also had negative experiences with teachers and agents who, as he put it, tried to put him in a box because of his background. He recalls how one of his teachers, while otherwise supportive, suggested he consider changing his last name to one that could help him pass as white to further his career.

Ruiz's first name was already an Americanized version of Francisco, the family name his parents wanted to give him. But he decided to give the suggestion a try, adopting the last name "Martin" from his mother's maiden name, Martinez. It didn't stick — and it didn't feel good, either.

"It's this one ... little betrayal, if you will, of not ... trusting that I can be myself and still be successful," he says. "It makes my stomach turn a little bit, thinking how quickly I latched on to that idea. And it's still something I deal with now, just thinking about how long it took me to really realize how hurtful that was."

Those so-called betrayals didn't stop when he finished school. Ruiz performed numbers from Hello, Dolly! at his graduation showcase — in other words, no rap — but agents seemed to want to talk only about shows like In the Heights and Hamilton, he says.

"I think it's really difficult when people as a whole are forced to be this one-dimensional version of themselves, that's already a challenge," he says. "So to ask someone to do that when it doesn't even reflect who they are — it's a big ask and it's a challenge to be asked to do that over and over again."

Ruiz wished he had more opportunity to explore using music as a storytelling device, and the pandemic finally offered him that chance. He did family research that revealed he is descended from renowned folk singers in Nicaragua and learned the guitar to play folk and protest music, which he said "just resonated with my heart."

He also decided to look for a new job, applying for theater teaching jobs throughout New York City. Ruiz now teaches at an art center in Red Bank, N.J., which has a large Spanish-speaking population.

Ruiz runs an outreach program for children and teenagers, in English and Spanish, where he teaches them the fundamentals of acting through improvisation and offers them the opportunity to express their own identity and perspectives.

He has since realized that he doesn't want to stop teaching — and would accept an acting job only if it meant he could do both.

While his new role can be challenging, Ruiz said he appreciates being able to advocate for people that remind him of his family. And he finally feels like he's bringing his whole, true self to work, which he hopes benefits not just himself but his students and co-workers too.

"As I do this work, as I continue to teach, I feel more authentically myself than I ever have," he adds.

She used to feel guilty about balancing motherhood and work — not anymore

Kristin Zawatski, a training project manager, stands outside the Feldberg Communications building at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., on June 28.
Vanessa Leroy / NPR
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NPR
Kristin Zawatski, a training project manager, stands outside the Feldberg Communications building at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., on June 28.

Before the pandemic, Kristin Zawatski, 44, had a lot of anxiety around picking her kids up after school.

Zawatski, who lives outside Boston, was committed to her job in higher education, hitting her deliverables and working late when needed. But she worried about what her colleagues and bosses thought when she left early to take her two sons to Cub Scouts or swimming lessons -- what she describes as a holdover from her days working in finance.

"Oh, I always felt like they were looking at their watch when I was leaving ..." she says. "'Oh, you know she's leaving again at 4:15.'"

As a result, Zawatski didn't often ask for time off to chaperone field trips or go to school performances. And when she did, she was wracked with guilt and constantly checking her work email on her phone.

Then came COVID-19.

At first, Zawatski would work all day, joking that she would close her laptop only when somebody asked whether they were going to eat dinner. But a couple of months in, she realized that nobody was paying attention to how long she was working — everyone else was also home, scared and trying to balance work and family responsibilities.

"I started to realize that all of the hang-ups about being away from work to spend time with my kids, that was all me wanting to be a really good employee. But my work speaks for itself," she says, adding that the pandemic made her realize that an hour here or a day there won't change that.

She says the silver lining of the pandemic was the quality time their family spent together, including working their way through the Marvel universe during weekly movie nights. That dark time helped shed light on what was most important to her.

"The pandemic was terrifying in the sense that if I got sick I didn't know if I'd be there the next day to see my kids," she says. "Knowing that life could be short, I didn't want to waste it anymore ... worrying about what kind of employee I was. Because my kids don't care what kind of employee I am — my kids care what kind of mom I am."

Since the return to in-person school and extracurricular activities, she's continued to take time away from work to attend reading ceremonies and field days, and even covered her sixth-grader's classroom one morning so his teacher could join her colleagues for breakfast during Teacher Appreciation Week.

Zawatski will still answer a late-night email if it's important or duck out of karate practice to take a time-sensitive call. But she says she no longer feels as guilty leaving work early or arriving an hour late — because her job isn't the only source of time-sensitive deadlines.

Her kids are getting older, and Zawatski predicts her 12-year-old son will soon probably be more embarrassed than excited to have his mom visit his classroom.

"So I might as well take advantage of it and go be a mom for a while," she says. "Because I can still be a really good project manager, right after I'm done at school."

The audio interviews for this story were conducted by Rachel Martin, produced by Milton Guevara and edited by Miranda Kennedy.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.