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22 November 2019

Exploring the roots of occupational regret

New research on healthcare professionals identifies the psychological processes at the root of occupational regret, and ways to mitigate them

A surgeon ties their medical gap in a hospital hallway.
“But even if those individuals do not quit, those who regret their career choice will be suffering an emotional impact. Research also suggests that their performance will suffer as they mentally withdraw from their role.”

A new study of healthcare professionals led by Dr Ali Budjanovcanin, Lecturer in Work Psychology and Public Sector Management, and Dr Ricardo Rodrigues and Professor David Guest, shows that how an individual compares their choice of career with other occupations is an important influence on their degree of regret about their career choice, and ultimately their commitment to it. 

Dr Budjanovcanin’s research, published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, asked 559 cardiac physiologists to compare their own occupation with other occupational groups in terms of pay, prestige, autonomy, career progression, job security and job satisfaction. It also probed how much the participants’ career choice had been influenced by others, the extent to which they identified with their profession and their commitment to remain in it.

The research found that:

  • Those who compared their own profession favourably with other roles (both in the health sector and in other occupations, such as teaching) were less likely to regret their choice of profession
  • Those who compared their choice of profession negatively with other occupations were more likely to regret their choice, because the negative comparison lowered their sense of satisfaction about their career progress.
  • Occupational regret is associated with lower levels of occupational commitment, and those who regretted their choice of occupation were also more likely to say they planned to leave the profession
  • Those who said their career choice had been influenced by friends, family and teachers were less likely to report career regret

Mitigating occupational regret

Dr Budjanovcanin says that addressing occupational regret is especially important in the professions because the time, money and emotional energy involved with establishing a professional career can mean that people remain in a profession despite their dissatisfaction with it.

“In our study, 62 per cent felt that they had put too much into cardiac physiology to consider changing now,” says Dr Budjanovcanin, “and I suspect we would see similar patterns in other professions.”


“But even if those individuals do not quit, those who regret their career choice will be suffering an emotional impact. Research also suggests that their performance will suffer as they mentally withdraw from their role.”

Dr Ali Budjanovcanin, King's Business School

Dr Budjanovcanin says that understanding the causes of occupational regret can help individuals and organisations to address it. She advocates better careers counselling and ‘sampling’ while students are in education, and more coaching during careers.

“Students need more of an opportunity to experience the reality of an occupation before embarking on that path. Better still, they should gain experience of more than one possible occupation. This will give them a more realistic job preview and in the future, instead of regretting their choice because they worry that the grass is greener in another profession, they’ll know that it probably isn’t,” says Dr Budjanovcanin.

According to Dr Budjanovcanin, careers counselling and coaching, and providing more varied opportunities within the profession could all help employers retain the commitment of staff members experiencing some degree of occupational regret. 

Separate data from the same study underlined the need for coaching, showing that those who regretted their choice of career were also less likely to have the self-knowledge and resources to help them make positive career plans. For example, they were less sure about their own values and motivation; less able to define the skills and knowledge that they brought to work, and put less emphasis on developing and maintaining relationships that could impact their career. 

“Coaching would help people experiencing career regret to find more positive ways to compare their circumstances with other occupations, and to recognise and appreciate the skills that they have gained. As well as putting them in a more positive frame of mind, this is a good foundation for building a career plan that is right for them, especially if their employer can support them in providing an alternative to a traditional linear career path.” 

In this story

Ali Budjanovcanin

Senior Lecturer in Work Psychology and Public Sector Management

Ricardo Rodrigues

Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management

David Guest

Emeritus Professor of Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management

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