Is retirement all it's cracked up to be?

You may be looking forward to retiring and have all sorts of plans for how you’ll spend it. Yet nothing can quite prepare you for the shock retirement may bring. We look here at steps you can take to try to get emotionally ready for when you leave work for good.

Siobhan had really looked forward to retiring from her primary school job teaching reception and Years One and Two. It was work she found immensely enjoyable and rewarding but also exhausting. “They loved having a story read to them at the end of the day but I’d have to hold the book up to hide my eyes closing as I was so tired by the end of the day. You’re on the go with them all day as they have so much energy, so much enthusiasm. I was looking forward to a nice long rest!”

Yet after she retired the actuality of not having to go work any longer hit her in ways she neither expected nor was prepared for. “There seemed little point in getting up anymore as there was nothing to get up for. The day lay ahead of me with nothing planned. I very nearly fell into a depression and I’ve never been depressed in my life.”

Missing the kids

Siobhan missed seeing young children every day. “I don’t yet have grandchildren and that may, partly, be why I missed them so much. They’re so lovely at that age. So eager. They look up to you like you’re a god just because you told them something very basic. I loved how they’d call me mum sometimes. And I missed my classroom. It was my domain, like a home is I suppose.”

However there’s one aspect Siobhan says she doesn’t miss. The parents! “The kids were all lovely but some of their parents could be a real nightmare. Coming into class and swearing at me if their child didn’t get a star. But we tried with the stars to motivate and encourage them. It wouldn’t have nearly so much meaning if we just gave them out to please the parents. And several times we asked a parent to keep their child at home because they had chicken pox but they still sent them in. Some of them treated us like glorified childminders. How dare we ask them to keep their sick child off school!”

Fill your diary

Siobhan shook herself out of it by filling her diary with activities. “I love swimming but never had the time when I was teaching so I took that up again and keep fit classes, playing golf and meeting friends for lunch. I still miss the kids but I know I don’t have the energy to teach young ones anymore.”

Another recent, retiree, Janice, retired from her job teaching English and psychology and running Access courses at a large FE college last year. Like Siobhan she too had looked forward to unplanned, unstructured time and was particularly happy to leave her long commute behind. However even though she’s enjoying retirement she was surprised at the sense of loss. “Retirement is much busier than I thought it would be. I don’t know how I ever found time to work! I’m an active grandmother and I love that I can see my grandchildren growing up. I love being more in control of my life. I especially love Sunday evenings knowing I don’t have to work the next day.

“However I found it difficult not having the status anymore. I was on a similar grade to a head of department and had a lot of responsibility. Also a lot of satisfaction from the work as teaching adults grabbing a second chance at life by doing an Access course can be immensely rewarding. So I took part time work as moderator checking access courses in colleges across the West Midlands. I also work as an exam invigilator at a local college so I’ve kept a link with education and I found that helped me find a bridge between working full time to not working at all. However I can’t ever imagine standing up in front of a class again!”

Whirlwind of emotions

We have a factsheet on how you can plan for your retirement financially but it’s much trickier trying to plan the emotional side of giving up work. The whirlwind of emotions engendered by retirement can be surprising. You may look forward to a new freedom, starting a new life. Not being answerable to other people’s needs any longer. But the reality can feel very different.

Sense of loss

There can be a number of reasons why people find retirement difficult. Work, even when it’s stressful, exhausting and highly demanding, as education work is, confers status as well as income. “Now I’m just another grandma taking her grandchildren to the park. Which is fine. I love doing that. But sometimes I want to yell ‘I HAVE A BRAIN AND I HAD A GREAT JOB ONCE TOO!’ There’s a risk you end up stereotyped; just another old woman with white hair and young children tagging at your skirt begging you to buy them an ice-cream,” adds Janine.

How to cope

Mick Dwyer, former head of department at Westwood College, Staffordshire, says he missed the structure of teaching when he retired. So he upped his union work, for the NEU, which he’d been doing alongside teaching.

“I sit on a number of negotiating committees and have dates in my diary for the whole year ahead. I have a big patch of casework with 695 members and 132 schools. Sometimes it’s very busy, other times quiet. But the main thing is it gives me structure as well as time off. This means I can go to the theatre, say, which I really enjoy, have a nice meal and stay overnight nearby. It’s more semi retirement rather than full retirement.

“I haven’t missed teaching. But I do go back in and give talks. I’m also a Samaritan and I talk about our work and how we help with emotional health for young people. You don’t lose the skill of being able to talk to young people. One talk I gave recently finished just two minutes to the bell and the teacher whose class it was said, ‘Oh! That’s a stroke of luck finishing just before the bell.’ And I had to smile. I have 35 years of experience finishing just before the bell.”

Valuable skills

Teachers have skills that are very valuable which includes being good communicators and very well organised. This is exactly the kind of thing the voluntary sector is looking for. “All the research says people who do voluntary work get an awful lot out of it. They’re not doing it because it’s the right thing to do. They get something from it too,” adds Mick who also sits on the local Arts festival committee.

However he urges teachers to wait before they plunge into activities after retiring. “Once word gets round that you’re available people will knock on your door so give yourself a bit of a break and think what you want to do and things well turn up. That’s the advice I was given.”

Steps you can take

You can’t entirely prepare yourself emotionally for such a major adjustment as giving up work. But here is our handy tip guide on smoothing the transition from work to play:

  • Accept you may feel a sense of loss. This is normal. It doesn’t necessarily mean you made a mistake retiring.
  • If you can, work part-time leading up to retirement so you semi retire first.
  • Make plans. Thinks of things you’ve always wanted to do but never found time for.
  • Join something locally such as a book club. You can always leave if it’s not to your taste.
  • Always try to have something in your diary that you can look forward to.
  • If you miss the kids and classroom contact, consider mentoring or helping out with reading groups.
  • Consider becoming a school governor or local councillor. These posts are increasingly tough to fill and you have a lot you can offer.

How we can help

  • Help for individuals  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, workload pressures, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That’s why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Help for organisations 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing.

Subscribe to our newsletter