It’s Monday and the alarm clock on the bedside table suddenly wakes you up, signalling the start of yet another working week. You file onto the train to work and rush to the office, just as you have done hundreds of times before. As you pour your third coffee in the work kitchen, making the same small talk with the guy from HR, you think: What if I turned off the alarm? What if I did something different? What if I didn’t stay here?

Across the country, workers at some of Australia’s most iconic companies such as Qantas, Holden and Australia Post are going to be impacted by large-scale job cuts to be rolled out over the next few years. Thousands of workers now face the prospect of no alarm to rouse them to work; instead they will be forced to contemplate other options.

Dr Hans PietersDr Hans Pieters (pictured) from UniSA’s School of Natural and Built Environments, has spent years examining the aftermath of retrenchment. His PhD traced the steps of hundreds of manufacturing workers who lost their jobs after Mitsubishi announced the closure of its Adelaide-based factory in 2004, resulting in 700 involuntary retrenchments and 400 voluntary retrenchments.

“Retrenchment is seen by society, by the media and by the workers themselves, in a negative light. There’s a fear of the unknown, there’s uncertainty,” Dr Pieters says.

“The impact of retrenchment goes far beyond the pressing financial commitments most people face. For many people, their identity is tied up with their work. People often associate their status in life and their sense of well-being and self-esteem with their job.

“A lot of evidence also suggests we are hard-wired for routine and if you disrupt anybody’s routine, particularly through retrenchment and job loss, it raises people’s anxiety levels.

“The other major impact is when people lose social contacts. More and more, people find their sense of community being where they work rather than where they live. The workers I surveyed from Mitsubishi showed a very strong sense of loss of belonging.

“While the financial impact of retrenchment is huge, it is also important to realise work provides a whole range of so-called latent benefits and our data shows the loss of social interaction is right up there in terms of the worse aspects about retrenchments.”

Right now, in the heart of Adelaide’s CBD, more than 700 students are working to complete Foundation Studies, a course that will prepare them for university entry and hundreds of possible careers. Last year, one of those students was 43-year-old Matthew Bowden (pictured right), a recently retrenched IT professional.

Matthew has had a long and successful career in the IT industry, starting as a junior computer operator straight after high school and working his way up to a high-paying job in one of the world’s leading technology companies. 

But after more than two decades in the field, he began to suspect the ‘writing was on the wall’ in his career.

A company restructure in 2011 prompted him to begin exploring other career options and when a retrenchment package was offered in 2012, Matthew saw it as an opportunity to pursue a new career in education. 

“I could see that IT had changed a lot. There was less nuts and bolts type work and more project management – it was a lot more corporate, a lot less inspirational. I felt like a cog in the machine, bound to the process and unable to exercise any creativity,” he says.

“I had sensed there was a change in the wind and before I was retrenched, I’d actually already applied to UniSA College. The week I received my retrenchment was the same week I received my acceptance to the College.

“I knew I was in a place I no longer wanted to be, so the retrenchment actually came as a relief. 

“To have left of my own volition would have effectively cost me a lot of money. I was given the nudge I needed and I saw it as an opportunity, a chance to start again and to get into something different. It was liberating.”

Matthew threw himself into his studies, completing Foundation Studies while working part-time and looking after his two young children. While he says adjusting to retrenchment wasn’t always easy, he is now thrilled to be on the four-year journey to become a teacher. 

“Coming from a highly paid corporate job to less than the basic wage has been a bit of a shock but I’ve found it fairly easy to adjust. I really believe that you live within your means,” Matthew says.

“Retrenchment might feel like the end of the world but it can be the most cathartic experience you’ll ever have. It’s surprising how much you can adjust and how many opportunities will arise simply because of your retrenchment.”

Many of the Mitsubishi workers Dr Pieters interviewed during his research expressed similar sentiments to Matthew. In fact, one of the main conclusions the researcher reached after his PhD is that the ‘doom and gloom’ picture of retrenchment presented by the media is just not accurate. 

“In the case of Mitsubishi, what really came across was that many of the workers gained a real sense of being free to have the time to work out what they wanted to do. People did courses or found a job that was more interesting or more suited to them,” he says.

“They also took that holiday they’d never had before or started up that small business that they’d always thought about doing. People had the time and space to reassess where they were in their lives and see if there was something else outside of their work that they might like to do.

“The ability for Mitsubishi workers to explore different interests or to find another job was enhanced through a retrenchment package, the size of which is related to years in the job. This can play a big part in easing the immediate financial impact of retrenchment and providing retrenched workers with the space to work out their next step.”  

So while losing your job can seem like the end of the world to start with, it could just be the push you need to break the daily grind and find out exactly what you are meant to be doing.

Retrenchment is regulated by Commonwealth and State laws and the obligations of your employer regarding retrenchment are usually contained in Enterprise Agreements. If you are not sure about your rights and entitlements, talk to your union or the Fair Work Commission.