Smart moves: How your new life can begin with a P45

Downsized needn't mean downhearted. In fact, leaving the ghastly office grind may be the best thing to do. By Claire Walker
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IN America there's a word for it - downshifting. Here, we'd probably call it getting a life.

Increasing numbers of people are refusing to play the "work-till-you- drop-then-wonder-where-your-life-went-game..." You know the one, where you drag yourself home one night and ask your beloved who the two unwashed, spotty louts camped on the sofa are - to be told they're your sons.

It seems no one's happy. Either you can't find work or you're drowning in too much of it. More and more victims of downsizing and rightsizing - euphemisms which hide the spectre of redundancy - are signing on. Meanwhile, the poor devils left behind stagger under the work that still has to be done - whether or not half of the staff have gone. But there's rebellion afoot.

Some, even without the fat redundancy cheque to keep the sheriff and his posse from the door, are refusing to play. They want their lives back. The barefaced cheek.

If you asked Christine what she thought of downshifting, she'd say: "Is that one of the jobs in a duvet factory?"

But downshifter she is. Until July last year, Christine was a senior manager in a national organisation. Seventy staff asked "How high?" when she sweetly requested them to jump. She handled a budget of nearly pounds 2m and competence was her middle name. Everybody adored her - a feat in itself for a manager.

Yet, thanks to her company's restructuring exercise, the monster of her responsibility grew and grew like topsy. Instead of getting more staff to help her share the load, when the well of delegating to others had run dry, the opposite happened - valuable people were laid off.

But some people are lucky enough to have a dream. Christine's dream was to be a youth hostel warden. Nothing could have been further from her cosmopolitan reality. It would be like Tony Blair shedding the Versace and joining the Sally Army.

So, she packed it all in and last month, at the age of 44, started her new life as assistant warden (you have to start somewhere) in a youth hostel, miles from civilisation - well, three from the nearest pub, anyway.

The leisure pursuits should be good, if you like that kind of thing - hill walking, skiing, bird watching. For company, there'll be a fresh batch of hostellers every weekend to help her enjoy the north of Scotland's beautiful, sheep-populated, desert. Along with other, near-forgotten nooks and crannies - one might hope.

She said that despite being skint, she had never been so happy in her life. That's quite a recommendation in anyone's book.

In their book, Getting a Life, Polly Ghazi and Judy Jones say that, according to research, one in eight people in work have taken steps toward downshifting or were thinking of doing so.

Of course it's not all plain sailing. "I don't deny there can be a downside - giving up home comforts to live in a small room was a daunting prospect," said Christine.

"But the compensations are immense. Imagine being able to walk along a lock shore before you start work. Beats hell out the dirt and stress of the daily drive to work."

Fine, but what about all the high-class gear she used to run around in? No sweat. "It's bliss to forget the office suits and leap into jumpers and baggy tracky bottoms - and you only need one kind of jacket here - a warm one."

On this note, she drove off for a swim and a sauna at a nearby leisure club.

It won't suit - or be possible - for everyone. But for those stuck in the grind, there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Recently, a social worker in Newcastle successfully sued his employer for negligence, after his second breakdown.

So, from now on, firms will have to look after their staff better, care about their workload and stress levels, in case they have to cough up when it all goes horribly wrong.

Meanwhile, Christine will be battling through forest and fern for a peek at the lesser-spotted tree auk or skittering up and down mountains with or without skis. Laughing at her great escape.