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  • Coronavirus pandemic

Image source, David RochefortImage caption, David Rochefort says he has never been happier

David Rochefort says the pandemic made him want to do "something astronomically different" with his life.

Before coronavirus arrived, the 34-year-old worked in IT in Bristol. It was a secure, well-paid, office role, but he found that his enthusiasm was dwindling.

"My body was restless from sitting all day, but I was mentally exhausted," he says, looking back. "I became stressed and wired. I'd go to bed at 2am, and not want to get up in the morning."

When the lockdown was announced, Mr Rochefort found himself confined to his home. "Suddenly, I had no interaction with my co-workers, which I realised was the main reason I was doing the job.

"So, I quit with no plan at all… but I knew I wanted to leave the screen behind."

Realising that he would like to get a job working outdoors, Mr Rochefort started volunteering at a wetland wildlife reserve. The site in question – Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire – is owned and run by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Many people would prefer Slimbridge Wetland Centre, pictured, to working in an office

After six months of working for free, while he lived off savings, he was given a paid, entry-level role as an aviculturist (someone who looks after birds). Now a year later, he says he has never looked back.

Mr Rochefort has had to take a substantial cut in pay, but he says he has never felt better. "The change to my income hasn't affected my lifestyle at all, the only differences are my improved happiness and the size of mortgage I can apply for."

The pandemic has made a great many of us think of following in Mr Rochefort's footsteps, and make a career change, as a number of studies have shown.

In the UK, three fifths of UK workers intend to switch to a different job as a result of Covid, according to a report earlier this year by insurance group Aviva.

It is a similar picture in the US, where a survey from last month said that half of all workers wanted to make a change in career. Some commentators have called it "the great resignation".

Mr Rochefort is also far from alone in wanting to switch to working in the great outdoors.

The UK's Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), which helps train the professional gardeners of the future, says that demand for its work-based training programmes has jumped 58% in 2021, the highest rate of increase for decades.

Sharnee Gardner is one such RHS horticultural apprentice, after swapping life as a professional model to become a gardener.

Image source, Sharnee GardnerImage caption, Sharnee Gardner has swapped catwalks for tractor mowers

"I absolutely loved my modelling job – I flew [around] the world – but I was so absorbed in my work that I hardly spent time in nature anymore," says the 23-year-old.

Covid travel bans meant Ms Gardner could no longer go abroad for modelling work from her home in London, so she decided it was time for a change.

Now, Ms Gardner, who grew up in Australia, is studying horticulture at RHS site Garden Wisely in Surrey, where she spends her time cutting lawns, pruning trees and planting beds.

"Working at the RHS has given me an opportunity to slow down and appreciate my surroundings," she says. "I love watching the sunrise over the garden. It's very important to me to do something that makes me happy.

The significant decrease in wage was definitely worth it because I love what I do. But to get by, my partner and I got a flat mate, and I still do the occasional modelling job, too."

The RHS has long pointed to research that shows how gardening contributes to a person's wellbeing, lowering stress levels, and helping people feel happier and healthier.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Gardening is said to be good for a person's physical and mental health

And while most gardeners obviously only do it as a hobby, Suzanne Moss, the RHS's head of education and learning, says the pastime has proved to be especially beneficial throughout the pandemic. "During the lockdowns, people formed new relationships with their gardens.

"They were no longer places of weeds and work. They became a refuge."

This sentiment is echoed by Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. He is co-author of a report called Emotional Well-Being Under Conditions of Lockdown, which found that people who spent more time outside during the pandemic were happier than those who remained mostly indoors.

"Pre-pandemic we know that people were spending more time indoors than ever before in human history," says Prof Swami. "The more time spent outdoors, the more you'll feel the restorative effects. Beyond mental and physical health, being outdoors improves imagination and learning, and increases creativity and the feeling of fulfilment."

Ms Moss adds that the increased interest in becoming a professional gardener comes as the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of nature in general. "Many people have realised how important it is not only to protect our own health, but the environment's too," she says.

The horticulture sector is worth £24bn to the UK economy, according to the RHS, which only sees that increasing as firms in all sectors realise the importance of making their outdoor spaces greener.

"Horticulture is a specialism that businesses are crying out for," says Ms Moss. "We need people who can help industries adapt for sustainability."

Yet could the increased interest in gardening only be temporary? That is the suggestion of a report earlier this year by University College London.

It found that a third of UK people were now doing less gardening and DIY than they were during the first lockdown of 2020. However, this may be because the weather was much better during spring and early summer last year.

Lois O'Connell does not let cold temperatures or rain put her off her gardening work. "It surprised me how much I loved gardening through the winter months," said the 29-year-old RHS student.

Image source, Lois O'Connell Image caption, Lois O'Connell says it is good to be able to enjoy what sunshine winter offers

Before the pandemic she was a sales manager for a luxury gin brand. She spent a lot of time sitting at her desk, or driving to and from meetings, which exacerbated the shoulder and back pain she already suffered from. Then Ms O'Connell was put on furlough.

"I needed a change," she says. "I started gardening for friends, then got part-time work with a garden maintenance company."

Ms O'Connell is now also working and studying at RHS Garden Wisley. "When the days are short, it's good to catch all the daylight you can," she adds.

"I've never felt better. My pain has gone. I feel calm when I'm gardening. This is definitely a change for life."

Back in Gloucestershire, Mr Rochefort says he has never been happier. "When I come home from work I'm physically exhausted and grinning from ear-to-ear," he says.

"It gets to 10pm and I'm out like a light. I've never slept better."