Changing course: from HR to prison chaplaincy & coaching

In the first of a short series of people who have changed career since they turned 50, Martin Garrity talks about his move from HR to career coaching and prison chaplaincy.


Older workers often have an interesting career trajectory, having changed course perhaps due to children or other life events. For some, these events or changes in their working life prompt a period of reflection and a desire to find work that really matters to them. Martin Garrity has not only spent much of his life coaching older workers, but he himself has not followed a typical linear career path. Now he is moving in a new direction, as a prison chaplain, and he is relishing it doing this alongside his coaching work.

Martin started his working life in HR in large firms such as Boots in the 1980s and 1990s. There he learnt all the basics, such as how to run a training course, and had access to leading thinkers in the field. He decided he too could become a consultant and went freelance in the mid-90s to gain more freedom and to have more time to work around his family. It was a period of great change in his life. Within a year of starting his freelance business with his wife, who specialises in mental health at work, the couple started a family and moved house. He says he really enjoyed the ability to be around to do school runs and see all the school plays when his children were young. “My dad’s generation missed out on all those things,” he states.

As a freelance, he found work mainly through referrals and as an associate who was hired on an as and when basis. Over the next 20 years, his work evolved from running workshops on such topics as appraisals and interview techniques to doing one to one work. He learned about coaching at Middlesex University and University of Oxford and ended up working with many senior leaders, mainly on issues such as bullying and burnout and really enjoyed the challenge of building rapport and getting behind the facade. Eventually, in 2012, Martin set up a separate career coaching and job seekers consultancy as a sideline, charging a nominal or no fee. He soon found he was increasingly enjoying that work and started to take on more paid work in this area.


In 2016, he decided to try something different again, driven by a desire to help people in vulnerable situations to understand themselves and to rebuild. He trained as a chaplain through Humanists UK and, having successfully completed the course,  started looking for voluntary work at a local hospice and hospital, but they were either full or didn’t want a non-religious chaplain. So he tried his local prison, Bullingdon Prison near Aylesbury, who welcomed him into their multi-faith team. He has been volunteering there ever since in a team which includes Catholic, Church of England, Free Church, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Orthodox, Pagan and Rastafarian chaplains. Martin runs a mindfulness group, although this has stopped during Covid, and does one to one sessions with prisoners.

He compares it with his coaching work which he says is more “solution-oriented”. “With chaplaincy you just walk alongside the person. You just listen and are present with compassion,” he says.

He says Covid has accentuated some of the problems prisoners speak to him about. Facilities, such as education and access to the gym, have been withdrawn and they spend most of the time restricted to their cells. Volunteers were not allowed in at the end of 2020 and in early 2021, but have just returned in the last weeks. Martin says there are indications that behaviour, discipline and mental health “are all going in the wrong direction”.

Martin says he is doesn’t ask why the prisoners he works with are in prison and doesn’t know how long their sentences are unless they tell him. Sometimes he comes in thinking he will be meeting one prisoner only to find they have been released. He recalls a young prisoner who was self harming constantly and on suicide watch. “He was adamant he was going to commit suicide either in prison or once he got out,” says Martin.

While he plans to continue his career coaching work which he loves, Martin is now looking for a paid position as a prison chaplain. If he succeeds, he will become the first paid non-religious chaplain in a UK prison. At 64, for him what is important is doing work that is meaningful. “I want to leave people in a better state than I find them. That is the ultimate reward and means more to me than finances and career progression,” he says.

In his coaching work he often works with people facing restructure and redundancy and he sees many older people who want to change their lives, although some just want help with the mechanics of finding a job. “Some of the conversations I have are not dissimilar to those I have as a chaplain,” he says. “People are questioning their lives and wanting to branch out.”

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