How to Leave a Toxic Work Environment

When the headaches first started, I thought it was probably too much caffeine.  That’s the funny thing about symptoms – it can take some time to track down their source.  But sometimes, that’s exactly the thing you need to do in order to clear them.

Armed with both an IT degree and an organizational leadership degree, my post-college career was like riding on rocket – I easily slipped into a consulting job, traveling the world and making a salary with bonuses that seemed beyond my wildest dreams.  Student loans vanished, 401ks blossomed, savings accounts bulged. Life was good.

After a few years, a corporate merger came along and I took the opportunity to downshift.  Often in life we’re presented with opportunities to shift, and with each shift we make tradeoffs.  In my case, I took a big pay cut in exchange for a host of benefits, like more vacation.

Flash forward a couple of more years, and it was time to shift again – this time, by force.  I had to choose from an unknown future work environment, or join my colleagues in moving to a new company that had acquired us.  I took the merger – with it’s decrease in pay and benefits, but promise of a creative new opportunities.

As you’ve no doubt guessed from the headline of this story, things weren’t as promising as planned.  I saw my once cheerful co-workers visibly age 10 or 15 years in the span of 6 months, due to stress.  On many days, our office was dotted with empty seats – colleagues who were sick with various ailments, mental & physical.  I watched friends belittled by managers, and saw shouting matches on a daily basis that came moments away from turning into an outright office bawl.

Soon it became my turn to become the victim of the hostile workplace.  And that’s when the headaches started.  Easy to spot in hindsight, I didn’t notice the connection at first. I decided keep my health problems to myself and assumed they were a result of something I was doing wrong – too much caffeine, not sleeping well – in fact, I’d been developing a whole host of strange health problems that I tried to ignore.  That is, until one day, I blacked out on the bus on my way to work.  My body was literally rejecting the idea of spending one more day in the office.  And that’s when a project manager from another department  I had become good friends with pulled me aside and said, “You need to leave this job before it kills you.  Literally.  This isn’t the right workplace for you.  Get out.  ASAP. Please.”

This was the wake up call that I desperately needed, a message that shattered my illusion that maybe, someday, this toxic workplace would improve.  Once I realized how bad things had become, I took all those project management skills I had, and marched towards exit-stage-left path as fast as possible.  Here’s how I did it.

1. Find Some Space

The thing about toxic work environments is that they can bleed into all parts of your life, making it hard to make smart decisions.  You’ve got to wall off some sacred space to sort yourself out.  What I did is change my working hours so I had Fridays off (I had to work longer on the other 4 days a week, but it was a game-changer).  If that’s not an option for you, start a meditation practice, or journaling practice, and make it a daily/weekly ritual.  Even if it’s 2 hours a weekend, create some space for you to make peace with what is, and create a plan for moving ahead.

2. Build a Support Structure

You can’t do this alone.  You need support.  Specifically, you need to find people who will support your decisions regardless of the outcome.  This is where “phoning a friend” is valuable – someone who isn’t dependent on your income or has a vested interest in your decision that can help you sort through decisions.  On my Fridays off, I went to a coffee event where other hard-working entrepreneurs showed me what the alternatives were.  There were also folks there who had typical 9-to-5 jobs but worked in much more flexible environments.  It was a great opportunity to get a fresh perspective from people not at all involved in the situation.

3. Make a Plan, and Plan to Make It

They say that if you fail to plan, you’ll plan to fail.  There’s some truth there – but, making a job change is full of unknowns.  But, you’ve got to move on – and I know my biggest fear was making things worse by leaving.  My advice: make a plan, and set your intentions that everything will work out for you.  I believe in you.   When I gave my notice, I had no idea what I was going to do.  But, I knew I would start my own business, I would fulfill my life-long dreams of being a published author, and that I had about 4 months to get started and if things weren’t in good shape, I’d get a job, and that job would very likely be better than the old one.  My plan was simple and flexible, and I stuck to it.  That was 8 years ago – I planned on making it, and I did.

I’m not saying that you have to quit your job tomorrow. You don’t need to have all the answers today. But, if you are in a toxic work environment, I want you to hear this:  it’s not your fault.  Get out.  You have a right to work in an environment that lifts you up, not drags you down.  Go out and find that work.  You owe it to yourself.  The world’s waiting.

Have you ever worked in a toxic work environment?  How did you get out? 

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