“Jane Smith” knew she’d made the wrong decision the first day at the job that would end her career. The supervisor showed her to a filthy cubicle. The computer keyboard was jammed with food, and what she hoped was hand lotion. When she asked the I.T. support tech for a new keyboard, he looked dubious and a little annoyed.
When her supervisor walked her around her new unit to introduce her to the other staff, many seemed hostile and tense.
“Work isn’t supposed to be fun, that’s why it’s called work.” Jane Smith tried to convince herself. But she felt sick on Sunday nights and most mornings before work.
Depression set in. Jane ended up on stress leave for three months. When she went back to her toxic job, it didn’t take long for the same symptoms to return, and worse. “I started to burn out. Between the toxic upper management and the angry, depressed people around me. That job derailed me – my career and my mental health have never been the same.”
A job is so much more than just “a job.” Most of us spend most of our waking hours at work. In a good scenario, colleagues become friends as well, and work can become an important part of our social life. Your job is often a big part of your financial security, and if you’re lucky, your fulfillment. What do you do when your job becomes a dreaded grind? Or worse, like an abusive relationship?
It’s hard to walk away from a toxic job that’s masquerading as a “good job,” with steady pay, benefits, and good/predictable hours. Yet, each day you sit at your desk, feeling like your life is passing you by while you’re passed over for opportunities and promotions. “Everyone told me how lucky I was to have a government job,” she says. “I wasn’t supposed to complain when so many people would have traded places with me in a heartbeat.”
“After many months I called the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to ask to see a career coach,” Jane told me. There was no career coach associated with the EAP so she talked to a counsellor or social worker. “When I told her why I wanted to leave, and the things I was experiencing on the job, she told me I was working in a toxic job and that no, I was not crazy, over-sensitive or imagining things. Having my experiences validated helped more than I can ever explain.”
Most people don’t know how to resign from their position without a huge financial loss, or permanent dent in their resume. Quitting a job can also be emotionally challenging. If you have a family relying on you, you will probably feel terrible worry and guilt about taking a risk. If you have colleagues who suffer beside you, you may worry about leaving them behind. There may be legal implications and options.
At the same time, you might try to downplay the severity of the mistreatment you have experienced. Plus, you have to find a new job without relying on your abusive employer as a reference.
This can be an intimidating decision, but leaving is critical, just as it is for someone who is in a destructive relationship. Ideally, you will line up a new position before leaving the bad one but since you will not be at your best, that’s not always easy.
Here are some dos and don’ts, for leaving a toxic job
- Find at least one ally in the organization who can be a reference for you. References don’t necessarily have to be your direct manager or supervisor. Colleagues, clients and direct reports can also be suitable references.
- Start documenting all incidents, in case down the road you decide to pursue a legal remedy or file a human rights complaint.
- Talk to friends, family or peer contacts who work elsewhere and inquire about leads for other work opportunities. Just knowing there are options can alleviate a great deal of worry.
- Often a move within an organization is the path of least resistance. If possible, seek out other opportunities in other areas of the organization.
- If you only stay for a short period of time, consider omitting the job from your resume. Focus your cover letter on your education, volunteer work, skills and work strengths (not necessarily in that order).
- Take advantage of your organization’s EAP plan if one exists. Some outside perspective can make a huge difference.
- Don’t ignore the situation for so long that your mental health is endangered.
- Don’t ignore the physical symptoms of stress and depression, such as feeling sick before you go to work, loss of appetite, loss of sleep, and not wanting to spend time with friends or family.
- Don’t take to social media to vent your frustration. You could find yourself out of a job completely.
Have you ever wished you could get inside the head of a hiring manager? You can. Dr. Helen Ofosu is a Career Coach/Counsellor with a difference. She has worked for organizations to create hiring and screening tools. She’s created countless pre-screening tests, interviews, simulations, and role plays for organizations of all kinds.
Dr. Helen’s training in Industrial and Organizational (I/O) Psychology means she is a genuine expert in evaluating work-related behaviours. She uses those skills to help hiring managers tell the difference between people who say the right things during interviews and people who actually deliver on the job. In other words, Dr. Helen understands first-hand how job candidates are assessed.
More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.
I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.