I recently wrote about the warning signs of a toxic workplace. If you found yourself nodding along and checking off all the symptoms on that list, it’s time to figure out how you can improve or escape your situation.
Would you tolerate sending your kids to school every day in a toxic classroom? Would you stand by as your best friend, sister, or parent was subjected to the whims of a narcissist boss in a workplace that literally made them ill? Probably not.
So why justify putting up with this sick status quo yourself? Sure, everyone’s got to pay the bills, and work is going to feel like work most of the time, but the detrimental effects of chronic stress aren’t worth martyring yourself for your career.
Here’s how to start taking steps to change now if you’re dealing with a toxic workplace:
Assess The Potential For Change
I’m a big believer in being proactive about asking for what you want before jumping ship, whether it be a promotion or better work-life boundaries. You owe it to yourself to exhaust all options to transform your current job into your “dream job,” before setting off on the search to find it elsewhere.
What exactly are the triggers that make you feel oppressed in your workplace? What specific actions, policies, expectations or experiences contribute to your stress? Identify the things that must change in order to stay at your current workplace, and then consider what the likelihood is for actually changing. Yes, that typically means having a conversation with your colleagues or supervisor and asking for what you need to be sustainable.
Raise your concerns in the appropriate setting – a one-on-one with your boss, a review, or a sidebar meeting with your colleagues. Don’t blind-side your boss with a public call-out at the next weekly team meeting.
When you broach the subject, try to frame your grievances in a positive way by saying something like, “Here’s what I think will help me be more productive and effective at work. Can we explore that way of moving forward?”
Consider the response you get in real time — are your concerns being taken seriously? Do you feel respected? Pay close attention to the response you get over the days and weeks that follow, too. Do people follow through on their word? Are things actually changing?
If the answer to all the above is no, it may be time to start plotting your exit.
Prioritize Your Basic Needs
Are you often getting eight hours of sleep? Eating regularly? Do you have a sense of safety and security at home right now?
In today’s burnout work culture, it’s all too easy to overlook your basic human needs, but meeting them is a prerequisite for achieving your full potential. Back in the 1940’s, Abraham Maslow introduced his foundational theory of human motivation known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” He found that all humans share a universal set of needs, and that our basic biological requirements, followed by a sense of safety, then love and belonging, must be met before anyone can fully self-actualize.
Take back your power now over the small things — like actually taking a proper lunch break away from your desk for 10 minutes or refusing to answer emails after dinner so you can wind down and get yourself into bed at a reasonable hour. Re-establish the agency you have over your own life in little ways, bit by bit, and those small wins will propel your progress forward, leaving you feeling even more motivated.
Build Your Power Posse
Courage is key for setting healthy boundaries in a toxic workplace and finding your way out of one. In my work with career transitions, I often find that courage is contagious. Do all that you can to surround yourself with people who lift you up instead of drag you down.
Spending time with loved ones can feel almost indulgent when you’re stuck in a demanding job that sucks up every ounce of your time. But it’s not! You need a support squad that’s going to have your back when you’re working through tough workplace challenges — not to mention over the course of a long job search.
One study even found that not having a strong sense of community can shorten your life! Researchers found “the risk of mortality was significantly lower for those reporting high levels of peer social support — i.e., the support of their co-workers.”
Consider the Benefits of a Bridge Job
So you’ve established that your current workplace is toxic and the potential for improvement is negligible. What now?
If you’re having trouble finding the job that will provide your next best career move, consider the benefits of a bridge job — a job that helps you meet your basic needs and gets you out of that toxic environment, even though it might not be the strongest move for your career trajectory.
Finding a bridge job can help pay the bills while also affording you the time to peruse your job search with more intention. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve taken bridge jobs like babysitting and waiting tables to help cover my expenses while affording me the time to get my own company off the ground. My partner, an architect by training, relied on teaching tennis to pay the bills while navigating a huge career shift that took years to fully replace his former salary.
The beauty of bridge jobs isn’t that they’re a solid “next step” for your career, it’s the financial freedom they afford you to pivot in the direction you want to take your career. Sometimes escaping a toxic workplace is well worth the temporary financial setback.
Bounce Like A Boss
Speaking of finances, how padded is your “F*** Off Fund?” Do you have emergency savings squirreled away? Can you cover three to six months of expenses? If so, quitting without any kind of job lined up might also be a solid option to consider.
There’s no right answer for everyone on this. It really boils down to two, very personal variables:
- The severity of your current workplace and the negative impact it’s having on you and your life, and;
- Your worst-case scenario. What would happen if you really failed?
While I’m not one to dwell on the negative often, the idea of failure is almost always more scary in the abstract. Get specific: what would complete and utter failure look like for you? What would happen if you couldn’t pay the bills? What would you do? Where would you go?
These are very personal questions with very personal answers. Keep in mind, most of the folks I speak with who have quit jobs at toxic workplaces share only one regret: they wish they’d done it sooner.
Keep in mind, only you can decide how much risk you’re willing to tolerate. We all come to the table with varying degrees of privilege that make walking away from a job more feasible for some than others.
Bottom line: working in a toxic workplace doesn’t have the be the norm. Sometimes it takes expensive turnover for employers to recognize just how harmful a burnout work culture is for employees and bottom-line performance alike.
While sticking around might feel like the “safe” choice at the time, your tacit acceptance of the status quo perpetuates the cycle of burnout for everyone. Whether or not you decide to leave, make your voice heard by sharing your experiences and reviewing your workplace on Glassdoor, InHerSight, or FairyGodBoss to provide helpful insight — and a little forewarning — to other job-seekers, too.
Emilie Aries is the Founder & CEO of Bossed Up, an innovative personal and professional training organization that helps women craft sustainable careers. She's also the Co-Host of the Stuff Mom Never Told You Podcast.