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 career 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? 

Photo by Craig Sunter

13 thoughts on “How to Leave a Toxic Work Environment”

  1. I can relate to this so much it’s not even funny. I quit my Job last year because the environment was bad. My colleagues were so negative about everything everyday they complained about how much this Job sucks some of them even told me to leave while I can and that’s what I did after 2 months of being surrounded by negative people. Now I am living healthier than I ever lived before, I haven’t been sick for months I’m going to the gym 3 times a week and my Business is growing aswell. So I can proudly say that leaving my Job and starting something on my own was the best choice I ever made.

  2. I wish I had paid attention to the signs a year-and-a-half ago. I was also in a very toxic job; it was actually affecting my personality and outlook on life while I was there. I finally got out of that environment last February. I am in a much happier and peaceful space, now, even though the pay is less. It is better to have less stress.

  3. We live in a society that continues to extoll work and holding down a job as if it is the source for fulfillment and stability. And whenever the country experiences economic problems people become more hesitant to let go of their jobs. But, we need to recognize the truths our bodies and minds tell us, in whatever type of relationship we are in. I work as a nurse and have seen too many people who suffer chronic conditions that are directly a result of the type of work they have subjected themselves to for years. More people need to learn that when they tune into themselves and listen to the universe they can step out with courage and compassion and the universe will take care of them.

  4. Andy,
    I’ve worked in too many places where either the poltics, the pressure or the physical environment is toxic. Imagine sitting in the middle of an open plan office with rubbish air-con and people constantly walking up behind you with incessant demands you can’t realistically meet and you get the picture of one place.
    I totally agree with the 3 step plan. Escaping for a walk at lunchtimes, whatever, has always been a good one for me and just one or two kindred spirits makes all the difference.
    When it comes to making plans the money side is important. If we can get a little stash together then we’ve the option to take a break if needed. It gives us an alternative to turning up just because next months bills won’t get paid otherwise.
    I’m currently on a big timeout from office life – working on the house, travel, more time for family and friends. And of course some writing.
    If I go back to the office it’ll be with some care as to what I’m letting myself in for!

  5. There’s never any good that comes out of a toxic work environment. There is so much negative energy that consumes your mind and body. Stress, sickness, and poor attitude were the initial signs that I experienced in such a bad work environment. The three points were awesome! Thank you for sharing.

  6. Ah yes…a ‘feast’ of recognition :)

    I’ve been there myself many times over and I’ve even created my own toxic working place, including headaches, all by not really listening to my heart and my body. Because you’re right…you’re body always tells you the truth! And ultimately, it’s the heart that should always be in the lead when it comes to building the life you love!

  7. One thing I do is proactively and always look for better and better work environments, living conditions and even cities to live in to become successful. I heard of one teacher saying that your environment is stronger then will power :). I made a recent blog post where I am super excited with the new place I am working to work on my online business. I found a professional Co Working Space where I am getting work done it’s amazing!

  8. This couldn’t possibly ring more true. Almost exactly a year ago, I left my toxic work environment. When you’ve been headachey, sick with inexplicable ailments, and grouchy for years and then start finding yourself having to hastily leave meetings to vomit, then return and try to pretend you’re okay, you know you’ve stayed too long. Once I made the decision, I took a couple of weeks of evening and weekend time to make phone calls and send emails to old contacts, putting out feelers for potential clients, and setting up profiles on various freelance work sites to see if things would pan out. My husband and I set a minimum-money benchmark: If I could get enough nibbles to feel reasonably confident that I’d make $X within the first year (and it was a LOWBALL number — just enough to be sure we could still feed the kids and keep the house), I’d jump ship. Three weeks after setting my mind to it I was already doing side jobs and I handed in my notice.
    In the year since, I haven’t been sick once, not even when my kids brought home the flu from school. I’ve had exactly two headaches, neither attributable to stress. And I’m actually making more money now as an independent contractor than I was in my corporate job. We hang onto toxic environments because we’re scared of the unknown and fearing failure, but the truth is that a toxic environment sets us up to fail in innumerable ways.

  9. Very insightful thoughts. Toxic workplace can be very damaging to an individual. And if one is not getting a chance to move out, the stress can increase to very high levels. It is important in such situation to stay calm and composed. Quitting without anything in hand can surely be considered as an option. However, one has got to pay the bills so it will be better to stay put, keep on trying and then move out as soon as one gets an opportunity. In the worst case, one should not wait too long and just quit. After all, no job is worth loosing one’s sleep.

  10. This blog is exactly what my current work environment is like. The other comments ring true as well. I have been offered another position, but it pays substantially less. 27% less, to be exact. While money is not an issue in my household, one is always hesitant to take such a large pay cut. However, I *absolutely need* to get out of my current job. If my counter-offer is not accepted, what do I do? Stay in a well paid, horrible toxic position for longer, while I look for another opportunity? Or take the large pay cut to improve quality of life? I can make arguments for both sides. Any input is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    1. All this sounds fine and dandy. But what happens when you leave one toxic work environment to end up in another? I’ve experienced this type of situation repeatedly and am *literally* sick from working for toxic individuals and organizations. I’ve gone out to start businesses on my own. Thought maybe being my own boss would be better. I actually enjoyed that but I never made enough money. So I come crawling back to working for someone. It’s a constant downward spriral and I’ve had enough.

      I think I’m doomed to become a hermit and live in the woods. I’m beyond frustrated. Absolutely defeated!

  11. I worked in a toxic work environment for 2 years , staff were constantly belittled talked to like children, forced to meet unrealistic targets , any little issue was taken as a disciplinary , my final straw came when I started having horrendous muscular pain , where there was no cause , I eventually found out it was undiagnosed depression which had relapsed due to the toxic working environment , I had some time off sick , when I returned the manager never asked how I was , he was almost resentful of me having time off , as he told me if a delivery comes in and it’s 30 boxes I want you to bring it in , under normal conditions I would not hesitate to do my job , but as I had mentioned my arm was still tender his expectations were unrealistic , so I went home and managed to get an interview within a week and I will be starting with my new employer soon X as I handed in my notice I have not heard anything back from them which justifies my description of what a bad employer they are , DONT GIVE UP HOPE YOU ARE WORTH MORE XXX

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