Should you stay or leave a toxic workplace? 11 tips
The first dilemma we all grapple with: Stay or leave?
If you are currently in a horrible position at work due to a change in culture, leadership, people or the workload; and it’s taking a huge toll on your health and mental well-being, then, it might be time to leave.
But the job search takes awhile so what do you do in the meantime?
In this post, I outline some tips I learnt from working in, tolerating and eventually leaving a toxic work culture.
My toxic workplace experience
I once worked in a place which had an awesome culture and leadership at first. It was a pretty people-oriented place, and above all I had a wonderful work team – one of the best to date, filled with people who were collaborative, smart and extremely helpful.
Though the pay and benefits weren’t good, it was the flexibility they encouraged and the team, as well as the different types of projects that made me stay on.
However, less than a few years after I joined, the senior leadership changed. That marked our entry through the Gates of Corporate Hell.
They brought in someone who would be the complete opposite of people-oriented and that was when the nightmare all started. People were being fired left and right, and upright just resigned because they were having physical illnesses from the stress.
Teams were taken apart – mine was – and two of my favourite managers left. A toxic culture of abusive behaviour especially by the new leader ensued. People were on edge and scared, everyone was stressed out, the collaborative team spirit was gone.
People felt they were walking on eggshells. There was huge uncertainty hanging over everyone which never seemed to clear up and it didn’t help that the new leader was someone who would take pride in and boast about how they fired someone recently or namedrop people and talked shit about them behind their backs – insulting their intelligence and anything under the sun.
I never felt comfortable with this person and the thing that made me want to leave was when they insulted a report I wrote with my team (8 months of very hard work) and called it a piece of shit, in a team meeting, in front of others.
Worst, they brought in a new person to replace my other boss without any notice, effectively ending their contract without a discussion. This new person would be the final straw that broke the camel’s back for me.
Fronting like they were pleasant and compassionate, they turned out to be tyrannical, a micromanager, aggressive, psychologically/mentally/emotionally unstable, defensive, borderline abusive person who would treat you however they felt like, without any warning.
They also felt completely justified at behaving the way they did. An aggressive confrontation with this person who spoke rudely and harshly to me over a small issue, didn’t want to hear an explanation, and then in the days after, proceeded to threaten me with a termination for no reason.
They managed to do all these in the middle of a discussion about some other innocuous subject matter. They would then go right back to being pleasant and cheerful.
It was like whiplash and you never knew what they could be acting one moment to the next.
This person also took issue with the way you arranged things on your desk, how you were sitting and what you were doing when you were at your desk – right down to your facial expressions and all. How is whatever they are doing not a personal attack?
I loved my work but dreaded going into my workplace and couldn’t wait to leave. I look back at my time in this company and I think I stayed longer than I should and rationalising away things that felt wrong to me .
How to deal when your workplace becomes toxic
Never EVER stay in a company for too long
Never ever get too comfortable where you are cause when shit hits the fan you aren’t ready and have nowhere to go. Lots of people get so comfortable in their jobs they just stay and rationalise whatever shit get thrown at them.
It’s almost akin to staying in abusive personal relationships.
The jobsearch process takes some time anyway, so do start it as early as you can. Some roles aren’t as common where you are, so you’d need even more time to look for one.
Always be on the lookout for jobs
Related to the point above, never get too comfortable and feel that you should or need to stay in a job for more than x years. Especially not in a toxic situation, you don’t need to. Leave asap.
Don’t feel like you should stay for x years cause of the fears that future employers are not gonna hire you cos of those short few years/months at one job.
If you aren’t a serial job hopper you have nothing to fear. You are leaving for a valid reason!
Applying for jobs when you are happily employed also means you are entering the job search with great energy. You will end up attracting more of the same. Searching for jobs when you are employed also means you are doing it from a good position for negotiation.
Give yourself a timeline/deadline to leave
Ramp up job search efforts and if you can’t stand it anymore, consider quitting without a job first.
Assess your own situation when making this decision, as it is always going to be different for all of us.
Giving yourself a timeline makes you accountable to that process. And because you’ve set a hard deadline, you are more motivated and highly likely to meet it.
Never say, let’s wait and see what happens
When you feel something is off, or the atmosphere is getting claustrophobic/negative, send out those resumes and make a plan to leave asap.
Don’t rationalise the obvious crap going on and tell yourself that things will never happen to you because you are far away. That you are shielded or protected.
I thought that I was removed from the shit going down at HQ cos I was miles away. You never know when that shit will come to your doorstep, so don’t rest on your laurels and make plans to leave while you can.
When leadership changes/your manager is leaving, make plans to leave too
Especially if the incoming person has a completely different style from the leadership style you thrive under. And especially if the person is more horrible than your previous leader.
Leaders tend to set the tone for the org culture and their leadership style can affect you and your work on a day to day basis. You will thrive under a good leader, but not under a bad one.
Some leaders come in and do anything they can to wipe out employees that came in before them. I prefer to see myself out.
Are you experiencing mental health or physical health illnesses?
Lots of toxic work cultures are the cause of extreme stress and our bodies respond by breaking down in all ways.
I’ve known of people who were suffering from insomnia, panic attacks, heart palpitations and severe anxiety because of a horrible boss.
At that workplace I mentioned above, I used to suffer from mysterious coughs that materialised out of nowhere and lasted for months on end. There was a period of 3 months where I would wake up in the middle of the night, cough so hard that my windpipe would close off suddenly and I would be left gasping for air.
I have no history of athsma or allergies and the doctors couldn’t diagnose what the root cause was. I was just given strong medication and it disappeared after awhile.
I would also suffer from strange muscle pains – lower back, strained wrist tendons etc off and on.
During the week of the aggressive confrontation with the new boss, I had a migraine every single day for an entire week when they were in office. I had NEVER experienced that before in my life.
When physical and mental well-being issues start coming up, it’s usually a physiological or spiritual sign that the space you are in right now isn’t healthy and it’s time to leave.
Don’t make excuses for your company or rationalise things away
I remember telling myself repeatedly that it’s okay that I didn’t receive a pay increase or bonuses because of the flexible working on offer.
Was I happy with that deep down? NO.
The fact that I had to rationalise it constantly wasn’t a good sign and I was denying my inner voice and intuition to get out.
Asking for any sort of development or a pay increase was also very difficult and required jumping through a lot of hoops and justifying a lot of things. I also had to create work for myself because the company just wasn’t able to find a pipeline of things for me to work on.
This is usually a very bad sign that the company’s BD/growth efforts aren’t great and should have been a sign to get out. The companý’s financials were also very poor and always hovering near negative.
OMG. I really should have left 3-4 years earlier than I did. A company with poor financials/growth doesn’t bode well for the future and they definitely will start micromanaging you in other ways – expenses etc and you’d need to justify for all sorts of things.
That kind of situation can be very stressful and turn personal very quickly.
Never ever tell yourself your situation is so rare and so special that you can’t find anything out there that is similar
I used to think that no other company out there would be so flexible and understanding about my work/study schedule. But I was wrong.
By telling yourself that, you are essentially introducing resistance and limitations and hanging on to something with a desperate vibe.
You are blocking better job situations from coming in.
Tell yourself that there are tons of jobs out there with similar conditions or better. You need to free yourself from your mind’s limitations and open yourself up to new opportunities that want to come into your life.
Don’t start people pleasing or feeling guilty
Please do not react to abusive behaviour by trying to please the perpetrator and breaking your back to make them happy, so that they won’t abuse you.
Abusive bosses will be abusive no matter how much work you do, so don’t do unnecessary stuff that they won’t appreciate. The boss in question would still make all sorts of sarcastic comments and find fault with other things we did no matter how well we performed.
It’s also normal to feel embarrassed, guilty, shameful and all sorts of related feelings when you are being attacked by an abusive boss. But remember that there is no need for you to be.
We sometimes react in that manner because their behaviour triggers something in us.
When the new boss behaved in that manner to me, it triggered anxiety, guilt, shame and fear because it reminded me of volatile, abusive situations I had been in during my childhood and with other authority figures (mostly teachers) in the past.
It dragged up a lot of horrible memories. Be compassionate with yourself and know that those memories can’t do anything to you now. And that you have the chance to change your reactions to similar people now.
Never take things personally
I know this is extremely hard but don’t take threats, passive aggression etc personally.
Abusive behaviour is always a reflection of the perpertrator’s character, not a reflection of you.
Learn ways to be assertive and answer assertively to threats and abuse whilst keeping your boundaries, confidence, professionalism and sanity. Read blogs like this one on how people deal with horrendous situations and create a diary/arsenal of things to say.
I still struggle with being emotional when I’m angry but I’ve found that letting go of my emotions and apologising even (to the perpetrator), helps a lot as it releases a lot of negative energy.
Document threatening, abusive behaviour
I saved all email exchanges, screenshot exchanges with the boss to friends, and wrote a blow by blow account of what went down, including time stamps and words said, especially in verbal exchanges.
I’d even record an audio if I could, but please check the privacy laws of your country before doing that.
Never ever save these material in the office computer, save it in a personal folder somewhere and if you’ve written it in a book, never keep it at work.
Ensure that everything is taken account of, in the case of a legal case or in filing claims or complaints, you’d definitely need them.
When you have to resort to doing this, you know that it’s time to send out those resumes, go for interviews and prepare yourself to walk out the company’s doors for good.
Whatever you do, never give into your fears. FEAR is what allows these demon bosses to have control over you. Don’t be afraid. Listen your intuition, listen to your body, do what is necessary and leave.
And you know what else I learnt? The reasons you give for staying in a place reflect your level of self-esteem. Barring financial or other life circumstances, do you think this is the best you deserve?
I stayed way past my time, as I felt I couldn’t meet nice colleagues elsewhere, I felt I couldn’t get a better paying job. I felt other companies wouldn’t be as understanding flexibility-wise.
But now I’ve come to realise that all that are just the limitations that come from my mind. I don’t even know all the companies out there, how could I even know if all of them were worse than what I had?
Also no amount of flexibility could ever make up for the psychological and emotional abuse people had to endure in that environment.
No company in this world is so amazing that you need to risk your physical and mental health to stay through abusive situations.
Exercise self-care and self-love, there are great organisations out there who have better work cultures and would welcome you with open arms. You get to go to work in peace, get the perks you need and keep your sanity.
With 10 years of experience as a Researcher (MSc) in Psychology, Neuroscience, Mental Health, Consumer and Organisational Behaviour; I help action-oriented, time-strapped people and solopreneurs crush their inner critics, navigate toxic workplaces and relationships and build their self-esteem so that you can have the freedom, happiness and confidence you desire. I spend the rest of my time daydreaming and downing cups of tea/coffee – my life’s vice. Ask me any question and I will answer it in a post.