Career Tips, Success Mindset

Should you stay or leave a toxic workplace? 11 tips

Toxic workplaces can be toxic and unhealthy for our well-being. Having been through a toxic crazy organisation which I eventually left - I know how difficult it can be to make the decision to stay or leave. I offer 11 tips to help you make a decision.
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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 .

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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.

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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.

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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.

Just remember…

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.

Your thoughts?

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10 Comments

  1. liz ward

    at 11:02 pm

    Thank you for this article!! I have been at my job for 16 years. I have had 21 bosses in that time. I have always done well and received exceptional reviews that is until the new boss was hired. I have described my current work situation as an abusive relationship. In 2018 I was diagnosed with breast cancer I attribute at least part of my diagnosis to the toxic work environment I have endured. I am so afraid to leave because I do not have a degree and I fear that I will not make as much as I make now or have the benefits. This article has given my a little more confidence. I know that leaving this environment is what is right. I just hope that I will have the courage!

    1. Sara

      at 9:08 am

      Hey Liz! You are very welcome =) Wow.. 21 bosses?! =O I’m sorry to hear about your breast cancer diagnosis, I hope you recuperating well? And yes, many of us are in toxic work situations which affect our mental and physical health in many ways. This is why I always advocate for being in a work situation that is kind to both your body and mind. Though I understand that is not possible for MANY people and I really feel for people who cannot escape toxic situations that quickly cause of personal situations. As for you, it would be good to start researching options right now. Do up your resume, send it out, get in touch with your contacts and with recruiters. The economy isn’t great but there are still industries that are employing people. Start doing it now, don’t wait.

      I know it takes immense courage and there will be alot of fear and doubt and hesitation, but once you go through it and come out on the other side, you will be so relieved you started the process. Think about your long term physical and mental health. I left my previous organisation cause of a similar situation – the new boss was incredibly incompetent and a complete nightmare, an abuser who gaslighted all of us by denying that she behaves in an abusive manner. It was so bad, it triggered my anxiety issues and my childhood stuff. Even seeing her name in my inbox would set off my heart racing like crazy. I knew I had to leave.

      I wish you all the best! You have more courage and confidence than you know, and I hope you find something that is a good fit for you really soon! =D Take care!

  2. Forza Natural

    at 6:51 pm

    nicely written. I also fell for the “rationalisation” trap, and stayed in a toxic environment for too long because the office was close to home and i didn’t want a long commute. A long commute can be stressful but never as stressful as a toxic environment.

    1. Sara

      at 11:49 pm

      Hello! Yes the minute you start engaging in rationalising and if you are constantly finding yourself in that pattern of feeling shitty > rationalise > feel good (temporarily), it’s time to leave! No amount of rationalising is gonna make the situation better, and if you are over-rationalising – it’s a huge red flag that you aren’t listening to your intuition and ignoring blatant warning signs.

      I too stayed in my previous jobs because 1. pay 2. nice enough colleagues 3. great culture (for my first job) 4. Looked good on my resume.

      But sometimes the “perks” or positives don’t really outweigh the horrible toxic people in the company or the toxic culture and practices that are perpetuated and enabled by narcissistic toxic management. And exactly – a long commute can never be as horrible as a toxic environment. Our sanity and well-being should always come first!

  3. Ryan

    at 1:09 am

    Thank you for this well written article! The company I work for was acquired by a large umbrella. I have been my industry for 8 years and the company I work for is by far the most unprofessional company I have ever worked for in my 16 year career. On top of that, the toxic environment would make any HR professional’s skin crawl. Since the pandemic has started we’ve experienced a boom and have had to increase productivity and output. Despite running a small crew and working through blizzards and a bloody pandemic we have exceeded expectations month after month. We are killing ourselves to meet demand and leadership has never said thank you or have been supportive. We have had our jobs threatened, have been yelled at for miscommunication on our bosses side, and have been muzzled for speaking about safety concerns. Personally I have been yelled at by my boss for his own poor communication a few times. This past week I have had to leave 2 days in a row with debilitating migraines. I have been at a loss and this article has helped me get perspective in order to finally leave. Thank you so much and best wishes!

    1. Sara

      at 10:41 am

      Hello Ryan! Your current work environment sounds pretty awful. The pandemic has really shown up many companies’ horrible treatment of their employees. And because of now having to overturn so many employment practices, hiring freeze and so on – many people are now being made to do more for less! If anything, the pandemic is a huge lesson to companies – learn how to treat your employees right. In time, with the advancement of AI, the rise of the gig economy etc, companies who don’t want to treat their employees well will have to close shop – they will be pushed out of the competition. It is difficult to leave a job, but if you have the means and you can – I always recommend it for the sake of one’s mental health. I hope your job search goes well and that you find a much better place with a less toxic culture. Thanks for your wonderful comment and take care!

  4. DG

    at 11:08 am

    I left a toxic work environment this week. Initially, I gave a long notice, but the company decided to honor the “customary” two week one (Minnesota, USA), and pay me for those two weeks. I wasn’t at the place long (a credit union); only four months, and wanted to stay six, but I had had enough, too. In fact, I knew i was leaving the entire geographic since it is well known for its passive-aggressive style, complainers, resentful employees, and the “elephant in the room.” That is, management knows there is a problem or two in the office and they ignore it, since they never want to hurt the local people. Due to Covid-19, the branch was working on a skeleton staff, with some people working at home. One really has to wonder how much work they were doing at home, too. Two very small branches closed in March. One of those employees had to work at the branch where I was hired. She was a very resentful person of 32 years. She complained every day in that place about having to raise four children (she allowed herself to get pregnant by an illegal immigrant from Honduras with an eighth grade education. She had these children from 19 through 27, and had been a university student when she ended up pregnant. Every day in that workplace she complained about the kids having to do internet schooling at home, living in a small three bedroom apartment, being hungry constantly since she was doing that Keto crap for months, and having a “poor” mother who had to support herself, being in her 50s. (By the way, I’m a woman soon to be 58 and have always been single). This person supposedly started her job at 7:45 but did nothing until 9 am. The teller supervisor also started at 7:45 and did little until the branch opened. The mother of four children employee also complained about having to work at this branch since she didn’t like the clientele. She preferred the clientele at “her” branch since they worked at a scientific company. Still, many of the employees at that plant area were non educated office employees, too. She had a negativity toward our branch since the clientele were regular working class folk. Yet, this woman had no post secondary education, not even an associates degree. I, although performing the low level job of bank teller (she referred to it as low level work) possess both a bachelor and master degree in other subjects. The toxic workplace included the usual clique: the teller supervisor who was all of 32 and another teller trying to move up to a banker job, although he had no formal education beyond high school and even spent two years incarcerated; the miserable “banker” who complained daily, and other at home employees who came into the branch when needed on a day here and there. It was obvious they were all on social media together, always IM each other using the company IM, and engaging in regular clique like behavior. Daily, they ordered lunches and excluded me from asking if I were interested in ordering with them. The branch manager knew this and made a point to include me in some offers. I know the branch lost several people early in 2020 for “various” reasons, so they were down three tellers. And, that was interesting, too, that these people left the jobs after years on it. My hunch is they left since they got tired of hearing that employee complaining every day and the teller supervisor acting like a hard ass. She, too, had no higher education, demanded no variances of money, and would even expect me to find 30 cents if I were off at the end of the day. One morning she told me I was off the night before by a penny. Yet, the branch manager would be off up to $44 in a day.This person was very unprofessional, writing reports on me using slang words, and even speaking them to me. Most of the time I didn’t know what she meant since she usually talked in her gang slang known among people of her Hmong culture. I’d bet those former employees left, too, due to this teller supervisor, who had not been in that role for a long time. This place was the final straw for me in this land of 10,000 lakes since Minnesota is notorious for a very passive aggressive cultural climate, being insular, and not very friendly. Despite making a decent salary, I decided it was time to move on, and out of the region. In fact, really the entire Upper Midwest in the United States has a passive aggressive and insular feel to its environment. Many employees around here complain about having to work, resent having to work, and just complain all through the day. There is not much of a decent work ethic despite the locals thinking they have such a great work ethic. My recommendation is to never stay in a toxic environment. The branch manager, all of 44, has been at that job for 15 years, and has no ambition to go anywhere else. His boss recently left the company, after just five years on the job. And, when that was announced, I could feel the palpitation in the branch manager, since he mostly got away with much stuff the past five years. I have seen kids at a pizza franchise in my neighborhood act more professionally and just do their job than what I experienced at this credit union, whose headquarters are in Wisconsin. It truly is an Upper MIdwest culture that is disgustedly passive-aggressive.

  5. Diane Cupples

    at 12:15 am

    I have worked in a place 20 years. New job three years ago, same company. In three years we have gone through 3 sets of management. Over 15 employees have left in three years. We are micromanaged. Our productivity is sent via email to all other employees. When covid hit, we had no safety measures put in place. We do now, but it is still unsafe. I work in registration and over 200 patients come into our office on a daily basis. Some are regulars, some I have never seen before. Some have covid and do not want to wear their masks. Three employees are recovering from covid and it is highly likely they got it from our workplace. Promotions are based on if you are young and if management likes you. In other words, if you are a good worker, but not young you are going nowhere, New workers are being hired in at around the same pay as I make. Management has fired and forced out employees in the fifty/sixty range. Our team lead who had worked at the hospital over 40 years was forced out and replaced by a new employee who had been with the company less than 7 months. The environment is very toxic and cut throat. I live in an area that is very depressed. There are not a lot of good jobs to be had. So I am forced to stay until I find something else. I have been looking for the whole 3 years and have found nothing. I have my Bachelors Degree and have worked in Accounting, Banking, and Medical fields. Now all I want is to get out. I don’t care what the pay is, as long as I have benefits. Why is it so hard to find something, anything, even part-time….

  6. Danielle

    at 10:39 am

    Wow this was exactly what I needed to hear. I am actually a Supervisor and a lot of what I am dealing with comes from the opposite spectrum. I believe this is not spoken about often enough. My situation has been with employees giving me (Supervisor) a hard time. Trying to intimidate me to stop making changes and doing things they don’t like. They lie on me and spread bad rumors to make me look bad and as if I am the typical “new management”. I have endured horrible leadership for so long, that I decided to step up and help make changes that can help things be more positive. There needs to be accountability, clear expectation and communication. That has caused quite a stir. Especially, with those that are poor performers, lazy, poor attitudes, narcists etc. I am literally in the middle. I work under toxic upper leadership and have very toxic subordinates. I have no backing and my subordinates know it. I have been treated very poorly. It has been hard, because I do not want to come off as a horrible leader if I make changes that people do not like. But I refuse to be intimidated. It’s really sad. I feel like I am going into battle everyday with people that are supposed to be my teammates. I want to include as many people as I can, but I know that most do not have the right intensions. I have been told by many I am in a impossible situation. That if I do not have backing, there isn’t anything I can do. I am left in this toxic place, hardly able to properly supervise because staff attempts to undermine and intimidate me and upper management ignores me. I am a tough chick, but I am exhausted. I went through a lot of mental and emotional problems over the past 5 years. I do not want to give them the satisfaction of leaving because I know that is exactly what they want and I truly believe I can do great things here. BUT I have to accept the things I cannot change, have the courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. So with that being said, I am working on starting my own business. I’m excited about the change and new possibilities. BUT if I am being honest I feel like a failure. I really wanted to do some great things for this place. Things that are hard to do and make people uncomfortable but would do wonders for the future for EVERYBODY. I just understand that most businesses do not have vision or really care about people. People become a product of their environment. I do not want to be apart of that. Especially, working in a public safety field in this day and age.

    1. Sara

      at 3:15 pm

      Hi Danielle! Thanks for sharing your experience. Wow, one of the worst positions to be in an organisation is being stuck in the middle of two or even more groups of people. None of whom wants to see any changes and are comfortable being where they are. Sounds like your organisation has a very disorganised and toxic leadership which has trickled into the culture and into the types of people they hire and retain. It sounds like a very undermining place to work in, especially if your subordinates are not giving you the due respect you deserve and upper management is encouraging it. You said “I do not want to give them the satisfaction of leaving…”, after mentioning having dealt with emotional and mental problems for a long time – 5 yrs ain’t short!

      This isn’t a competition as to who lasts longer in the company, especially a clearly toxic one like yours. The people that have long tenures there are the ones you’ve described – lazy, narcissistic etc. There is little point in putting in your personal energy into trying to revolutionise and change the way people think/the way an organisation behaves when they don’t even want to change! They probably won’t even appreciate what you are trying to do. Instead, put that energy elsewhere – if that is starting your business, do that!

      “I just understand that most businesses do not have vision or really care about people.” Sadly, it’s true. Most organisations only care about their bottomlines and MANY have no idea what they are trying to do, no long term plans. There are companies that care about people but they are rare and people-centred cultures take time – decades – to build and establish. Most companies these days are all about the profit margin and the hustle, which leaves no space for caring about people. All the best in your next journey, wherever that may be! 😀

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