When it’s Time to Say Buh-Bye to a Toxic Workplace

By Erin Gabriel
Art by Sarah Forgey

We spend at least 40 hours a week at work. And if that environment isn’t healthy or supportive, the negative impacts of a toxic workplace bleed into our everyday lives. 

But how do you gain the courage to leave a work environment that isn’t working for you? 

That’s the question that got our gears turning when an anonymous Catcall reader reached out to ask for advice on their toxic workplace story. In this reader’s case, their managers weren’t following COVID protocols set in place—putting them and their coworkers at risk. And while that’s a very clearly toxic and unsafe environment—and a loud reason to walk away from a job—not every toxic workplace looks so obvious. So how do you leave?

See, the problem isn’t that there’s not enough guidance out there, but that there’s way too much—which can be overwhelming. According to research conducted by MIT Sloan School of Management, around 30 million US workers—or one in nine—experience their workplace as toxic. 

“It’s really an epidemic of toxicity,” Charlie Sull, one of the two researchers who conducted the study says. “This is something that affects tens of millions of people in America alone.”

As a former educator myself, I can relate to the complexity of leaving a toxic work environment. It is not as black and white of a decision as it can be made out to be. Switching careers requires a lot of research, time, money, and motivation. In my position, the conditions were just not sustainable anymore; I was not given the time to do my job effectively, I was not paid overtime for working outside of my contracted hours, the evaluation system to support me in my journey of growth and improvement was flawed, I was not paid enough to survive, my mental health was suffering, and teachers were not included in the overall conversation or crucial discussions needed to make teaching a more sustainable career. 

I knew I deserved more, but the process of leaving took me over a year. 

It was a difficult process for me, but if you’re considering leaving a toxic work environment, I don’t want you—or our anonymous reader—to face the same difficulties. So Catcall called in some help from two experts: Financial Coach Corben Wilson, “The Money Steward” with Myles Thousands Financial, and Christopher Taylor, Job Hunt Strategist and Career Consultant. Together, they came up with tips to help you leave your toxic workplace.

Set Healthy Boundaries At Work 

“You set healthy boundaries at work by communicating what you will tolerate and what you won’t allow,” says Wilson. When having these conversations, Wilson recommends tact; be mindful of your delivery, tone, and body language. As the saying goes, “you teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.”

Don’t Let Toxicity Lead To Inaction

In the workplace, there are two primary outcomes of toxic behavior, according to Wilson: “either it motivates people to make a drastic change or it cripples them entirely and becomes a reason for stagnation.” Know you deserve better than workplaces that do not value or support you. Think about your response to your environment, and focus on the action you can take.

Start looking for other options even if you aren’t sure about leaving. A great method for surviving a toxic workplace is to look for other options. “The power, hope, and upliftment that comes from feeling like there’s truly something better right around the corner can give the empowerment needed to push through your last days in a rough environment,” says Taylor.

When It Comes To A Work Environment, Listen To Your Gut, And Allow Yourself To Feel Your Emotions

“Leaving a toxic environment isn’t as easy as one may think,” Taylor says. “First of all, knowing what to expect out of a toxic environment that you’re familiar with sometimes feels less scary than finding a new position.” Often, facing the fear of “What if it’s even worse somewhere else” is difficult to face. Plus, you have to consider the stress of the health of the job market, your personal financial needs, and more. 

At the end of the day, if something feels off, then it probably is, and it’s time to do a bit of investigating. Dig into how you feel and why you feel that way. 

Focus on Financial Literacy and Make Sure You Have Reserves To Fall Back On 

It isn’t uncommon for people to quit jobs without the reassurance of some financial reserves to fall back on, which lands them back in a stressful situation, according to financial coach Corben. You potentially just replaced toxicity within the work environment and traded it for having minimal to no income, small amount of financial reserves, and reliance on debt to keep you afloat—which has the ability to cause great stress and anxiety in one’s life. Be thoughtful before making the jump. 

If you’re seeing a major pay bump or a raise, try saving every dollar that’s above and beyond your current salary for six or so months. That way you financially protect yourself from the risk of needing to search for a job if your job isn’t what you expected.

As we know, proper money management isn’t a skill that is commonly taught. Work with a financial coach or find resources to understand the inner workings of your finances, like your retirement plan, how to efficiently strategize a paycheck, or how to develop a financial system for your household. Utilizing a financial coach or learning more about financial literacy can help you develop financial strategies, resulting in less stress and more mental clarity.

If you can prepare financially by setting clear financial goals, having a laid out game plan, creating strategic financial systems, and consistently moving with discipline to maintain that standard, then you can eliminate the barrier of living paycheck-to-paycheck. It isn’t easy, but there are ways to financially plan, Corben says. And with a plan, you’re less likely to be bound to a company for the sole reason of a paycheck, and you can begin to put money into an emergency savings account—supporting you in quitting a toxic environment if necessary. 

Know When To Throw In The Towel

“When to throw in the towel is a personal choice. Everyone has a unique situation and unique tolerance level. But if you feel like there isn’t any hope for a toxic environment to get any better, it may be time to walk away,” Taylor says. “Looking for other options while working in a less than desirable position can feel uplifting. With that said, if you need to quit immediately and if you have the financial resources to do so, it’s a lot easier to find your next opportunity when you have over eight hours a day to hunt.” 

Take Care of Your Mental and Physical Health

Toxic work environments can take a major toll on your health, both mentally and physically. 

“From burnout to anxiety to depression, I work with clients daily seeking a new position because of the pain they’ve endured mentally,” says Taylor. “As far as physically I remember a time when I was so stressed from a bad work environment that I developed alopecia,” a type of hair loss caused by stress.

Often, burnout and toxicity go hand-in-hand. “Burnout can be the cause of poor work-life balance, monotonous work, personal factors impacting your stress while at work or even work overload,” Corben says. “Toxicity, on the other hand, can be the cause of negative behaviors and attitudes within the workplace like discrimination, bullying, and harassment.”

Seek out a therapist to support you both in your toxic work environment and through your transition. Regular sessions with a therapist can alleviate stress and offer different frames of thinking on how to navigate the situation.

Currently, therapist fees can be costly, so be sure to thoroughly examine your finances to ensure you can afford the cost and shop around for a cost you can afford. Some therapists offer a sliding scale payment method, so ask your provider about their payment options. 

When You Decide To Make The Jump, Look For Green Flags 

When it comes to a toxic work environment, the best thing you can do is to work to see the red flags prior to accepting the position. Review sites like glassdoor are so helpful in telling you what to expect from an organization. Digging into a company’s social media helps too. It can give you insight into the work environment, into who’s being highlighted and valued, into company ideals, and more. But the absolute best thing you can do is network, network, and network some more! Talk to former and current employees about their experience. You’ll likely be shocked at how brutally honest folks will be with you in sharing their perspective.

Then keep an eye out for green flags when applying for a new position. Like clear communication and transparency, opportunities for growth and development, appreciation and recognition of employees contributions, fair and competitive pay. Also keep your eyes out for supportive and collaborative teams, work-life balance, flexibility, and a positive and overall respectful workplace. Companies that establish employee resource groups are another good sign. An environment that supports diverse groups coming together to build relationships and support each other’s challenges setting you up for success. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions in interviews about work culture. When you’re looking for a new position, don’t just jump head-first because you want out of your current situation. Instead, be thoughtful so you don’t get yourself back in a similar position. 

Avoid Speaking Ill Of Your Former Employer Or Colleagues 

Keep your responses brief and direct toward the facts, but don’t be afraid to talk about the toxic behaviors that led you to leave. If it was harassment, bullying, or any unethical behavior, explain how the environment affected your performance and personal well-being. 

If you do start interviewing with new companies, don’t gossip about what went wrong, but do have the courage to be honest. People are way more understanding than we often give credit. And if they can’t understand why you’d want to leave a horrible environment, there’s a good chance they’re part of the problem and the new opportunity may not be for you. Basically, don’t put yourself back in the same toxic situation that you left.

Erin Gabriel (she/her) is an educator, writer, social media manager, and former digital journalist for CNN. Erin currently lives in Denver and loves anything health & wellness/professional development related as well as reading, being outdoors, and traveling. She is passionate about social justice issues but has specifically worked in the realms of improving the quality of public education, fighting for immigrant/refugee rights, and advocating for disability rights.

Sarah Forgey is a graphic designer based in Kansas City. She works as an experiential graphic designer at The Nelson-Atkins museum of art, where she designs everything from postcards to exhibition graphics, signage to event branding, and everything in-between. In her free time she can be found watching movies with friends, consuming a shocking amount of drag content (IE anything involving Trixie and Katya), and reading a horror book at a coffee shop.

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