Found Yourself in a Toxic Work Environment? Here’s How To Leave While Protecting Your Mental Well-Being

Photo: Getty Images / Maskot
No matter if it’s with a partner, friend, or family member, the signs of a toxic relationship are often the same: your thoughts and opinions are not considered, you’re the only one willing to compromise or put in work to better the relationship, and you constantly feel like you’re walking on eggshells. It can take a huge toll on your mental health and well-being, as I recently experienced first-hand. But in my case, my toxic relationship was not with a romantic partner or a friend—it was with my job.

Toxic jobs are defined as negative work environments that strain employees’ mental well-being, with key traits including abusive bosses, discriminatory or harassing behavior, intense office politics, and a culture of gossip or competition. And these workplaces are more common than you’d think: a 2020 survey from Emtrain found that 41 percent of employees don’t think their workplace would take a harassment complaint seriously, and 29 percent have left a job due to workplace conflict.

If you’re in this situation and you know the time has come to part ways, then I first want to say: congratulations! Making the decision to leave a toxic work environment is not easy (or possible for everyone, depending on financial constraints or the need for health insurance). Being able to choose to do what is best for you is a reason to be deeply proud. Unfortunately, while it seems like there are endless resources, books, and inspirational Instagram accounts available to support us and help us find peace when leaving a personal toxic relationship, guidance is much more difficult to come by for breaking up with an employer.

In an effort to provide you with support in what can be a very heartrending transition, here’s what I found helpful as a mental health professional when doing my own breakup with a toxic job.

Tips for leaving a toxic job while preserving your mental well-being, according to someone who’s been there

1. Be gentle with yourself

This is hard! It will likely feel similar to a romantic break-up, and you may even experience symptoms of grief. Your work is a relationship in which you have invested a great deal of time, energy, and probably money, and when it does not work out how you planned it is sad. Honor your feelings and show yourself kindness. Self-compassion and self-care during this time are absolutely essential! Do as many things as you can that make you feel happy and rejuvenated. Plan a hike with a friend, go out for drinks, cuddle up with your dog and a book—prioritize whatever fills your cup.

2. Don’t feel like you have to explain yourself or justify your departure

It is easy to feel that you owe a detailed explanation to all of your coworkers, even the ones that may be part of the reason for your departure—especially if you’re leaving suddenly, or without another job lined up. The truth is, you do not owe anyone an explanation on why you need to leave a toxic situation—just that you’re leaving, and when your last day is. If you want, you can reach out individually to any colleagues you feel close with and tell them as little or as much as you like, but you certainly don’t have to. All you need to do is what is best for you at this time, and it is your supervisor’s responsibility to take care of the rest.

3. Try not to take hostile responses to your departure personally

How a person treats you is usually not a direct reflection of you as a person but rather a reflection of their own internal issues. The same is true with your employer. If you are getting pushback for making a decision that is best for you and your well-being, then that is more proof that your decision to leave is the correct one.

That said, it’s understandable (and valid!) to feel hurt or angry by those kinds of responses—whether it’s your boss giving you the cold shoulder or being even harder on you for the last two weeks of work. I processed that hurt and frustration by journaling, venting to my partner or a friend, and working with my therapist. I encourage you to take the time you need and work through your feelings as well.

4. Remember: A toxic workplace is not your fault

You do not control your employer or your work environment, and therefore you cannot be solely responsible for its issues (or fixing them). Just like every relationship, our relationship with work has to be a two-way street in order to be a healthy one. If you were the only one giving and making sacrifices, or if you asked for support but your concerns were not heard or respected, then I am going to make the leap and say the problem is not you. Needing to leave has nothing to do with your skills or abilities, and there is no reason to feel guilt or shame. You can just smile and say, “Thank you, next!”

Whatever your situation, remember that you are worthy of a healthy work environment in which you feel supported and respected. Give yourself grace and compassion for all that you have endured and accomplished in your career, and give yourself credit for all you invested in that relationship. Our mental health and time are priceless, so let’s approach our careers with that in mind.

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