Dr. Laura McHale
How to recover after leaving a toxic job
Making the decision to leave an oppressive work environment is hard, but there is a smart way to heal and regain your footing.
As the great resignation attests, we seem to be living through an epidemic of toxic jobs. We’ve all been there. A role that felt like it would break us. A boss that got under our skin. A culture that seemed poisonous. Toxic jobs are not just disempowering, they can lead to anxiety, depression, disrupted sleep patterns, alcohol and substance abuse disorders, and more. And the toll creeps into all aspects of our lives, impacting families and loved ones. These types of jobs often leave individuals feeling like they have no choice but to leave — and while this may bring some relief, it is usually accompanied by lingering sadness, regret, and even bitterness.
How can we break this cycle and heal in the aftermath of a toxic job?
1. Look at the structural flaws in your last job’s design
Understanding what when wrong with your last role puts you in a more empowered position of knowing what to avoid in the next. Studies have shown that the three most common causes of workplace stress are work overload, role ambiguity, and role conflict.
Overload occurs when we have too much on our plates. Overload is often caused by resourcing constraints or even exploitative employers or work cultures. But sometimes it is due to an inability to negotiate proper boundaries, workaholism, and a fear of saying no. Overload during short periods of time may lead to greater productivity, however longer-term it can lead to burnout and exhaustion.
Role ambiguity occurs when a role is poorly defined vis-à-vis other roles in a team, department, or organization. Role ambiguity is often to blame when there are tasks which fall into a grey area, with no one quite sure who’s remit they fall under. Less desirable tasks get shuttled to lower status members of teams, or organizations tacitly create conditions where certain team members are vulnerable to exploitation by shouldering tasks unequally.
Role conflict occurs when different stakeholders have different expectations of a person’s role, and when those expectations either fail to align or become incompatible. It is common in certain types of jobs, particularly those in oversight functions — such as risk management —where part of the job is to scrutinize and ferret out weaknesses, while also trying to collaborate and build teams. It is also common where there may be clashes between a business or infrastructure area and the larger enterprise.
Fortunately, with all three types of workplace stressors, knowledge is power: understanding what went wrong with out last role enables us to be smarter in the future. A vague job description can put us on alert for role ambiguity, while “dotted” reporting lines can tip us off that there might be role conflict. A job description that reads like it’s three-in-one signals that overwork might be a problem. All of these can be flagged — and hopefully negotiated — before we accept that next role.
2. Consider how we showed up
In the immediate aftermath of a toxic role, we often focus on the situational factors that caused our distress, such as an ineffective boss, frustrating project, or antagonistic colleagues. But this external focus can prevent us from getting curious about how we showed up for the role and dealt with those challenges. For example, research has found that factors such as self-esteem, a belief in our ability to perform well, and our tolerance for experiencing unpleasant emotions, actually play a much bigger role in job satisfaction than we may think.
This is not to say that toxic work environments are our own fault. Not at all. But considering how we showed up while doing the job can be an effective and therapeutic practice.
We tend to view our bosses through a leader-centric lens, reducing ourselves to passive subordinates. But again, research has shown that our interactions with leaders have a big impact on our career outcomes. Whether we are combative or submissive, problem or emotion-focused, and whether we confront the issue or avoid it — all these things can teach us important lessons about how we deal with conflict, how we cope with loss, and identify areas that we might wish to work on and heal to ensure better outcomes in the future.
It is helpful to do this reflective work with others, such as trusted friends or loved ones, and/or also through executive coaching or psychotherapy.
Many of us have had work experiences that have shaken our confidence and caused us to lose faith in what we thought work is meant to be. But these steps can help us learn from our experiences, mend some of the hurt, and restore our optimism and commitment to the kind of work that we want to do and the people we want to do it with.