I currently work full time at a library and I absolutely love it. Every day I wake up incredibly grateful for the job I have. I first started working in the library field almost ten years ago, but due to budget cuts and other factors I worked for three and a half years in a different field so I could have health insurance and a full time income.
It doesn’t matter what the job was. What matters is that not even a year into it, the job became toxic to me. I had to stay to make things in my life happen, so I did. But in the process I sacrificed my health, relationships, and wellbeing.
Any job environment, even jobs most people think would be fun or interesting, can be toxic. I love being a librarian but I know people who have had to leave the library field because they felt their job environments were toxic. More and more people I know are experiencing such environments and are suffering physical and mental consequences for staying at their jobs.
Everyone has different things to deal with in toxic job environments, but a few things in mine were: bad management, rampant drama, verbal abuse, physical danger, emotionally exhausting work, no respect, and almost no meaning. But I see these things echoed in many fields and different kinds of work.
I would like to add, though toxic jobs can happen to anyone, I am aware that certain types of jobs are more likely to be toxic. Low wage jobs, factory work, caregiving fields, social work, and stigmatized jobs are more likely to have severe ill effects for workers if they do not offer adequate supports or benefits to employees, which is, unfortunately, common.
Also, certain positions in the same workplace can be more toxic than others. I found myself hating my job while working alongside people who had more power at work or were being paid more. They loved their jobs and didn’t see how the workplace was in any way toxic. But that didn’t mean my experience was less valid.
I was stuck in a toxic job for three and a half years. And this list might not be pretty, but these are the things I learned about this experience.
1. Working at a toxic job can ruin your life.
By the end of the three and a half years at that job, I had sunk into a depression. I had stopped talking to my family and friends and when I did I was often unresponsive or angry. I didn’t have a relationship with my husband. After I came home from work I would lay in bed with the lights out and blast music into my head for a couple hours then go to sleep. I started feeling sicker and my chronic conditions got worse. To combat the flare ups, I took medication I shouldn’t have been taking to make it to work. Still, my attendance issues got me reprimanded and I used all my sick leave and vacation time. I ended up in the emergency room because I was not taking care of my body. After that, all my energy went into simply making it to work my 40 hours a week. I hated my job but my entire life revolved around just going to work. I would sleep 12-14 hours on any day I had off. I loved my husband, my home, and my writing but the job overshadowed all of that. For at least the last year I was at that job, I cried in my car almost every day during my lunch break. I’m not being dramatic when I say I felt like I was dying.
No job should make you feel like that. But for many people, this is the reality of their jobs.
Even when other aspects of your life are amazing, going to the same toxic place every day, consistently, will wear you down and corrode other areas of your life. Living for the weekend is only effective for so long. If you don’t do something, a toxic job will impact all areas of your life.
Unfortunately doing something isn’t always easy.
2. I had to constantly explain to others why I couldn’t “just quit.”
People would say—if it’s so bad, why don’t you just quit? If your health is failing, why don’t you go on disability? Or get a different job? Why doesn’t your husband get a better job?
First… Yes, I live with a visible physical disability and have many chronic conditions. But, no, I’m not just going to go on disability so I “don’t have to worry about it.” I’m not shaming people for getting benefits they need, but for many complicated reasons I won’t delve into here, the option is not for me.
But I am still disabled. My disability makes it impossible for me to work most of the full time jobs offered in my rural area. Not all. But most.
Second… Yes, I did apply for many jobs trying to get out of my toxic situation. But the only ones offered to me were part time and I needed stable health insurance. Full time positions I applied for I didn’t get because either 1.) I was not qualified and the job was rightly offered to someone else or 2.) I was discriminated against because of my disability. I can’t hide it, and I’m sure it happened.
Third… My husband was working all this time, sometimes three jobs at once. But these jobs didn’t offer health insurance. When he did land a job that offered health insurance it was equally as toxic as mine and ended up, like mine, being unsustainable.
There are almost always many consequences for leaving a job that are just as severe as staying—being without health insurance, lacking experience or education for better jobs, or living in rural areas with poor economies.
On top of that, some people even said that being a grown up and sucking it up and paying your bills is worth even the most extreme consequences. Which brings me to…
3. When I did quit, most people thought I was making a stupid decision.
In the end, I was written up for my attendance, coming in late, and my bad attitude. I couldn’t argue. In those last few months I was not a good employee and I hated the person I had become. At that meeting, I put in my two weeks, with no back up plan. In the same month my husband quit his evil job and we were free!
…With no income and no health insurance.
Some people I talked to put their frowny-face judgement voice on and asked me if it was really that bad.
It sounded something like this:
Being without health insurance is dangerous. Not having any income is just as dangerous. Couldn’t one of you suck it up and deal with it until you had secured another job? So what if you’ve both lost an extreme amount of weight, are severely depressed, and can barely function. Be responsible!
Well, we were responsible. We didn’t ask for help from anyone. We owned our decision. We had managed to save up a few months’ worth of income and were prepared to rely on it.
Miraculously, my old part time position at the library opened back up that same week I put in my notice. I ended up having a gap of three days between jobs. My husband got a part time job as well and we managed to pad our income with our savings for a whole year, when a full time position opened at my library. It was a titled position with a lot of competition. But I got the job. (And I am so, so grateful. Every day.)
Still, the year without health insurance was hell. I cried myself to sleep many nights because I was in pain or sick and I couldn’t afford to go to a doctor. I stopped taking my prescribed medications because I couldn’t afford them. We are extremely lucky no medical emergencies happened in that year to my husband or I that could have landed us in unmanageable debt.
I’d love to tell anyone stuck in a job they hate to just quit and everything will work out. But I can’t do that. Looking back, it was a huge gamble and in many ways I was stupid. But I survived. That’s really all I can say about it.
4. It took years to repair the mental and physical damage.
I felt completely numb emotionally the first two months after leaving the toxic job. Three to four months out I started feeling something I can only describe as “safe.” It was a weird thing to feel. I didn’t feel better, but I did feel safe, and that was progress. But it wasn’t until around six months that my eating and sleeping started to return to normal and I began to feel better. Around six months was also when I started repairing relationships and doing things again I used to enjoy.
But a full year later, I was still having problems with brain fog, forgetfulness, and not being able to read or write correctly. It was a weird symptom to have but all the stress and sickness really messed with my brain. For about a year before I quit and a year after I quit, I wouldn’t be able to think of certain words and I had to double check everything I wrote, even short emails, for mistakes. Even though I never stopped being a writer/author during this time, my brain was constantly glitching. It was so frustrating to be aware of it but not able to stop it, which only added to my stress.
It’s been almost 2 years now and I’m just beginning to feel like my mental clarity and sharpness has returned to where it was before I started losing it.
Ultimately, the biggest strides have come in being able to take my medications properly again and having access medical care since I now have health insurance again.
5. I take responsibility for this experience.
Looking back, I probably could have handled the situation better. We staunchly refused to ask for help when there were times we needed to. I showered myself in self-care tactics trying to hold onto my life as the days got darker and more frustrating—but in the end I just prolonged my suffering and didn’t take positive action. If I had taken a part time job earlier it might have led to connections in another field that would have been good for me. All these things happened to me and a lot of it was out of my control. There were a lot of sh&tty people and circumstances that I had to deal with. And I did and said things during that time I’m not proud of. But I made the decisions I did because I thought they were the best ways to survive and were best for my husband and I at the time. Right or wrong, I own all of them.
6. I am grateful for what I learned.
As much as I hated those years I spent in misery, I am glad I had those experiences. I really, really hate to say it but if I had to go through it again or forget what I learned, I would go through it again. I don’t believe I would be as happy as I am now if not for the perspective I gained from hitting that rock bottom. I see people get all wound up and upset over things that they don’t need to because their perspective and experience isn’t very broad. The things I learned and the perspective I’ve gained make me a better person and more skilled in my current career.
7. Not all pain has value.
I will say this though: I’m not grateful for suffering. I don’t believe all pain has value. Pain does have value up to a certain point but when it tips into suffering then there’s nothing more to be learned and there’s just pain. In the last year at that job, I suffered. The lesson was learned but I was still there. And I’m not grateful for that. I’m all for “grow where you are planted” – but after a certain point there is nothing left to learn and you have to get out because you will never be able to grow in a toxic environment. If there’s no growing, justifying staying planted is not a healthy decision.
8. You’ll need support from others.
I couldn’t have done any of this without my husband.
When I quit my job with no backup plan, I called my husband on my break and told him what happened. He told me it was all right. We had each other and we would make it. We always have. And we did. I know this doesn’t help anyone but me, but I wanted to acknowledge the role our relationship played during this time in my life.
The truth is. you’ll need at least one supportive person to transition out of a toxic job. Many people don’t have even that, which is another factor that keeps people stuck in toxic jobs.
I don’t have a tidy ending for this post. I hope someone might be helped by reading my words. If there are any words of advice or stories you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or on Twitter @Leandra_Vane