Before I had my daughter, my job was my entire life. I was constantly on my phone or computer, ignoring my husband, family, friends, and general life in favor of getting more work done. In hindsight, it’s obvious I was at a toxic job, but at the time I didn’t see it that way.
It’s taken me several months of space after quitting my supposed dream job to be able to recognize the truth of what happened while I was there. I was part of a toxic workplace that left me feeling burnt out, used, and mentally depleted. In fact, it took the major life event of having my daughter to bring me back into reality and realize that no job was worth the toll my work environment was having on my mental health.
What is a toxic job?
I spoke with David Yadush, Licensed Counselor and Clinical Operations Manager at BetterHelp, about what exactly makes a job “toxic” and what can be done to improve your mental health while dealing with one.
“A toxic workplace is more than a job you don’t enjoy or a boss that you don’t connect with,” Yadush explained. “A toxic workplace is an unhealthy environment that negatively impacts both your personal and professional life.”
While the signs of what can make a toxic job vary, Yadush shared a few potential signs, including “unclear rules and expectations, undefined roles that make growth and development feel inaccessible, poor relationships between coworkers, and conflict that is either mismanaged or ignored entirely.”
In turn, dealing with these factors can leave an employee feeling disconnected from their work, along with feeling undervalued and disrespected as a person and employee.
My experience with a toxic job
As Yadush explained, toxic job qualities can vary. What I experienced at my job may not be exactly the same as what someone else experienced at their equally unhealthy job—that doesn’t mean either of our experiences was any less valid.
My experience began in 2020 when I started what I thought was my dream job at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic (AKA, a very complicated time to be beginning a job). Because my work was remote, and my coworkers were also working remotely, we never left the “office.” Slack was always on and available, and getting messages at any of the 24 hours during a day wasn’t uncommon.
During the early points of the pandemic, this wasn’t an issue. This was a time when none of us had anything going on, so having a demanding job made me feel like I was at least doing something. When I was hired, I was told this would be the hardest job I would ever have. In my head, I took this as a challenge. I’m the oldest sibling and a perpetual people-pleaser, so I fell headfirst into the trap of becoming the person that was always available and always willing to help. In return, I was love-bombed by management, made to feel like I was an indispensable part of the company. I won’t lie, it felt great. My constant burnout from not having a work-life balance would be re-lit by the feeling that I was at my dream job and that I was really good at it.
Noticing changes at work after I became pregnant
This all changed when I became pregnant. Slowly but surely, I could sense that the way management felt about me had changed as they realized my sole focus was no longer going to be just work. It involved comments in meetings (played off at jokes) about maternity leave being a vacation or hearing secondhand from coworkers that management no longer expected me to be able to carry the full load of my job once my child was born. It made me feel belittled, embarrassed, and eager to prove everyone wrong.
Coming back to a toxic job after maternity leave
However, when I came back to my job after maternity leave, the truth of the matter was that I had changed. I no longer wanted to work 10-12 hour days or live on my phone. Feeling fulfilled at my job still mattered, but I also wanted to have time to watch my daughter grow up. I wanted a job where I didn’t feel immense guilt from having to take my daughter to an emergency doctor’s appointment and where I didn’t have to work straight up until her bedtime.
It made me feel belittled, embarrassed, and eager to prove everyone wrong.
For months, I continued to try to fit into the mold of where my job wanted me to be—but where I had changed, my job refused to change for me, and this incompatibility was taking a massive toll on my mental health. I wanted to be respected as a worker and person, but being a mother was a large part of my new identity. So, I made one of the scariest gambles of my life—I quit my job. I had no backup plan and no idea where this decision would lead. I just knew I was reaching my breaking point, and I needed to get out before I did.
How a toxic job can impact your mental health
As it turned out, the mental health decline I suffered as a result of my job was far from abnormal. “A toxic workplace is often detrimental to an individual’s mental health and can lead to an increase in stress and ultimately burnout. These types of workplaces are frequently high-stress environments where people feel they must remain vigilant and defensive at all times,” Yadush explained.
As a result, Yadush shared, “It is not possible for one’s mental health to thrive in an emotionally draining environment, which offers little opportunity for employees to feel pride or accomplishment around their work. Burnout doesn’t just stay in the office either, this can manifest as increased anxiety or depression, changes to sleep patterns, and feeling sluggish—it can impact every aspect of one’s life.”
While my particular experience was exasperated when I became a parent, the toxic culture existed far prior to that and affected many at the company whether they were parents or not. The fact that I wasn’t the only one at the company feeling this way is something that Yadush explained as very normal. He shares, “Chances are, you are not the only one noticing and feeling [the] struggle [of a toxic workplace], your other co-workers may be as well. Remember that you are often not alone and that your feelings are valid.”
Options and advice for dealing with a toxic job
Here’s the thing: I completely acknowledge my privilege in being able to quit my job. I have a partner whose income we were able to temporarily rely on and a support system that wasn’t going to let my family starve. Quitting my job was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it was a decision I was able to make with a lot of support from the people who loved me most in my life.
When I asked Yadush what advice he would give to a worker in a toxic environment, he emphasized the need to “focus on the things you can change.” These include:
- Setting boundaries
- Clarifying work-related expectations
- Speaking up when something is upsetting
He also suggested talking with a person you are close to outside of work as a way to “find validation in your feelings with someone who is outside of the toxic atmosphere.”
But, is it ever the right idea to do what I did, and just fully quit? “Yes,” Yadush explains. “When you feel like you have exhausted all avenues to improve your experience in the workplace, you may start to consider leaving the job entirely—and that is absolutely a viable choice. Staying in a draining workplace environment at the expense of your physical and mental health is a clear path to burnout.”
Life after quitting a toxic job
The journey I had to take to get to this point was hard on myself, my family, and my loved ones. It’s even hard now. I still live with a bit of daily fear and anxiety from my old job that I hope will go away soon. But I’ll tell you this right now: quitting my job was the best thing I did for my mental health in a very long time. I have gotten more quality time with my daughter and husband in these past few months than I can remember throughout my entire tenure at my previous position. It took a few months, but I found a job I love, one that respects me unconditionally as a person and a parent.
The change was terrifying and left me worried I would never again be seen as a qualified worker. When I quit, I was given no send-off, no exit interview, and no acknowledgment of what I had given the company. The way I was treated upon leaving confirmed what I had long suspected: I was in a toxic environment, where I was made to feel like I would be nothing without them, and they would be fine without me. But that simply wasn’t the case. I’m not only better without them, but I’m actually thriving. So, to my toxic job, let me just say that it wasn’t me—it was definitely you.