How to leave a toxic job when you’re paralyzed by anxiety

We’ve all heard the old adage, “If it was supposed to be fun, they wouldn’t call it work.” It usually comes from someone older who is exasperated with our complaints about our toxic work environments. And while yes, it’s true, work is called work for a reason, the workplace should be a healthy one. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and there are many toxic situations that can fester at work.

These jobs are bad for your mental health and productivity. Naturally, when you’re in a toxic work environment, you don’t want to be there. But the anxiety produced by the toxic workplace can feel paralyzing — meaning you can’t get motivated to look for a new job. We get it — these feelings are very real. In fact, toxic work environments have been linked with higher levels of depression in workers, so the effects of a toxic job can be catastrophic.

Fortunately, there are some practical steps you can take to get yourself out of that toxic environment. We spoke to two experts who shared their best tips for how to look for a new job, get out, and succeed.

First, how do you know you’re in a toxic work environment?

Thomas Dezell, career advisor and author of Networking for the Novice, Nervous, or Naïve Job Seeker, explains that there are countless signs you’re in a toxic workplace. Some things he notes include high staff turnover, a lack of internal support from superiors, low morale, lack of equality as it pertains to treatment, and ethical issues.

Rachael Bozsik, CEO and founder of The Brand Girls, recommends that if you think you’re in a bad situation, you take a personal inventory.


“Look back at the moment you accepted the job, because you accepted it for a reason, and think about what you wanted out of that job initially, Bozsik advises. “Was it to be promoted quickly with a raise? To network with more key people in your industry? Was it to sit in on corporate meetings? Whatever those questions were, look back and see if you've reached these. If you haven't, then this is an indicator that you are in a toxic job.

Finally, Bozsik has a really simple way of breaking this down: Do you dread work? Another sign of a toxic job is never feeling positive about going to work in the morning. (And no, we aren’t just singling out anyone who’s not a morning person!).

Next, how do you go about looking for a new job?

Job searching is downright exhausting; it’s time consuming and emotionally draining. And that’s when you don’t have a toxic job weighing you down even further. But if you want to escape the bad situation, you have to find another work opportunity.

Bozsik says that you should use your current situation to your advantage. “Find key people that you have met in the industry, or in other departments, and plan coffee dates,” she says. “Sit down with these people outside of the office and ask them questions about your current situation.”

As your present job and job search can bring on anxiety, Bozsik says that finding out what else is out there should help lessen your anxiety.

“A key question to ask during these coffee dates is, ‘is there anyone else you think I should connect with?’ Odds are that they have someone in mind. This way, you will meet new people with valuable insight that you can sit down with. Grow out this network as big as you can before putting in your two weeks,” she says.

Dezell’s top advice is to keep things as confidential as you can, and only speak to those you can trust. “Relationships at jobs can drastically change once supervisors and co-workers learn you are looking,” he explains. “Plus, the more toxic the environment, the chances increase that the repercussions upon discovering an employee is looking would be more severe.”

What about your anxiety?

In terms of lessening your anxiety, Bozsik says being prepared is key.

“Make a Google Doc with everything you have accomplished in that job. Use your current resources and compile detailed notes as to how you have helped the company,” she explains. “This way, when you are in other job interviews, you can look back at those notes. Now, you have actual facts and figures and you’re not scrambling to remember what you did.”

But it is just as important not to obsess over the idea that anything must be better than your current situation. Because, hey, we’ve also all heard that saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

“One must realize the risk that if you really hate your job, danger lies in the fact that anything else [will] look better,” Dezell warns. “A good example is a person who was micromanaged to death on his or her last job. [He or she] may find the opportunity to work for a hands-off manager very appealing. Often, one quickly learns that such a distant manager brings its own set of problems, particularly while training. Try as best you can to evaluate any job you interview for with a set criteria of what you need to be most engaged and productive.”

What if you haven’t lined up a new gig but still want to leave your job?

Sometimes, a work environment is so toxic, an employee might decide to leave without having another job lined up. If that’s the case for you, there are some ways you can get prepared before jumping into unemployment.

“Get scrappy,” Bozsik says. “Come up with an amount that you will need in order to live for the next three months (food, rent, car.) Then quit buying those Anthropologie candles and start saving! Then, once you do quit, you won’t have to rely on ramen or your parents to survive. Without stressing about cash, you can focus all of your energy on finding a fulfilling job.”

One thing that will give you a sense of relief — and alleviate some anxiety — is knowing that it’s probably only going to get better. Dezell says there are many studies, and personal experiences with people he’s had, that report “that finally leaving a bad situation reduces more stress than what’s increased by unemployment.”

“A job I held earlier in my career became toxic,” Dezell recalled. “For several months, every Sunday evening I’d feel a pit in my stomach about heading to work the next morning. Then I was laid off on a Friday afternoon. Amazingly, that Sunday, with applying for unemployment on my agenda for the next day, I didn’t feel the same pit. That was my message to pursue another line of work.”