Lately I’ve been speaking to a friend who doesn’t know what to do about her job. She hates it. She hates the work, the boss, and her coworkers. The environment is toxic, with a lot of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. She desperately wants to quit but can’t because she needs the money. She knows that in this economy it will take a long time to find work and she cannot do without an income for that long. Plus, if she quits she won’t get unemployment to help bridge the gap. She feels trapped and it’s making her stressed and depressed. She’s taking it out on the rest of her family, too. She doesn’t know where to turn, but she knows that if something doesn’t change she’s going to end up in a bad way. Fortunately for her (unfortunately for me), I’ve been exactly where she is.
In the recession of the early 90′s I was in a job that I hated. The boss was a bully, his wife (second in command) was a shrew, the work was utter drudgery, and the office politics were worse than any in Washington. At least most of my coworkers were nice, but that was the only plus. I couldn’t quit because we needed my income and new jobs were almost impossible to find. I hated my life and I was constantly lashing out at my husband. I blamed him because I couldn’t quit. None of it was his fault, but he was the nearest punching bag. I went through my sick leave and vacation time ridiculously fast in an effort to avoid going to work at all. I was depressed and miserable and I was making every one around me miserable, too. I ended up hating myself because I heaped all the blame for that miserable situation on myself. I know better now, of course, but at the time I thought it was my fault and that just made it all worse.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. First, let me say that nothing happened overnight. From the time I started at that miserable place until I left was a total of about three years. Keep in mind that the miserable economy prolonged the agony, simply because finding new work was difficult and doing anything other than working that job was risky. Had it happened in the boom times of the mid-2000′s, I probably would have been in and out in six months. If you need to get out of a place and can’t just quit, prepare yourself for a long haul in this economy. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find work quickly, but that’s not likely. I wish there were a miracle cure, but there isn’t.
Second, I’ll tell you that all the whining in the world won’t make a difference. I mastered whining. I whined to my husband and my parents. I whined to the neighbors and my friends and anyone else who would listen. My coworkers and I would gather around the water cooler and engage in a group whine. I thought that venting would help, but it only made things worse. I came to confuse whining with taking positive action. I thought that if I just whined enough, some magic door would open and it would all be okay. Obviously, life does not work that way. It was only when I stopped whining and started taking real action that things started to change.
So what can you do if you need out of a toxic job, but can’t just quit?
Take responsibility: As much as I hated every minute, I had to go to work. I had to do it for our family, at least until something better could be found. There simply was no other choice. I had to do the right thing. Today I apply that resolve to other decisions that really stink, like canceling vacations when the money has been used somewhere else. The experience made me grow up. I thought I was an adult, but I really wasn’t. I was still living in a fantasy where if I just complained loudly enough someone would take care of it. I learned that there is no magic bullet and sometimes you just have to suck it up and deal with it until you can make another plan.
Don’t make it your fault: The sexual harassment, the bullying, and the toxic environment had nothing to do with me. There was nothing I could do to make it better, either. That place was going to be that way no matter what I did. As the saying goes, it’s not your fault but it’s your problem. You have to solve the problem and find other work without taking the blame on yourself.
Remember that the job is a paycheck, not your identity: I had to learn that what I did, who I did it for, and where, was not all of me. I was not my job. I wasn’t a bad person or a failure, no matter how much the bosses tried to make me feel that way. The job was a job; a way to make money and that was all. Once I realized that, it was easier to deal with all the foolishness that was going on and just put my head down, do the work, and collect the checks.
Understand that you need money, not this job: Then find new ways to make money. I felt trapped, but the trap was of my own making. I believed that I needed that job; that I would be lost, poverty stricken, and homeless without it. The big epiphany came when I realized I needed MONEY, not that job. Big difference! I started thinking of ways to get money separate from the job I hated. I started doing some freelance work. I took a part time job at the mall. Hey, it wasn’t sexy work, but the atmosphere was a heck of a lot better. I started entering contests and banking prize money. I did little things like lawn work for an elderly neighbor. Even in a recession I was able to find ways to make money. That job wasn’t the only place or person paying money! I wasn’t making enough to quit the job that I hated, but the extra money took a little pressure off and I saw that I could make money without that job. People needed my skills and would pay for them. I wasn’t trapped, after all. That fired me up to get out of that place.
Get serious about getting out: Once I committed to making a change, I made looking for new work the point of every minute that I wasn’t at my job (and, to be honest, some that I was). I sent out pallets of resumes, even to places I didn’t think I was really qualified for because you just never know. I called every person I could think of and let them know what I was looking for. In the middle of a recession I felt at times like a fish swimming upstream, but I was motivated. I channeled all my hate and anger into getting out. I fantasized about the day I’d get to say, “I quit” and used that as motivation to keep going. I finally got an offer at a company that I respected and practically ran into work the next day to give my two weeks’ notice.
Many years and a few more changes later and I’m self employed and loving every minute. That’s the happy ending. But I had to stop whining and do a lot of work to get here. Otherwise I’d still be there, miserable and thinking I had no other options. As much as I wanted to quit, it wasn’t the responsible thing to do. I had to step up and fix the problem. I might not have been able to leave that job the moment I wanted to, but I was eventually able to leave. Had I whined less and taken action sooner, I probably could have saved myself at least a year. If you are in a similar situation, start taking action today. The sooner you make getting out your full time job, the sooner you’ll be free.