A Toxic Workplace Vs. Your Health: How to Cope and When to Leave

Young woman stressed out working at her computerBreaking up with a job was the hardest decision I have made in my life. And I am so glad I did it.

I worked at a community college for seven years, first as a recruiter and admissions counselor, then as director of the admissions office. My role was pleasant, mid-level management. I supervised some great team members and had the most amazing boss. But after a new chancellor stepped in to lead the college – combined with the pandemic – the workplace environment changed so drastically that I had to decide between my team and my mental health. 

I enjoyed the first half of my career there: I was passionate about the college’s mission, eager to help students attain a degree, and loved working with my team and boss every day. I felt the workload and expectations were fair and manageable.

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Under the new leadership, however, my team was subjected to unsustainable expectations regarding student enrollment. With no budget to add extra resources to our staff, my team and I were continually spreading ourselves thin, taking on extra work burdens well beyond our pay grades. As a result, the efficiency of the college operations grew poorer, further perpetuating a cycle of pressure and stress.

When the COVID pandemic hit the nation, my team suffered through a rough transition to remote operations. The college had no emergency plans to deal with such a crisis, so the admissions team had to quickly figure out how to communicate with students, recruit them, and get them enrolled while working from home. After settling down into our new partial-remote work situation, it became clear that even more shifts in leadership, process, and organization were on the horizon. 

Suddenly, the chancellor announced that two critical leadership members would – without cause – be removed from the college’s organizational chart. This meant that their titles would no longer exist and two women no longer had jobs. 

What this meant for my team and for me was that we had no boss anymore. Consequently, I became a stand-in leader for my team, struggling to keep us on task and trying to keep up morale until the chancellor revealed how we would move forward. But it seemed that she did not have plans beyond removing our boss; my team continued month after month without the leadership members. The burden became unbearable.

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During this time, I became more and more stressed. Prior to the pandemic, the stress was enough to bear, but the crisis and subsequent decisions by the chancellor plunged me into extreme duress. I struggled to take care of my mental state. It became harder to put on a smile and find the positives in the workday. The stress manifested into physical ailments: I suddenly noticed extreme tension in my neck and back, twitches in my eyes and arms, and jaw pain. 

Normally in times of worry and stress, I would turn to yoga, prayer, and even research to ease my mind and body. But I was so stressed out that I did not have the energy to find solace in anything. I felt paralyzed. I knew I had to leave my workplace for my health, but how could I leave my team in their time of need? 

By June, I knew I had to act. That summer, I threw myself into any therapeutic and meditative practices I could manage. I started talk therapy (in person when I could, or virtually). I prayed for my teammates. I prayed for God to help me find the right job. I prayed before every job interview. I kept meticulous records of every iteration of my resume, job application packets, and portfolio materials. I laid out my mat and practiced yoga on my office floor during lunch. 

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It all felt very desperate, but I gradually learned that my feelings were valid and that the decision to move on was the right one.

In late summer, it seemed my prayers were answered when I landed an interview with my alma mater, the University of New Orleans, doing similar work in student services. The job was closer to home at an institution that I love. Before I accepted the job offer, I prayed that I was making the right decision. I can say with confidence that I did.

After about a month in the new role, I began a healing process by journaling my experiences and emotions from the old job. I wrote about the pain and confusion. I messaged former colleagues my farewell and well wishes. I settled in and found that the physical pain was gone, and I could breathe easier. Months later, I have not had a single twitch, spasm, or clenched jaw.

With the trauma of a toxic workplace gone from my life, I have the mental capacity for meditation and the energy to resume my yoga practices. I made it back to church on Sundays. Each day, I find it easier to forgive myself for leaving my team and to find the lessons from my experience.

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