Have you ever been in a bad employment situation but couldn’t bring yourself to leave? Nearly every client tells me about trauma they experienced at work, whether it’s an unsupportive or deliberately cruel manager, a company implementing policies that are unfavorable to employees, continuous layoffs creating stress and anxiety, or politics that left them feeling devalued.
Yet they stayed, some for years, even though they knew their work environment wasn’t healthy. Here are five reasons it’s hard to leave a bad job — and what to do about them.
Loyalty to your “work family”
Working at a company for a long time can create a sense of loyalty to the organization and team members. My client, Beatrice (not her real name), worked for a law firm for more than 15 years and expected to be made a shareholder. But she learned she was rejected from partnership. “The lightbulb went off, and this was never going to be my company. I have given my life to these people, and they didn’t value me that way. I had to decide, did I want to start over and try to become a shareholder somewhere else?” That was the breaking point for her, but even with an offer in hand from another firm where she would be a shareholder, she still struggled to depart. “I felt tremendous guilt leaving my old firm. I celebrated every major holiday with them. Two partners are my kids’ godparents. It was like my family.” In the end, Beatrice weighed her loyalty to the firm against the firm’s loyalty to her, which helped her decide to accept another firm’s offer.
What to do about it
Recognize that companies hire you to use your skills and capabilities to provide a service. If you’re no longer providing the value the company expects or the company changes its goals and your skills are no longer needed, the company will let you go.
Now, reverse that logic. Look at how you’re serving the company through the lens of what you need to feel fulfilled and valued in your job. Determine if the company is still providing the value to your life that you need and deserve.
Some questions to ask yourself include:
- Is the company providing me benefits and development opportunities that will enhance my career and life?
- Are the company’s policies inclusive of my specific needs?
- Is the company recognizing the value I’m bringing with more money, a promotion, partnership, or some other important recognition that matters to me?
Every company-employee relationship is about loyalty and commitment on both sides, not just achieving goals and collecting a paycheck.
A cult-like atmosphere
When you join a company, everyone is working toward a common mission or goal. If the company has a righteous mission such as helping people be healthy, successful, happy, or helping to sustain the earth, then employees feel like they’re contributing to the greater good of humanity or the world. Deciding to leave the company can feel selfish or even traitorous, like you’ve “given up” on the collective mission.
Even if the company isn’t making big impacts on people or the world, the inside atmosphere is about collaborating to achieve a goal together. That feeling of being a critical part of a team or feeling “strong” because you can withstand any suffering to achieve the goals becomes addictive and diminishes the damaging aspects of the job.
When I worked as a TV news reporter, when someone left the business to move into PR or another field, everyone talked about them as giving up or not being able to “cut it.” But the person who left knew they were escaping long hours, working weekends and holidays, low pay for extraordinary effort, and stressful daily deadlines. They were seeking more for their life in alignment with their values.
What to do about it
If you’re feeling an intense camaraderie that prevents you from leaving what you know is an unhealthy work environment, take some time to define your what’s important to you and determine whether those values are being fulfilled in the job — separate from the company’s needs.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to make that determination:
- What’s important to me at work, and how do I define what that means?
- Which values are being consistently honored or violated?
- Is there anything I can do to ensure my values are honored?
For example, if being respected is a value and you define it as having your ideas heard and considered, but your manager consistently talks over you or ignores your ideas, your value is being violated. Can you discuss with your manager why this value is so important to you and influence it being honored? If not, you’ll need to decide whether the company mission is more important than your values.
Nostalgia for what the company was
When you join a company and have a great experience for months or even years, you’re fully engaged in your job. Then change happens, whether that be a new leader, new structure, or a shift in strategic direction, and you may struggle to cope with it.
These kinds of organizational changes can result in feelings of shock, denial, frustration, and depression. If you find yourself struggling to accept and adjust to the changes over time and find yourself saying, “I don’t want to leave because I really love the company” instead of “I don’t want to leave because I love my job,” then you may be stuck in the past, hoping the company will revert to what it once was.
What to do about it
Change is hard, so give yourself time to adjust and process what it means for your job. After you’ve accepted the change, take an objective look at whether the present situation still fulfills your values and career goals. If you’re still struggling in your job post-change, consider the following questions:
- What was the company like when I joined, and what is the company reality today?
- What would make the environment better for me?
- Can I make any additional changes or requests to fulfill the values that are no longer being fulfilled?
Companies, teams, and leaders all change — often especially as companies grow. It’s up to you to determine whether you want to live in the present reality or a past that no longer exists.
Some employees receive equity grants in a company, such as RSUs or stock options. Stock grants vest over a period of time, usually years. Therefore, after suffering a distressing work environment, you may feel even more strongly that you deserve to wait out that vest for what you’ve been through. But how much trauma are you willing to endure? Waiting for equity to vest could be detrimental to your health, so it’s critical to understand whether it’s worth it.
What to do about it
Determine exactly when and how much you will receive from each vest at the current stock prices and ask your broker or accountant these questions if you can’t figure out the answers:
- After taxes and option strike price payments, how much will I receive?
- If I walk away from this money or wait until my stock vest, will this impact my retirement outlook?
- What net amount would I need to earn in compensation at another company to make up for the unvested stock value?
Equity incentives are granted to keep you in the job, and many companies offer additional grants during your tenure through compensation programs. Therefore, there’s never a “final” vesting date. But you can break the never-ending vest cycle if you have an exit date in mind based on how much you want vested before you depart and how much you’re willing to forfeit.
There’s no shortage of things to fear when it comes to making a job change: Fear you’ll jump into another tough situation, that you’ll have to prove yourself all over again, that you won’t be able to make as much money. Fear that you don’t even know how to look for a job. If you’re feeling beaten down from a bad work situation, fear can leave you with little confidence that making a change will lead to a better work environment.
What to do about it
To help you bypass your fears, instead of just dreaming about what your life could look like in a positive work environment, deliberately visualize it. Close your eyes and consider the following when trying to combat negative thoughts and fears:
- If I weren’t scared to leave, what would be possible?
- What does my new work environment look like, smell like, feel like?
- What kind of support do I need to feel more confident in making a change?
Finally, think about what advice you would give a close friend about a work situation that mirrors your own.
. . .
Leaving a bad job is never easy, and each person’s breaking point is different, so beating yourself up over why you stayed so long in a traumatic situation won’t help. But learning from each experience will empower you to own your career choices and leave earlier if you find yourself in a comparable situation again.