Stand Up Against Bullying: A blog to help stop workplace bullying
Targets Mental Health Professionals

Why People Stay: The Hidden Complexities of Leaving a Toxic Workplace

a barricade ahead sign in the middle of a field
When faced with the torment of workplace bullying and toxicity, many well-meaning friends and family members might ask, "Why don't you just leave?" To those who haven't experienced such an environment, leaving may seem like the obvious and straightforward solution. However, the reality is far more complex. Leaving a toxic workplace is often fraught with emotional, financial, and practical challenges that make it anything but easy.

One of the primary reasons people stay in toxic workplaces is financial dependence. Many individuals are the primary breadwinners for their families or have financial obligations that require a steady income and benefits. The fear of unemployment, especially in a competitive job market, can be paralyzing. For some, the prospect of losing benefits such as health insurance, retirement contributions, and other job-related perks adds another layer of complexity.

Leaving a job, even a toxic one, can have significant career implications. The fear of a resume gap, the potential for negative references, and the challenge of finding a new job can deter individuals from leaving. For those who have invested years in their current position, the thought of starting over can be daunting. Additionally, age discrimination can make it even harder for older employees to secure new employment.

Workplace bullying can take a severe toll on an individual's mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and a diminished sense of self-worth. These psychological impacts can create a sense of hopelessness and paralysis, making it difficult to take the necessary steps to leave. Victims of workplace bullying often internalize the negative messages they receive, leading them to doubt their abilities and value in the job market. They often believe that they may be the problem, and therefore, leaving just isn’t an option.

Despite the toxic environment, many individuals form strong emotional attachments to their colleagues, clients, or the work itself. These connections can make leaving a difficult and painful decision. The thought of abandoning projects, clients, or coworkers can weigh heavily on one's mind, creating an emotional barrier to leaving.

Many individuals stay in toxic workplaces because they hold on to the hope that things will improve. They might believe that reporting the bullying will lead to positive changes or that new management will bring a better work environment. This hope can keep them trapped in a cycle of abuse, waiting for a change that may never come.

For those living in rural areas, the scarcity of job opportunities can make leaving a toxic workplace particularly challenging. When there are few alternative employment options available, the prospect of unemployment and the associated financial insecurity can force individuals to stay in harmful situations. The lack of nearby job prospects means that leaving might require relocating, which brings its own set of financial and personal challenges.

Additionally, some people stay because they are told they are doing the right thing by sticking it out. Friends, family, and even colleagues might say that staying shows strength and resilience, reinforcing the idea that enduring the hardship is a commendable act. However, what they don't often tell you is the long-term cost of staying in such an environment. The continuous exposure to bullying and harassment can lead to long-term workplace trauma, emotional and physical health problems, and even PTSD. The stress and anxiety caused by a toxic workplace can result in chronic health issues, decreased mental health, and a significant decline in overall well-being.

While leaving a toxic workplace might seem like the obvious choice, the decision is rarely simple. Financial obligations, career considerations, psychological impacts, emotional attachments, lack of support, hope for change, limited job opportunities, and the hidden costs of staying all play a role in making the decision to leave incredibly complex.

I know from my own experience that staying in these environments wasn’t always a choice. When I decided to leave, I often wound up in the same, if not a worse, environment because no one told me that higher education was a cesspool of bullying. I did not know that even if I left one place, I could and did end up in another toxic environment just like the one I left. This caused me more harm because I internalized this and blamed myself rather than realizing that I was in a profession rampant with bullying.

There is no easy answer when your profession is toxic because the likelihood of encountering bullying throughout your career is high. However, there are steps you can take. If you want to leave, screen your next workplace for bullying and develop an exit plan. If you want to stay, use your documentation not for reporting but for harm reduction. You can develop strategies for harm reduction and empowerment by focusing on how you can mitigate harm and take back your power by controlling what you can—yourself—and stop giving your power away by expecting someone else to stop it.

There is no shame in staying. You are doing what is best for your circumstances, and sometimes, that means enduring the situation until a viable exit strategy presents itself. Remember, seeking support and finding ways to protect your mental and emotional well-being is crucial. You are not alone in this struggle, and there are resources and strategies to help you navigate this challenging situation.

If you are being bullied or have been bullied, reach out to me today for your healing and empowerment journey. You can email me at jan@stopbullyculture.com.