Hi Captain –
I have a question about keeping yourself sane while trying to get out of a bad situation.
I’m trying to leave my job. Everyone I work with is too. I’m at a very small startup, and the main person in charge is both incredibly demanding and extremely volatile, which makes it virtually impossible to succeed. For a variety of reasons,* I can’t just quit, but I am actively looking and trying as hard as I can to get out.
The problem is that, for me at least, job searching is stressful too, and I’m much better at it when I’m in a good place mentally. Unfortunately, our head honcho makes this really difficult. It’s not just a matter of ignoring or deflecting manipulative or unkind comments; it’s that they’re in touch constantly, with all of us, making it hard to even get the time or space for reflection. They don’t have a lot of family and have devoted the last few years to making the company work, which means that they constantly want engagement and validation (even if they’re berating us), and they won’t stop trying to engage until we cave and give them the answer they’re looking for.
For example: they’ll ask, on a weekend, if a previously-undiscussed deliverable can be done by Monday. If I say it can’t, they’ll ask why we’re not working on the weekend when everyone else is working “like mad.” They’ll then keep messaging me asking what it is that they haven’t explained properly about the opportunities before me, and what they can do differently so that I understand it, and then ask if I’m receiving the messages. If I don’t answer, I’ll receive a talk on Monday asking what it is that can be done to make sure a situation like that, in which we’re unreachable, doesn’t happen in the future. (This is often followed by “I’m tired of arguing with you and want to make this work, but I don’t know what else I can do.”)
So my options boil down to either a) completely acquiesce to all requests, regardless of their merit or any other factors, or b) have a pointless, hour-long conversation that consists mostly of being reprimanded. I should also note that they also want to hang out socially with all of us a lot, and pout if we won’t, which, as you can imagine, also affects the workplace dynamic.
I will be much, much better off if I can stay in this position until I find another one or am in a better financial position to leave. In the meantime, though, I’m so stressed and busy that it’s hard for me to do anything, including look for other jobs. Do you have suggestions for scripts I can use on *myself* here in order to keep myself going? My therapist says just to remind myself constantly that I won’t be here forever and that I am leaving as soon as I can, but the more frustrated I am, the less likely that seems. And I feel like this is a situation that a lot of people get into – cutting toxic people out of your life is necessary, but it’s so complicated.
Working on Freedom (she/her)
*You can include these reasons if you want, but I left them out for brevity. I’m including them here to indicate that I really have thought about leaving, and really have decided that the best option for the moment is to stay until I get another job. Those reasons are:
– I have < 1 month of rent in my savings account, and am reluctant to borrow from my parents
– My job history has quite a few short stints, mostly due to coincidence and/or bad luck (yearlong grant programs, getting laid off, leaving a part-time job in order to take this one, and, yes, one where I was a bad fit)
– I’m in a weird specialized field where the work I’m doing is actually hugely beneficial to my ability to get a job in the future
Dear Working on Freedom,
I like a project management challenge.
Let’s trust your reasons that you need to stay in this job at least a little while longer. Let’s say that in an ideal world you’d like to leave this job for another job and not just to get away.
Step 1: In my experience, things don’t become real until you attach dates to them. Buy a cheap, fun calendar that you keep at home and designate only for job finding stuff.* Pick a date in the future and circle it. That is your quitting date, and every week you will do something to work toward leaving this job by that date. It will help with your therapist’s task of reminding yourself that this is only temporary.
Step 2: Keep going to therapy.
Step 3: It’s January 9 today. Pick a weekend in January and mentally clear your calendar. Don’t make any arduous social commitments, stock your fridge with food you like, and mentally block out the time for yourself. Write it in your special calendar: “Career Planning Weekend.”
Step 4: Consider signing up for a Google Voice or Skype other alternate phone number, or even picking up a cheap burner phone to use as your work phone. Work gets ONE way to contact you, your friends & family & others get your real number, and it’s easier for you to log out or block or turn off Work’s method when you need time to think.
Step 5: On that Friday, after you’ve left work for the day, go home, eat a food, take a shower, change into comfy clothes, and then send a version of the following email to your bosses & the rest of your team, using a friendly, upbeat tone:
“Hey team, I’m going to be unplugged and out of reach this weekend, so don’t panic if you don’t hear back from me. Looking forward to digging back into [specific work problem] with y’all on Monday.“
As soon as you hit “send,” log out of that email account, log out of work chat programs, slack channels, log out of all your social media stuff and messenger apps that anyone you work with (even the cool people) could *possibly* see, and turn off your cell phone and put it in a drawer. Become unreachable by any of them until Monday morning when you are back at work.
- You will have very anxious feelings about this. This is because your bosses have trained you to expect constant contact & pressure from them as normal.
- Your bosses will have a lot feelings about not being able to reach you.
- They may deputize your cool coworkers to try to find you (which is why you have to cut EVERYONE off).
- They will probably manufacture a situation where you are the sole person who could possibly answer a question and everyone was held up in their work “because of you.”
- They will probably reprimand you or panic at you in some way on Monday.
- They will use guilt (“Everyone else is working around the clock to make this happen, are you not part of the team?“)
- You may not feel that it is “worth it” to court the consequences of their feelings on Monday – why rock the boat when it’s only temporary?
- You may be tempted to try to give advance notice or ask permission to be off the clock over the weekend. Resist this – asking or negotiating in advance not get you what you need
- You may check your phone over the weekend and find 100s of messages & texts built up from work. Do not answer any of them. Ever. You told them you were going to be unreachable, you are unreachable. The proper answer to “Can this be done by Monday?” on Saturday is silence because you didn’t read it until Monday.
- When they reprimand you, don’t argue. Let them talk it out, say, “Ok!” or whatever the most noncommittal thing you can say and go back to work. The predictable reprimands are the price of freedom, so, decide you’ll pay the price when necessary and move on from worrying about it.
You didn’t say that you worked for an organ donation flight & surgical team, so, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say there are probably no actual life-or-death emergencies in what you do.
You need space to think and to plan your next move. They will never give it to you. Your bosses are vampires who will suck you dry and tell you it’s your fault for not having more blood when you die on them. I honestly do not think they will fire you over this. This is my theory: Most reasonable people respect other reasonable people and tend to think that if we go along and work hard and do our best to accommodate others, we will get the same treatment and respect in return. Unreasonable people do not respect people who always say yes to them – the opposite is true. When I had toxic employers in management consulting who expected me to always say yes and I finally said no after much worry and anxiety on my part and much pushback on theirs, not only did they not fire me, they promoted me! It is okay to set limits with toxic and intrusive people and stick to them. In fact, setting hard limits is the only thing that those people actually understand or respect.
Bottom line: You’ve got to get some space from the constant contact from your bosses in order to hear yourself think. These people are terrible managers, full stop, and since they reprimand you already no matter what you do you might as well take care of yourself! Like case of the lawyer from a few weeks ago, if their whole business grinds to a halt because you personally are unreachable for 2 (weekend!) days, a) they have a shit business b) that they manage badly and also c) you are extremely valuable to their business and they can’t afford to fire you right now! The first time you pull away will be the hardest time. You’ve already survived all the bullshit they’ve thrown at you to date, you can survive a little more.
Step 6: Over the First But Not Last Weekend of Freedom, take out that calendar, take out a journal, and start to imagine the life you want.
Step 6A: First order of business: Schedule four sacred hours/week for Future
Career Stuff and four sacred hours/week for Fun. You can break those hours up into little daily things or big chunks of things, but you need that time. It’s not optional.
Step 6B: Working backward from your “Quit Date”, fill in that calendar with weekly tasks for yourself. I’m spitballing some tasks I think that could be relevant – you adapt this list so it fits your field and your aspirations. For starters:
- Research job openings & companies that would be a good fit and get you closer to where you actually want to be. Keep up with what they are doing in the world, recent news items, personnel changes.
- Update your resume & LinkedIn with recent achievements & responsibilities from your current job – make sure you’re always looking good on paper.
- Make a list of former mentors & peers in your field who might be good sources of job leads and encouragement.
- Schedule time to send people on this list a note or meet socially over the coming year. For example, have a monthly catchup coffee or breakfast with somebody on that list. Keep track of their professional achievements & life events and get in the habit of sending nice notes to them.
- Research people who have the career you want 10 years from now. What steps did they take, what professional certifications do they have, what organizations do they belong to? Do they attend conferences or do speaking engagements where you live? Do they have a social media or online presence you could follow and/or start to interact?
- Join professional organizations & MeetUp groups related to your field, go to one event each month.
- Work on skills or continuing education related to your chosen field. How are your public speaking and presentation skills? How’s your wardrobe & professional “polish” level? Do you need to brush up on corporate communications or PR or a foreign language or government regulations? This is the kind of stuff you might be able to carve out during your workday, since your current position is in your chosen field.
- Apply for at least one job every month. Ramp that total up as you get closer to your quit date.
- Break everything down to the smallest possible pieces.
Step 6C: Review your self-care routines and schedule time for that, too.
- Do you get enough sleep?
- Do you move your body a little every day in a way that makes you feel good?
- Do you eat food that makes you feel good?
- Do you have your shots/Do you go to the doctor when you are sick/Have you had a physical recently?
- What’s your morning routine like, do you have rituals that let you be in your head and in your body in a way that feel good?
- Do you see friends & family enough?
- Do you get to do hobbies and fun things you like? Do you get to read a book for fun sometimes, or go to the movies?
- One way to reduce your stress is to schedule fun rewards that match up to the time you spend working on career stuff.
The fun stuff is important. You’re not an employee or a worker, you are a person. If your projected quit date is several months or even a year in the future, it’s tempting to say “I can hold off on all that good stuff – I just have to get through until I can quit this job!” but [Dear Sugar] Sweet pea, your life is happening right now. [/Dear Sugar]
Step 6D: Cross things off and give yourself gold stars as you go. Whether you can leave by your chosen quit date or not, creating a visible record of “The Year I Tried My Best To Advance In My Career And Be Happier” is motivating and potentially psychologically healing, yes?
Step 7: Plug in more intentionally, and unplug more regularly.
The culture of your company is that people work on the weekends, so it’s easy for me to say “stop working any weekends, ever!” (even though that is my recommendation) and much harder for you to do it. I don’t expect you to singlehandedly change corporate culture or your jerk bosses’ jerk expectations in one go and I don’t want it to be a sticking point in doing the rest of the stuff..
I think a few practices can make things start to work slightly better for you:
7a. If you are expected to be in contact over the weekends, schedule that time in your calendar. Log in from 2 pm to 4 pm Saturday and then log the fuck back out. No “just one more email” and no being perpetually on-call! If there is forced/expected socializing, block that out as work, too.
7b. Get out of the habit of checking work email or phone messages when you first wake up. Do whatever you can to prolong that until later in the day.
7c. Start keeping a log of all the time that you actually work. Checking emails on the weekends is work. Being expected to have mandatory work fun with your bosses is work. Every text message or needy contact from them is work. Watching your hourly rate plummet when you divide your salary by all the time you are expected to put in will be highly motivating in your leaving.
7d. Figure out the absolute minimum of work social stuff you want to attend and commit to doing it. When you go, hang with your coworkers, do your best to have actual fun and a positive attitude. The rest of the time, have “other plans” that you do not justify or explain. “Can’t tonight, other plans! Have fun, see you tomorrow.”
7e. Create a Weekend of Complete Freedom From Your Thirsty Corporate Overlords once every month. Grab it you grabbed that first January weekend: Treat it as a normal thing to want a weekend of no work and present it as a fait accompli that you do not have to ask for or apologize for. Turn your phone & other ways of contacting you entirely off. When you come back from that weekend, be in the office early, dressed impeccably, and looking eager, rested, and ready. When the inevitable pushback comes, here are your scripts:
- “I don’t know about you, but I work better when I am mentally refreshed.” or “If I don’t unplug once in a while it really slows me down.” or “I need to get out into nature every once in a while or I can’t hear myself think.” or “Scheduling real breaks from thinking about work helps me be more focused.” [+ subject change back to solving a work problem] Say it enthusiastically and in a friendly tone (rehearse with therapist if necessary), like you expect them to be psyched that you are so focused and renewed.
Reasoning: There is this gross FastCompany-ish capitalist gospel that literally everything you do in your life should benefit your career, so, if you enjoy running or meditation or making sock puppets or some other non-moneymaking activity, you can justify it by how it eventually improves your value to your corporation or personal brand or whatever. It’s extremely likely that your bosses buy into this, so, use it! “I read that top performers need periodic vision quests and I want to be a top performer, hence, I climbed a mountain this weekend to meditate about improving our bottom line.“
“Had family thing!” or “Had friends I never get to see in town.” (Your cat/the characters in books/your own sweet self can count as “family” or “friends you never get to see” for their purposes btw. I do not enjoy lying, but the socially acceptable friction-free excuse has its place, and bosses who try to crawl up your butthole every waking moment have more than earned it).
Forced teaming is a manipulation tool that your bosses use against you – “We’re all in this together working day and night!” Try adding “You know how it is” to use it back at them, like, “I had a family thing, you know how it is. I’m gonna jump into [WORK PROBLEM] this morning – anything I should know before I dive back in?” “Sometimes I just gotta go for a long hike and leave my phone behind, you know how it is! I thought of a solution for [WORK PROBLEM], can I run it by you?“
You’ll get the most friction the first couple times. View it as an extinction burst that will recede over time, if you are consistent and boring about enforcing the boundary. Your bosses & coworkers will catch on to the fact that you aren’t on call every once in a while and that the world doesn’t end when you do.
Step 8: Go get a new job and get the hell out!
- Two weeks’ notice when you have a signed offer in hand is probably sufficient when you quit, and you don’t have to tell them you’re searching for a new job.
- They will try to make you feel guilty for leaving and they will probably succeed, but you’ll only feel guilty for 2 weeks and then you won’t work there anymore.
- Job applications often have a “Can we contact your current employer?” box to check and it’s okay to say “No” or ask them to “wait until the offer stage.” A potential employer who gets super-weird about this is communicating a red flag!
Good luck getting out! This is not the only company that will ever hire you! You can do it!
Who else is in the “I Must Get A New Job This Year” club? Maybe the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com are a good place to track progress and check in and commiserate?
*Commander Logic made me do this for my wedding and she was right to.