When you really hate your job, it can wreak havoc on your body. We published a story last week with expert insight into the physical signs of chronic work stress, and the response we got from readers was overwhelming. People recognized themselves in the symptoms of sleeplessness, aches, sicknesses and mood changes, and they tagged friends and relatives in the comments on the story’s Facebook link. Hundreds of readers shared their own experiences of what a bad boss, job or colleague did to their psyches and bodies.
Their stories are a warning to others.
The one with nonstop headaches
“I had debilitating migraines for three years because of the toxic work environment I was in. It took a two-week vacation (which included the stress of my own wedding) with absolutely NO migraines to finally realize the cause. I quit in June. I can count on one hand how many [migraines] I have had since, when I was getting on average one a week prior to leaving.” —Niki, then working in customer service as head of returns and refunds
The one getting hives from a boss
“I loved my work, but hated going each day because of [my supervisor]. I would get physically ill knowing when she would be around. Emails from her would give me serious anxiety and hives. If she requested meetings, I would have stress attacks and cold sweats. I didn’t sleep, constantly worrying about work ― and was ill frequently. I ended up in the ICU at 36 [years old] and had serious work-induced anxiety.... I walked away from the fight. I feel 100 times better, happier, and can give my family more.”—Joan, a former state government employee whose name has been changed
The one with stress-induced smells
“Pretty minor, but funny. I was transferred into a sales training program after my [research and development] job was eliminated. I absolutely hated it. About 2 weeks in, I developed a strong foot odor. When I quit about six weeks after that, the foot odor went away. Now I know it’s time to quit a job when my feet start to stink.” —Nicole, then a sales trainee in the packaging industry
(Yes, stress-induced foot odors are a real thing, according to the U.K.’s National Health Service.)
The one who ground her teeth
“I have a chronic illness which was doing well enough for me to work. However, [after] a year of that toxic environment, my symptoms were getting worse. I could not function. It increased my depression. I developed a teeth-grinding problem. It was a horrible time.” —Britt Marie, then working as a mortgage analyst
The one with infertility stress
“I couldn’t get pregnant for years in my toxic old job. Failed IVF everywhere. First try in new wonderful job... bam, pregnant. She’s 5 now.” —Megan, then an account manager at a marketing agency
(2018 research linked lowering psychological distress with significant increases in pregnancy rates.)
The one with aches and declining mental health
“I felt my whole body hurting. My mental health went down so much. I remember being on vacation worried so much about work that I checked my phone instead of spending time with my family. Toxic workplaces can ruin a person’s life.” —Emily, then an inside sales representative in the educational sales industry
The one with crumbling self-esteem
“The other part is that sense of worthlessness. I struggle with this every day and have been looking for another job. The problem is no one else wants me, and it makes me feel worse when the only job that does views me as highly expendable and useless.” —Steve, who works for a major cellphone provider
The one with hair loss
“Since retiring over a year and a half ago, my hair has grown back and gained some bounce. I also now enjoy Sundays, whereas before I’d be depressed at the prospect of going back to work.” —Toni, former Australian government employee
...And here’s how to get through it in the meantime.
Break out of the self-defeating pattern of thoughts. Dysfunctional workplaces break down your confidence and make you lose sight of yourself. As Ask a Manager’s Alison Green warns, “Practices that would have horrified you previously can start to feel normal.” In a toxic job, your mind could be telling you an unhelpful story that is not true. Honor your feelings and accept that your physical symptoms are valid signs of stress. Recognize that your self-worth is not tied to any one job.
Salvage what you can. If you have a reasonable manager, go to them with your concerns. They may be able to address the root of the problem and make adjustments. Or use the time outside of work to get new skills and professional development that will help build your résumé, as Harvard Business Review recommends.
Move on. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you have to stick it out at a bad job to be good at your career.
As Dying for a Paycheck author Jeffrey Pfeffer told HuffPost, toxic bosses often play to employees’ egos to get them to stay. Employees “don’t want to admit that they made a mistake in a job that they took, or because they’ve been told by their employer, ‘If you leave, you’re not good enough,’” he said. Use the urgency of your situation as the push you need to get out despite what your toxic employer is telling you. Ultimately, the best cure for a toxic job is usually to leave it entirely.