How To Decide When it’s Time to Quit

By Paul White, PhD

Given all of the craziness that is going on within the government currently, you may be wondering if your current job is where you want to be (or if you’ll have a job, even if you want to stay!)   If you really don’t like where you work, you are not alone. A Gallup poll found that more than half of workers either are enduring their current job, or actively hate it. In another poll, up to 82% of employees describe their bosses as “jerks” (depending on the workplace).

Government employees at all different levels (frontline employees, supervisors, managers, or directors) report that staff members are incredibly frustrated with the bureaucratic maze in which they work, and feel quite unsettled about the future.

But quitting your job in today’s difficult economy is a scary decision to make. Finding another job with the same or better pay is challenging, to say the least. So, it is wise to stop and think about the realities of life before you say, “take this job and shove it” and walk out the door.

As a psychologist, career coach, and business consultant, I’ve seen the challenges of bad matches between employees, supervisors, and employers from multiple perspectives. In our book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, my co-authors and I interviewed dozens of people who had worked or were working in unhealthy work environments. Many who reported that they had chosen to leave a toxic workplace stated that they didn’t realize how bad their situation was—until after they left. As one person reported, “I can’t believe I didn’t see how bad it was sooner!”

How bad is your job, really?

One helpful approach is to assess the problems you see by asking a series of questions regarding the problem behaviors and negative characteristics displayed in the organization.

  • How many problem behaviors are there?

Just one or two? Or are there 10 or more? Or seemingly too many to count?

  • What has been the duration of the problem behaviors?

That is, how long have they existed? Are they relatively new, or have they been there as long as you have worked there, or possibly longer?

  • What is the frequency of the negative behaviors?

How often do they occur? Daily? Weekly? Every three months?

 What is the intensity of the behaviors?

For example, there is a difference between your supervisor using an angry tone with you in contrast to them swearing at you.

  • How many people are displaying the behaviors regularly?

Is it primarily your supervisor or one colleague, or are the behaviors rampant across most of the organization at multiple levels?

  • What solutions have been tried, if any, either by you or others?

If no interventions have been tried, why not? What results have occurred in response to different actions taken?

  • What is the impact on the organization resulting from the negative behaviors and characteristics?

Is the overall culture of the workplace negative? Is the organization functioning as it should (positive impact, goals achieved)?

  • What is the impact on you that is occurring from the unhealthy behaviors and characteristics?

Impact can include physical and emotional health, relationships, and negative coping behaviors just to name a few.

  • Are your concerns about your workplace due primarily to a series of recent events or are they more a result of a pattern of long-term, chronic poor functioning?

It is important to take some time to think through and write down answers to the previous questions. It is relatively easy to quickly go through them in your mind, but if you take the time to reflect and write down specifics, you will gain a far more accurate picture of the seriousness (or not) of the issues concerning you.

You have a decision to make.

You have different options to choose from, but regardless of the choice you make, you must take some action on your own behalf. This is your life, and if you don’t take responsibility for it, no one will. Remember, choosing to do nothing is a choice—you are essentially saying, “I like my life at work now (in comparison to my options) and I want to continue there.”

Generally speaking, there are three alternatives to consider:

  1. Continue at your current workplace.
  1. Decide that it is in your best interest to leave your current job and pursue working someplace else.
  1. Decide that you do not want to continue to work at your current job, but that you need to take a series of steps to be able to find an acceptable job, and you are going to actively pursue those steps.

If you decide to stay:

Identify what you need to do for you. You need to take care of yourself; if you don’t, no one else will.

Determine what action steps you can take to help make the workplace healthier.

Set a time frame by which you will re-evaluate the situation (e.g., six months). See if you are managing the stress from work okay (and ask those around you). Be honest with yourself—has the situation gotten worse, or has it improved?

If you believe you need to leave:

Seek counsel to make sure you are thinking clearly and haven’t overlooked something.

Take steps to prepare: Get your resume in order, start looking for job possibilities, discreetly put the word out, save money to help you during the transition. Develop a plan for finding your next job and implement it. Continue to implement the plan over time.

Determine when “enough is enough.” Sometimes you just can’t take any more—your health is deteriorating or your boss does or says something that is totally unacceptable.

Finally, if at all possible, avoid getting into a position of being desperate. If possible, keep working while you look for another job. Keep your expenses low. Consider taking a “fill in the gap” job just for cash flow while you look for another job in your field of expertise. Assume that finding a job will take at least two times longer than you think it will (and often, far longer).


Remember, your career is a pathway over time comprised of individual steps you take.

Continue to pursue your goals and dreams—keep going in the right direction, making adjustments along the way, and you will continue to get closer to your ultimate goal.

Adapted from How To Decide When It’s Time to Quit Your Job by Dr. Paul White.

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