ask a boss

‘Is It Irresponsible to Quit My Job Without Having Another One Lined Up?’

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Dear Boss,

I have been at my company in a support role for over two years. I was under the impression from the very beginning that I was on a promotion track, and I thought my boss and I were on the same page. Long story short, I endured two years of belittling, gaslighting, and repudiation (just to name a few), and suffered through terrible management in every way you can think of. Two years of being made to feel like I was an idiot left me depressed and without a shred of self-esteem. I could go on for pages about all the terrible things that happened leading up to this point, but this is not about whether or not I should stay — I decided months ago that I was ready to leave and needed to start looking for a new job.

Unfortunately, with the condition of the job market during this pandemic, job opportunities have been few and far between, and my search has been largely fruitless. I was prepared to stick it out at my current job (it’s easier to get a job when you have a job, and the conditions at work had been going on for so long anyway that at least there wouldn’t be any surprises). But just when I thought things at my current job couldn’t get any worse, they did, and I don’t think I can work in this organization indefinitely.

I desperately want to quit and remove myself from this toxic situation for the sake of my mental health, but I worry that if I quit my job without having anything lined up that I could be unemployed for years. Is it illogical to quit knowing that opportunities in my industry are sparse? Would it be an irresponsible decision for my long-term career goals? Any advice you might offer is appreciated! My gut and my brain are in a never-ending battle.

I’m sorry, that sounds like a terrible situation to be stuck in.

As a general rule, you should prioritize your health — mental and physical — over any job.

In practice, people often end up staying in situations that are bad for them because they need to pay for food and housing and health care … and not having those things is also bad for your health. It sucks.

So, how do you know when you can safely quit your job without another source of income already lined up? It’s really tricky, especially in a job market like this one.

The first thing I’d look at is what your financial situation is like. If you had to survive without a job for a while, how long could you cover your expenses for? Do you have an emergency fund? If you could only cover necessary expenses for a couple of months before things would become dire, I’d be much more hesitant than if you could support yourself for a year or more.

But figuring out how long you could need to support yourself without another job is where it gets complicated. In a good job market, I’d tell you to look at how long your past job searches have taken you. If you’ve always been able to find new jobs within X number of months, it’s not unreasonable to assume that’s roughly the time frame you’d be looking at this time too. But in a bad job market — and particularly in a pandemic — you can’t trust that past experience to be a reliable guide.

So how do you figure it out? You can’t really know for sure, as scary as that is. You can look at some types of data that can get you closer to an answer — like how strong your network is, how long it’s taken other people in your field to get new work over the past year (talk to people who do similar work about what they’re hearing), how much hiring is going on in your field generally right now, how well you interview, and how in demand your skills are. But at some point there’s a leap of faith in there.

As someone who finds leaps of faith pretty terrifying, I’m a big fan of asking, If the worst happened, then what? What would you do if your money ran out before you had another job? Could you temporarily stay with family or friends for a while if you needed to? Could you get a survival-type job to pay the bills, and would those jobs be ones you’d feel safe doing if the pandemic is still going on? In other words, if everything came crashing down, what next? (Even when you’re not trying to figure out the kind of dilemma you’re facing, it can be strangely comforting to decide on the answer to that.)

I know you’re probably hoping for a more definite answer, like “plan on it taking up to X months to find a job, but then you should be fine.” I wish I could give that kind of answer. I don’t think it exists, but asking yourself the kind of questions above should help you get a better idea of what’s likely.

Meanwhile, though, there may be other options you could throw in the mix. For example, would your current employer be open to you going part time? That would give you some relief from the toxicity there, and it would give you time to look for another job while still having money coming in. Or, are any of the awful things that have happened there ones that involved illegal labor practices? If yes, that might mean you’re well positioned to negotiate a severance payout if you leave. (That might sound like a stretch, but it’s shockingly common for companies to break labor laws, and an employment attorney could help you figure out if they have, as well as next steps if so.)

Another thing: Any chance that the work you do lends itself to freelancing? It’s not practical for every field, and there are aspects to freelancing that aren’t for everyone, but even if you just have a couple of clients and don’t do it long-term, it could provide a financial safety net that makes you feel safer leaving your job.

I wish I had a more precise answer for you! All you can really do is examine the factors above and gauge your comfort level with taking the leap. (And of course, as you’re pondering all of this, keep actively job searching!) Good luck.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.