a happy ending: I quit my job without another one lined up

Back in April, I received this letter from a reader:

I did the thing you’re not supposed to do and I quit my job without another one lined up. There are a lot of mitigating circumstances, which I will explain below, but I could really use your advice as I move forward to the next stage of my career.

I was at my last job for 3 years in an administrative role in a small business (less than 20 employees). The environment was toxic from the start; the CEO was verbally abusive, the Operations Manager (his right-hand man and my direct manager) was an enabler, and there was a chronic lack of transparency that made even the most basic job functions difficult to execute. Despite this, I managed to get a good performance review after my probationary period and received a decent merit-based raise. My manager lent a sympathetic ear, acknowledging that the CEO had a “difficult personality” and assured me that he was like this with everyone, and that I was doing well despite his harsh criticisms.

I know now that I should not have stayed as long as I did, but I was determined to push through, since my direct manager was decent, it paid well, and was close to home. As I’ve learned from reading your column, inevitably the environment soon started to warp my sense of normal and my sense of self-esteem. I suffer from chronic anxiety, which I am in treatment for, but it got significantly worse while at this company. I started accumulating a lot of sick days and after about 18 months in the job I was put back on probation to improve my attendance. I was afraid of getting fired, so I stopped taking mental health days, though I desperately needed them. At this point I finally recognized that my mental health would not get any better as long as I was in this role and began actively job hunting. Using the advice on your site, I landed a couple of interviews, but ultimately wasn’t successful. I resolved to keep looking, thinking something would come up soon. Then COVID hit. A third of our staff was laid off and my responsibilities increased significantly. Job opportunities dried up and knowing I had little choice, I put my head down and did the best work I could in the circumstances. Then, somehow, the situation got even worse. I learned through my manager that the CEO was having some personal problems that would impact his schedule and certain projects that I was involved with. These personal issues also impacted his mood and he became nearly impossible to work with. I began receiving nearly daily emails full of scathing accusations of deliberate incompetence. When I asked for more guidance on specific performance issues he identified, he gave only non-answers and insults to my intelligence. At this time my manager was working a significantly reduced schedule due to childcare issues, and wasn’t available to help me navigate this. I became very isolated and my anxiety hit an all-time high. Eventually my existence consisted solely of working, smoking pot, eating and sleeping. I wound up having a mental breakdown last month and asked my manager for an emergency leave of absence of 5 days, effective immediately, which I was granted. After speaking to my doctor, she signed off on a full month of medical leave. I communicated this to my manager via text, asked him to have HR issue me an ROE so that I could collect EI and said that I would come back as soon as my health allowed. Since then, my manager has sent a couple of check-in texts, which I have responded to in the vaguest of terms.

In the time that I’ve been off, my mental health has improved exponentially. I quit smoking pot and feel lighter and more clear-headed than I have in months. My therapist helped me to see that I can’t return to this job without sacrificing my health. I was supposed to return from my LOA next week, but I’ve submitted my letter of resignation (citing long-term health concerns) and will not be going back. Effectively, this means I’ve quit without notice, and have quite likely forfeited a good reference from this company considering my earlier attendance issues coupled with my abrupt exit. I’ll be ready to start working again soon and am concerned about how to explain this entire experience without raising a hundred red flags for potential employers. This is the longest job that I’ve held and I’m not sure how to explain the lack of positive reference. I know that I legitimately had a medical emergency, however I’m concerned about the optics of this whole situation and how to explain it in a way that won’t sound like complete BS. I’ve read through your archives concerning quitting without notice, quitting without another job lined up, etc, and know that this situation isn’t ideal for prospective employers. I’m worried I’ve torpedoed my entire career and will wind up in the gig economy or chronically underemployed. Do you have any advice for how to broach this in interviews or put a positive spin on this? I’d appreciate your insights. Thank you for reading.

At the time, I responded (unpublished):

I wouldn’t assume this will hold you back! I would just say, “I took some time off to deal with some health concerns which have now been resolved.” That’s it! And your company shouldn’t give you a bad reference for this unless they’re truly sociopaths — you took a LOA for health issues and then realized you need to stay out of work longer for medical reasons. That’s not the same as quitting without notice; that’s quitting for a medical emergency, which is a whole different thing and which doesn’t normally get frowned on by reasonable employers. Even the attendance issues earlier look like part and parcel of the broader health situation. I think you should be okay!

And now, here’s the update:

Thanks so much for your response to my question.

I ended up spending about 4 months unemployed after deciding to leave my last job due to the stress and mental health problems I was experiencing. When I felt ready to start my job search, I revamped my resume and cover letters using your advice. I targeted my search on remote positions that played to my strengths and vetted the companies thoroughly as well before submitting applications. I ended up landing a string of successful interviews (all virtual) and inevitably the reason for leaving my last job came up in each one. I explained I had some health issues that needed my full attention, but that they were now resolved and I was ready to start working again. I was invited for three second-interviews. I self-selected out of one position due to a number of red flags that came up in the interview and scheduling process. The other two interviews went well and I wound up being offered both jobs. I accepted one of them over the other due to having a better rapport with the hiring manager, and more interest in the subject matter of the work. It was a lateral move in terms of the job itself, and the compensation package, but I could not have made a better decision.

My new team is the most collaborative and supportive one that I’ve ever been a part of. There was a thorough 3-week training and onboarding program that I completed when I joined in July (all virtually!). Since then there has been daily contact with my team and immediate supervisor, and whenever there is a question or even a mistake made, the approach from everyone has been to help rather than to blame. There are clear pathways to work one’s way up in the company, and my manager has been flexible in allowing me to develop my position in the direction(s) I’m most interested in. A company-wide training initiative was implemented in September and we just learned that all employees who successfully complete it by the end of the year will be offered a permanent hourly wage increase. I now have access to more PTO/vacation than I have ever had, which has been incredibly useful as I continue to deal with some ongoing health concerns. I have been encouraged and enabled to take time off when my health calls for it, and there are systems in place to make sure my duties are covered while I am away so I can return to work without being overwhelmed with client calls and emails.

It has been such a refreshing change from my last role, and I feel like I would not have been able to find myself a position at such a great company without having read your blog for so long. Thank you for answering my question!

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Dear OP, I’m staring the new year in a very similar situation and your successful interview experiences have given me hope, thank you so much for sharing and all the best!

  2. bennie*

    i also did this this past year and found employment again about three months later. leaving my old very stressful job was a risky decision but i’m happy i bet on myself.

  3. Hippo-nony-potomus*

    Wonderful update!

    The whole thing about quitting without another job lined up… there comes a point when it’s so bad that it’s your only choice, and at that point, you can find a professional way to explain the situation to prospective employers.

    I’ve found that using *several* coworkers at the job as references works really well. When multiple coworkers sing your praises, it’s easy to pass the reference checks. The lack of management reference doesn’t really matter much at that point.

    1. Bernice Clifton*

      “I’ve found that using *several* coworkers at the job as references works really well.”

      As someone who has been in administrative roles my whole career, I agree that this is a really great idea for the LW, even without resigning with no notice. In admin roles, often the coworkers that you support can speak to your work more than the person you actually report to on the org chart.

    2. Joielle*

      Yep, I did this when leaving my last job. I don’t think I would have gotten a BAD reference from management, but they didn’t know I was looking to leave and they would not have been happy about it. So I included several coworkers as references, who all spoke very highly of me, and it wasn’t a problem at all.

  4. PolarVortex*

    I’m so glad you put your mental health first and that now you have a job that won’t weigh on you anymore. Very large congrats to you!

  5. LMK*

    Congratulations on a happy ending! As I’ve learned over the years, you have to put yourself (and your mental health) first.

  6. Goldenrod*

    YAAAAY! So happy you got out of that terrible abusive environment and into a much healthier work culture. There really are good workplaces out there, you just have to look for them. I’m so happy for you!

  7. 404_FoxNotFound*

    Hooray! Congratulations, LW. I’m very happy this sounds like it ended up well, despite the hardships caused by such a terrible previous employer.

  8. Joielle*

    This is really encouraging to read! My spouse is in a very similar position and he’s resisted quitting so far, but it’s getting bad enough that I don’t think there’s really another option. He’s afraid he’ll end up with a long resume gap and it’ll stall his career… but I pointed out to him that staying in the current job and taking tons of emergency time off is not exactly a career builder either, plus his health is truly awful and he feels like crap all the time. Career isn’t everything. So glad it worked out for you, LW, and thanks for the happy update!

    1. Jackie*

      My husband went through the same thing shortly after COVID hit. He had been with the same toxic employer since high school, and after 15 years, he felt like he would never be able to find anything else.

      He had a major loss in his family that shook him to his core, which is already shakey due to anxiety & depression. I was able to finally convince him to just QUIT the damn job, since it was making him miserable beyond belief (and not really appealing for me to be around either!)

      I’m happy to report that after a 9-month break from working, he came out the other end feeling lighter & more at peace with himself. He started applying when he felt ready, and found it really wasn’t as hard to find something as he had built it up to be in his mind. He has been at that job for 6 months now and it is probably the best thing to have happened to him in years (besides me, of course ;))

      All that to say – if it can happen to my spouse & he can make it out to the other end, then the same can happen for yours!! It’s not easy to let go & jump into the abyss, but if he gives himself the space to heal & move on, he will be so much better off for it. He can do it, I know he can!!

      1. Joielle*

        Thank you!! It’s such an awful situation but it means a lot to hear from other people who have been there. I appreciate your comment so much :)

  9. JSO*

    This is a great update! I recently quit my job due to a toxic environment, the way management handles sensitive situations and whole slew of other things. It’s only been 1.5 weeks and I feel like I left a year ago. My mind has been never been clearer then it is now. I am excited for the future and what is to come.

  10. Gary Patterson's Cat*

    So happy for you!
    All jobs (even good ones) can have their issues and stresses. But no job should make you feel that bad.

  11. Cmdrshpard*

    I was confused what OP meant by this:

    ” I communicated this to my manager via text, asked him to have HR issue me an ROE so that I could collect EI and said that I would come back as soon as my health allowed. ”

    Was OP asking to be fired so they could collect unemployment insurance, or was it asking to try and collect short term disability insurance?

    1. Marny*

      I think it’s a Canadian thing. My understanding is that if there’s an interruption in earnings (like during a leave of absence), you can get unemployment but you have to get a Record of Employment from your employer that shows your usual hours and pay.

    2. Agirl227*

      As a Canadian I can assure you that unemployment benefits are offered for an interruption of employment. At my job if the company cancels your shifts for a week due to business needs they will automatically issue a ROE so you can apply. And if you take unpaid leave you also get benefits. It’s nice that people can actually use something they pay into without actually losing their job.

    3. Lurker McLurkerson*

      Canadian here: ROE is record of employment, and EI is employment insurance. They’re asking to get paperwork to show that they were working so they can collect EI sick pay. Short term disability would be through the employee or possibly private, but EI is government.

  12. WoodswomanWrites*

    This is so heartening. OP, I’m glad you took care of yourself even when the outcome was an unknown at the time. How wonderful that you’re doing to well both personally and professionally.

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