I was fired from a toxic workplace and was shocked to feel grief and sadness. Here’s why that happens, and how to process those feelings.

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AUGUST 4, 2023

Mental-health professionals told Insider that it’s normal to grieve the loss of a job — even if it was a toxic one. Getty Images

  • I was fired without warning from a dysfunctional workplace.
  • After it happened, I was left shell-shocked and had to grieve the loss.
  • Grieving any major loss is normal, but it’s important to acknowledge your feelings.

I don’t know how you’re supposed to sit still in a swivel chair while you’re getting fired. I kept tilting and swaying, looking for a place to plant my feet on the ground. But in the end, it felt like the floor had fallen out beneath me.

My face felt hot as an HR manager coaxed me into reading a letter detailing my imminent dismissal. She evaded any questions I asked about why I was getting fired, instead asking me to explain what outcome I had expected from this meeting. I had no answers because I had only been told the meeting date and time without any further context; my manager had told me it was a meeting to check in on my role thus far. The firing had come without any warning; there was no opportunity to plead my case.

“This isn’t a reflection of your performance,” she said, sliding a pen across the table. She neglected to tell me what it was a reflection of, a fact I noticed as she avoided making eye contact and avoided veering from her script that I needed to read the letter carefully. My hands shook as I made the familiar motion of signing my name.

In our short meeting, she also neglected to tell me that I didn’t have to finish out the day. I endured the long walk back to my desk, burdened with shame and the fear that everyone around me already knew what had just transpired. And because our meeting happened at 1 p.m., I still thought I had three hours left until I could go home.

My office had felt like a toxic environment for the nine months I’d worked there. I had often felt that one employee targeted me. She was warm and welcoming toward other new hires but would leave me off emails required to perform my job properly, exclude me from projects I was assigned to, leave an empty seat between us at meetings, and looked down any time I was speaking. I brought this up to my manager, who explained that they had also been through a similar experience as a junior employee with a different person at the company. While they were empathetic to the situation to a point, they also seemed to shrug it off as though it was par for the course.

If you’ve ever been let go from a dysfunctional workplace, you might feel angry or resentful after trying to make the best out of a bad situation. For advice on what to do, Insider talked to therapists about the grieving process and how to heal from a job loss.

Any major loss can result in feelings of grief

Regardless of why an employer is letting you go, it’s normal to grieve this loss. In fact, grief can occur any time “an individual loses something that holds some type of significance in their life or leads to a significant change from what they’re accustomed to,” Elizabeth Fedrick, a licensed counselor and the owner of Evolve Counseling & Behavioral Health Services in Phoenix, told Insider.

“Whether you’re changing companies, being promoted or demoted, terminated, or switching fields altogether, a change in career can mean losing your way of life, as well as your identity,” she said. It’s important to give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling, and to acknowledge your grief.

Telling yourself that you shouldn’t feel sad or attempting to diminish your grief can get in the way of processing your loss. “Sometimes individuals find themselves feeling silly for grieving the loss of something they think they shouldn’t,” Fedrick said.

A toxic environment can complicate and intensify your pain

“Toxic work environments often have poor communication. You may not even know that you have been doing something wrong or that you were supposed to perform a particular task,” Lienna Wilson, a licensed psychologist, told Insider.

Many workplaces have unspoken rules and codes of behavior, from how to dress, to always being available on Slack, to working overtime whenever your boss is working. In an unhealthy workplace such as mine, where I felt left out of certain rules, the consequences included being left off important projects and feeling disengaged from work.

“Being the target of abusive behavior such as office bullying can complicate the grieving process because the decision to fire you may feel unfair and unjust,” Fedrick said. If you’re like me and you tend to fixate on what you could’ve done differently, you might blame yourself for not being able to avoid this situation. Wilson said this can be especially true for anyone whose workplace bully told them they were the problem. “You might be angry at yourself for having created the problem,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean that what you’re feeling now is your fault; you also shouldn’t make yourself feel bad for staying at the company prior to getting fired. “Working in a toxic work environment can complicate your feelings of grief,” Wilson said.

After all, even if you knew the environment was toxic, you might have been tempted to stay on because of several factors. You may be proud of the work you accomplished, made connections you value, or simply not want to attempt to find another job in a difficult job market. It can also be easy to convince yourself that you should be grateful just to have a paycheck. And just like in relationships with people, it is also possible to form unhealthy attachments to your job. It can be complicated to sort out your feelings when you’re looking back at the situat.

The line between grief and depression is blurry

After being let go from your job, it’s normal to feel angry, confused, or hopeless about the future. And it may be difficult to tell whether you’re experiencing grief, depression, or both, because clinical signs of depression tend to overlap with symptoms of grief, including sadness, difficulty sleeping, and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, Wilson said. Other signs of depression can include changes in appetite, irritability, hopelessness, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.

But whereas someone with depression may isolate themselves, Wilson said that “people who are grieving often welcome social support and benefit from talking about their loss.”

“They may feel better after being validated or finding others who have gone through a similar experience,” she said.

Having a history of depression can make you more susceptible to flare-up of symptoms. A study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that the link between depression and unemployment isn’t always completely based on one’s loss of income.

If your mood is affecting your relationships and daily functioning, Fedrick recommended speaking with a mental-health professional. They can help you process the loss and find ways to ease symptoms.

It’s possible to let go and move on

Everyone has their own process and timeline for grieving. You might feel calm and accepting of the situation one moment and devastated the next. Fedrick said this is all a normal part of the grieving process and should not be taken as a sign that there’s something wrong with the way you’re handling things. It’s important to not judge yourself for feeling a range of emotions.

It’s also possible that you may not realize how unhealthy a workplace is until you’ve left. Paying attention to your self-talk can be a valuable tool in helping you move forward.

“With this approach, you can identify the various logical reasons it was probably better for you to leave this toxic workplace, and then try to identify how things are going to improve in your life when you find a healthier place to work,” Fedrick said.

Give yourself a chance to be sad and process your feelings through journaling. As you take steps to find a new job, make sure to surround yourself with supportive friends, family members, and mentors. Understand that painful emotions may resurface if you see a job posting at your old company or if their name pops up in your social media or LinkedIn feed and be kind to yourself when this happens.

Most of all, it’s important to be gentle and patient with yourself. “Validate your pain and know that it’s a normal setback,” Wilson said. “You can make a conscious choice to focus on the next chapter of your life rather than being stuck in the past.”


Courtesy/Source: Insider