In’s advice section, a few users have weighed in on the question, “How do you know when it is time to quit a job?” When you look at all the different opinions of different users, you notice a common theme: “When your job makes you unhappy, it’s time to leave.”

This unhappiness can manifest itself in multiple ways: stress; anxiety; anger; depression. But whatever your specific form of unhappiness, the general consensus is that an unhappy worker is a worker who needs to jump ship.

I don’t disagree with that conclusion. William Faulkner told the Paris Review, “One of the saddest things is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours—all you can do for eight hours is work.” Our jobs — our work — take up huge portions of our lives. When these central duties are crushing our spirits, we need to replace them with work that we can do for eight hours a day.

(Of course, I’m not sure Faulkner would agree that we could ever be happy working for eight hours a day — for him, our obligation to labor is “the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.” But I’m trying to be an optimist, so I’m going to depart from Faulkner’s views here.)

But though I agree with the sentiment, I wonder: when, exactly, do you quit? The answer to that question is easy when your jobs is only causing you mild or moderate unhappiness. Say you find your work boring, or you’re eager for a new challenge, or you simply think you’d thrive more in a different environment — in that case, you line up a new gig before giving notice.

But what if your job is borderline unbearable (or thoroughly, positively unbearable)? What if sticking it out until you find a new job sounds like a death sentence? Do you just up and leave?

When It’s Really, Really Bad

About a month ago, I came across a story on Reddit about a person who quit his job after only having it for a week. He had landed this job after a long period of “un/underemployment,” and was wondering if he made the right choice by abruptly quitting instead of sticking it out until something better came along.

You can read the full tale yourself, but I’ll mention a few of the major plot points here:

  • Our worker’s supervisors were volatile and verbally abusive.
  • Work was a never-ending flow of tasks that piled up constantly: “I would finish ~10 tasks that day only to see 15 more pile up. There was just not enough time in the day.” (And we know that this sort of environment promotes binge working, which can be lethal.)
  • The organization was not at all invested in his training and development, essentially throwing him to the wolves from day one.
  • Our worker’s immediate predecessors were all fired or quit after short periods of time — never a good sign.

All of these things combined to make our worker feel suicidal. His father and others counseled him to stick it out — to give it more time. But he simply couldn’t do it, and so he quit.

Now, if your job is making you suicidal, then you obviously don’t want to stick around. Despite what some people have said to our worker in the Reddit thread, I think he was absolutely right to quit suddenly, with no new job lined up. It doesn’t matter if you just landed a job after a long period of unemployment: if your job makes you want to kill yourself, you get out fast.

However, this situation can be unfortunately complicated. Our worker was only able to quit because he had somewhere to land. As a recent college graduate, he still lived at home with his parents. He didn’t have to worry about keeping this job to keep a roof over his head and food in his stomach — but what if he did? What if he was on his own, with no place to go if he quit? What if he needed his terrifyingly, egregiously bad job to pay the bills? Does he up and quit, or does he stick it out until he finds a new gig?

This is not an easy question to answer, and it’s not one I presume to even know the answer to. On the one hand, the threat of extreme mental and emotional disturbance that can come from a truly terrible job is severe and cause for serious concern. On the other hand, food and shelter are serious concerns as well. The choice between mental health and a livelihood is not something I’d wish on anyone.

So I really wrote this post to pose a question: What would you do, if you were in our worker’s shoes, but had nowhere to go if you quit? What if you needed that job?

Because I’m not sure what I would do.

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