The more you love your work, the more likely you’ll be exploited. Here’s why paying a ‘passion tax’ is costing you more than you think.
“So, tell us why you want to work here”.
If you’ve ever had a job interview, you know that being asked this question is almost guaranteed. You also know that “because I need to pay my rent” is not the answer they are looking for.
During my career in the community services sector, I learned that the correct response was a heartfelt declaration of my passion for helping people. I also learned that, when asked to share one of your weaknesses, that “caring too much” and “working too hard” were standard replies.
This may sound like someone who has become cynical and jaded about their former profession, and that is because I have.
I ended up quitting a dream job in my field of study, and not because I woke up one day suddenly bereft of passion. If anything, it was my desire to contribute to a better world that made me hang in there for so long.
I changed career paths for many reasons: my desire to pursue creativity, the realisation that I valued freedom over the security of a full-time contract, and a horrendous case of burnout.
It wasn’t until I had started to recover that it dawned on me that I had been paying a ‘passion tax’ in almost every role I had been in, that had ultimately left me energetically bankrupt.
What is a ‘passion tax’?
The term ‘passion tax’ has also been referred to as ‘enthusiasm exploitation’, and describes the expectation for people who do work they are passionate about to accept fewer benefits, poorer compensation and inferior working conditions.
Passion tax is rife within fields that are seen as glamorous, such as film and television, or emotionally rewarding, such as the education or healthcare sector.
On one hand, it is understandable why this phenomenon would occur. Working in a field that fulfils your creative impulses or helps create positive social change can in many ways be its ‘own reward’.
Passion can make us more dedicated and productive, because the results of our labour have meaning beyond financial remuneration. However, it shouldn’t be an excuse to perpetually expect people who love what they do to go above and beyond with no reprieve or material reward.
Throughout my career in social services, burnout was always being discussed among my colleagues, often while we all worked through lunch to meet an impossible deadline or resolve a client emergency. We bonded over our mutual exhaustion, ridiculous hours, the work calls we took at home over dinner, and our stagnant wages that failed to keep up with inflation.
I watched talented, hard-working colleagues become defeated, having been told so many times our under-resourced sector simply didn’t have the budget to increase salaries, or enough staff to permit flexible working arrangements, or enough time to approve our leave requests.
Unpaid, mandatory after-hours meetings and ‘working lunches’ became the norm, until even the most rewarding role became a source of frustration, fatigue and resentment.
How toxic work culture can harm individuals, teams and industries
Even after I realised that I couldn’t survive on altruistic satisfaction alone, I refused to acknowledge the reality of my situation.
Sure, I cried over my to-do list most days and hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in over a year, but so what? I had people relying on me, not least of which were my colleagues.
Meeting like-minded people with similar interests is one of the greatest non-financial rewards of working in a job of passion. However, it can make it difficult to put your own needs first, even in the face of burnout and exploitation, when you know your decisions will ultimately impact your entire team.
The hardest part about resigning from some of my most draining roles was the tearful goodbyes to my incredible colleagues. It was their support and camaraderie that had made the work bearable, and I felt horrendous guilt at leaving them to handle it on their own with the knowledge of how little support they would receive from management in my absence.
Taking the passion of employees for granted doesn’t only harm the individuals and teams, it can actually create a flow-on effect for entire industries. Obvious examples arose during the pandemic, where our frontline health workers were expected to work harder than ever under often terrible conditions.
While verbal expressions of gratitude, and virtue signalling social media posts praised the dedication of our nurses and doctors, they were accompanied by little to no practical support or compensation for the risks and sacrifices they made, as these were simply seen as part of the job.
A labour of love still deserves fair compensation
Failing to address the systematic exploitation of passionate employees can lead to mass staffing shortages and industry ‘exoduses’, disrupting the very fabric of societal function and cooperation.
Sarah Jaffe explores this idea at length in her book, Work Won’t Love You Back. One of the many contradictions she highlights about modern work culture is the simultaneous devaluation and romanticisation of those working in ‘caring professions’.
The emotional reward, or ‘labour of love’, is disregarded as it doesn’t directly generate greater profits and is not easily quantified. Yet, it’s also touted by employers and governments as if it were a sufficient substitute for actual compensation that supports the costs of living and enables people to continue doing what they love.
Add to this the fact that caring professions or industries of ‘passion’, such as teaching, nursing, and childcare, continue to be both underpaid and predominantly staffed by women, and it is clear that misogyny, as well as classism and worker exploitation, are at play.
Perpetuating the myth that work that you love is not real work at all keeps passionate workers trapped in a cycle of generating wealth that they will never enjoy their fair share of.
In her book, Jaffe explores the modern tendency to conflate work with love, and the increasingly blurred lines between our professional and personal lives as a strategy to diminish the value and legitimacy of certain types of work.
Her analysis brought to mind all the clever job advertisements I had seen that shouted about their ‘fun work culture’ and ‘family team environment’ yet neglected to disclose any information about actual remuneration.
This system is designed to allow already powerful, wealthy elites to grow even richer from the underpaid or unpaid efforts of passionate employees, while at the same time shaming those who find the courage to speak up and ask for the compensation they deserve.
No one should have to choose between doing a job they enjoy and being able to keep a roof over their head. Even if you work in a field that you love, you should never feel that being exploited is a reasonable price to pay for doing so. As Jaffe’s book highlights, work will not be there to love and support you when times are tough.
We’ve all heard the saying that nobody lays on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at work. Now may be the time to realise that there is no award for those who suffered most in the name of their chosen profession.
Real systemic change is often brought about by a culmination of small, individual acts of courage, like asking for a pay rise or saying no to an ‘optional but encouraged’ unpaid staff meeting. Of course, not everyone is in a position to afford these risks, which is exactly why those of us who can should speak up as much as we feel comfortable to do so.
Knowing your worth and asking to be rewarded accordingly will not make you any less passionate, productive or powerful in whatever field you work in. If anything, it will help to bust the myths that there are two types of work: the kind that feels good and the kind that pays.
The more we can break down these antiquated, binary perceptions of meaningful work, the sooner we can arrive at a place where everyone feels liberated to pursue work that they are passionate about, without having to sacrifice their financial, emotional and social wellbeing.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on April 13, 2022 but has since been updated to include new content.