bulletin board with "I love my job sign"

Passion And Greed: The Perils Of Modern Work And How To Reclaim Love And Leisure

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

If you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, or so it’s said. Even under the best of circumstances, loving something (or someone) doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work at it. Those lucky enough to land their dream jobs usually discover significant aspects that they don’t love. But if you are fortunate and love your job (as I do), you will likely find meaning, purpose and joy in your work that helps to balance out when it is hard. Unlike our parents or grandparents, who saw work as an honorable way to provide for your loved ones, modern professionals and job-seekers expect to love their work. Aspiring professionals are exhorted to find their passion, and budding entrepreneurs are advised to turn their hobby into a business. And as a coach, I have spent fifteen years supporting my clients on this quest.

But what happens when loving your work is used by employers to justify under-paying and overworking their employees? Sarah Jaffe explores this topic in Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Leaves Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone. In this thoroughly researched book critique of neo-liberal capitalism, Jaffe documents the experiences of workers in various fields (many of which are dominated by women and women of color), where love is part of the mythology. These workers are told that what they do is not actually work (athletes and artists) or they are lucky to be there at all (interns). Some are told they are part of the family (caregivers), or that their personal fulfillment and satisfaction should be enough to make up for lower pay (academics). Teachers and nurses are accused of being mercenary if they demand higher pay or better conditions. Even nonprofits that purport to be progressive engage in union-busting. As Jaffe says, work won’t love you back.

Work is also “greedy,” writes Harvard labor economist Claudia Goldin in her rigorous analysis of five generations of working women, Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity. The highest paid jobs demand unpredictable, long hours and expect responsiveness beyond the traditional work day. As Goldin notes, when two-career couples have a child or other family member to care for, they often opt for one partner to take a more flexible, less demanding job so that they can meet their care-giving responsibilities while the other partner works the “greedy” job. This strategy maximizes earnings—an economically rational choice—but leads to inequitable distribution of work and rewards.

The result?

  • A workforce with high rates of burnout and stress. A recent Deloitte survey of 1,000 professionals found that, even though 84% said they have passion for their job, 71% had experienced burnout and 64% had a high level of stress. Passion does not insulate you from burnout.
  • lifetime pay gap for women, who are over-represented in the ranks of underpaid jobs of “love” and who, in heterosexual couples, more often opt for the lower paid, more flexible job so that they can be caregivers at home, despite their hundred years of progress in the workplace.

Goldin’s and Jaffe’s books (both of which appear to be labors of love, by the way) demonstrate the ways in which individual choices are constrained and manipulated by a system of rules and incentives that perpetuates inequality. Goldin, an economist, documents but offers no prescription, while journalist Jaffe’s final chapter points us toward a more communitarian system in which our love is not co-opted by capitalism and where all have leisure time.

Perhaps the new wave of unionization signals a coming era of improved working conditions, and maybe the current “great reshuffle” indicates that more workers are valuing themselves and their time. But as an executive coach who works mostly at the individual level within organizations, I am left asking: Short of quitting or communitarian revolution, what are workers, especially those who see themselves trapped by greedy jobs or overwhelmed by jobs they love, to do? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Establish regular working hours. Working from home makes setting boundaries and limits harder, but all the more important. Even if your job requires occasional long hours, make a habit of working outside of your violating your work hours. Don’t work weekends (which exist because of the labor movement).
  2. Ask for help. Alongside the myth of the “labor of love” is the myth of the hero who saves the day. All too often an under-resourced team or poor project planning means that individuals feel the need to put in a heroic effort to save the day. But, so long as workers sacrifice their health and personal lives to meet unreasonable demands, the system is unlikely to change. Push back on unrealistic timelines and advocate for resources.
  3. Know your North Star. Ground yourself in your core values. Identify what you most want to cultivate in your life and guide your decisions accordingly, especially about where you invest your time, energy and love.
  4. Develop a sense of enough. Our consumerist and competitive culture is often aimed at making us want more and better rather than appreciating what we have. This drive to acquire more makes the greedy job tradeoff look like the rational choice, but is it what you want for your life? Take a break from social media, where the temptation to compare and judge is almost irresistible. Practice gratitude.
  5. Cultivate leisure. Whether or not you love your job, find ways to do what you love outside of work. Take a walk in nature, watch the sunset, read for pleasure, try a hobby, play a game. Take a cue from Julia Cameron’s classic The Artist’s Way, and take yourself on an Artist’s Date each week. It’s not just about building resilience; it’s about living a full life.
  6. Connect with people you love. Work may not love you back, but people can. Put your love where it will be valued and returned. Take time to connect to people you care about, and show care for people you are in connection with.

There’s a line in the movie “The Truth About Cats And Dogs” where Janine Garafalo as veterinarian Dr. Abby Barnes answers a radio caller who is asking for advice about a rash that he developed after being licked by his cat for three hours. “OK,” she says, “This is a good time to talk about limits. You can love your pets; but just don’t LO-OVE your pets.” So, if you’re lucky enough to love what you do, go ahead and love your job. But take Garafalo’s advice: limits.