Do you love your job? Many workers don’t just say they do, they move cities, put in long hours or even work for free to prove just how passionate they are about what they do for a living. And being intrinsically interested in the job itself might not be enough. Increasingly we are urged to see colleagues as family, our homes as offices and to free up our leisure time to make ourselves more available to our bosses.
Studies suggest such commitment to work is taking its toll. Research from the World Health Organization in 2021 found that overwork—defined as working more than 54 hours a week—is deadly, killing three quarters of a million people a year. So why do we work with such devotion, and how can we stop?
We asked journalist Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone.
How did we get to a place where the idea of a good job has come to mean that we should love it, or even feel passionate about it?
The question of what we think of as a good job is exactly the point. Once upon a time, our idea of a good job was one that paid you well and gave you time off, and you had maybe some control over what you were doing, but it didn’t really come along with the idea that you would love your job. What happened broadly is that capitalism changed. The shift in countries such as the US and most of Western Europe is that we’re not doing manufacturing work anymore, we’re doing some form of service work. Even “knowledge work” is often still some form of service work. So we are not in those industrial jobs where nobody expected you to like it, we’re in work that has some other set of expectations of how you will behave on the job.
They often revolve around performing that you enjoy the job and the dedication that you’re supposed to have to the job—which contraindicates getting paid well.
So we can’t love our jobs and get paid properly?
There’s a totally different set of expectations, and that comes with a totally different set of management practises, when you’re expected to like the job. There’s this idea that if you pay teachers well, you’ll get teachers who are just in it for the money and therefore they will be bad teachers, which is ludicrous, right? It’s very hard to do a good job at anything when you are broke and have a second job. But it goes back to the beginnings of public schools, particularly in America, where it’s well documented that the people planning the public-school system said, “How do we save it from being really expensive?” First, they had to stop paying men to do it because they had to pay men real money, but women were already “good with kids” anyway.
That obviously creates a different set of working conditions for women than for men in the factories at the time, where, after several centuries of unionisation and big, messy battles they had finally gotten to a stable place with decent jobs, with pay, vacations and healthcare. The workers might not have liked the jobs, but they didn’t expect to like them and the boss certainly didn’t think they should.
Reading your book, it seems that so many different types of workers are caught up in this expectation—knowledge workers are supposed to be passionate about the organisations they work for, doctors are expected to love caring for patients, creatives are expected to love their work so much, they will do it for free. Is anyone exempt?
Sure, Jeff Bezos is exempt because he owns the means of production. You can be exempt from it by being a boss, although even then there are certain cultural expectations about how dedicated you should be to your job or that you’ll keep working even when you have more money than God.
If you’re working class you can’t so easily exempt yourself. You can’t work-life-balance your way out of exploitation.
Even if you say you’re not going to get a job you love but you’ll get one in a factory, you get the expectation that you should be grateful to have a job because unions and workers are essentially begging for those jobs to be kept open. They know that what comes on the other side is going to be worse because you make $25 an hour plus overtime in the factory, and at Amazon they pay $15 an hour.
So in that context loving a job means you should feel lucky to have any job at all. Is taking away the idea that workers should feel grateful for simply having any job important?
Yes, very much, because exploitation obscures the real relationship between you and your boss, which is that even the best boss is making money off your labor. This idea that we should be grateful pops up everywhere, but you can actually say, “No, you’re making money off me, I don’t owe you gratitude. I owe you my end of the labor contract, which is I show up and I do my job. That is what I owe you in this relationship. I do not owe you my feelings, or love or gratitude. That’s not my job.”
If asking us to love our jobs is a way of asking us to work more, what are we losing in other areas of our life? There’s only so much time in the day, so what about other things we might love, such as personal relationships or leisure time?
One question is how much work ends up interfering practically in your life. How much time do you have to spend with people when you’re working more and more—for example, when you’re sitting at dinner with your partner and your phone goes off and you have to answer a work email? How much do you feel you can’t move because you love a job or you have to say yes to working on the holiday or you have to go into work when you’re sick? What kind of implications does that have for your family?
In the book you write about a 57-year-old professor—someone with a prestigious job—who said one of the only times she felt dignity at work was when she took action against her employers for better conditions for her and her colleagues. With the Great Resignation, are we seeing people standing up for themselves and looking for more dignity in work?
There are all of these questions about what created the tipping point for people, and we are still just guessing. But I think the pandemic pulled the veil away from work and revealed that at the end of the day we don’t do any of this because we want meaning in our lives, it’s because we have to pay the bills. That became much more obvious. For everybody the pandemic showed exploitation; it showed us that our boss doesn’t care if we die, as long as the assembly line or the hospital keeps going. We see that by how little employers are willing to invest in protective equipment, and how much pressure they’re putting on to get people back in the workplace as soon as possible.
In so many cases a job might have been kind of crappy before, but now it’s kind of crappy and also risks your life.
The job I think about is a worker at the make-up chain Sephora, who said before the pandemic it was an alright job doing make-up all day. But once the pandemic kicked in, they just said, “I’m not going to die for lipstick.” That is the difference.
So it’s ramped up the stakes in terms of poor work conditions, and at the same time pulled the rug on ideas about how valued we are as employees?
Exactly. It’s much more obvious that your boss doesn’t care about you and can’t care about you, because the nature of the system is that they need to make money, and caring about you is going to get in the way of that. It’s not just that your boss is a jerk. It’s about an entire system that requires your boss not to care about you, even if they genuinely do.
In the book you discuss themes that are applicable to all kinds of workers, but you mainly focus on women’s work stories. Is that why?
I didn’t really mean for there to be only one man’s story. It’s partly because that’s just the story of these industries—I could have spoken to a male teacher but it’s really gendered work. And some of it is just who I met. The chapter about artists was the hardest chapter to write because there’s not that much written about artists as workers, and there aren’t that many artists who think about themselves as workers who could collectively organise, so when I met Kate, who I interviewed, it was great because she was already thinking about these things and it was part of her practice.
It’s about an entire system that requires your boss not to care about you, even if they genuinely do.
Kate had the idea of using art as a way to draw people into a space where they could discuss ideas about reorganising society. Do you think unions are the best way for workers to come together and take power back, or do you think other methods can be more effective?
You have to find ways for people to come together where they can talk about their conditions and figure out how to change them. Sometimes that looks like a union and sometimes it’s really hard for that to be a union. Instead of a union it could look like Occupy Wall Street or a meeting that you call on Zoom or video-games workers talking about the union issues on their headsets while remotely playing a game together. The question of how and where to get people together is the big one in a lot of cases, but people are figuring out ways to do it.
Do you think it’s possible to “love” a job? Is that the right verb to use?
Some days I love mine, some days I hate it, and I think that’s probably true for everyone.
I think that, rather than being compelled to love our jobs, we should be able to have a range of emotions while still being aware that it is a job at the end of the day.
I don’t want to tell people how they should feel about their jobs, because I don’t think that anyone should be able to tell you how you feel about your job, but I think that we could improve conditions for people at work. There are all sorts of things that we can do to improve conditions for everybody at work, whether you work in a job that you absolutely hate all the time, or that you hate some of the time, or that you mostly like.
Are you saying we need to create more boundaries at work—meaning, it’s great if you love your job but basically it’s in your interests to remember that it is just a job?
Right. And we can make those boundaries into policy and law. When we see people trialling the four-day working week, that could be a legal boundary around work. Because the thing about emotional boundaries is people are always stepping on them. Your bosses can always ask you to do things that you’ve said you aren’t going to do, but if it is illegal to ask you to do it, you can say, “No, I will not work for free.” Then it isn’t just left up to the individual worker to negotiate with the individual boss to try to improve conditions.
As a freelance journalist, how do you create those boundaries in your own work life?
I didn’t have a journalism chapter in the book because I thought everybody would say I was just complaining about my own conditions. Well, yes, but they fit right in because it is the same story with us as it is with a variety of other kinds of creative workers. There’s the idea that you’re lucky to have your job, you get paid to write—isn’t that cool?
I’ve written two books now, which has made things easier because it gives me a degree of individual bargaining power. Another thing that’s been really helpful is just talking to other freelance journalists to share information and support each other because it’s really hard to do it alone. But the real thing that makes it all possible for me is having a fellowship that essentially supports me in an industry that otherwise would not pay me enough to keep going. That is a solution for a handful of us, but it’s not a system-wide solution for the industry. A broader solution is that the Freelance Solidarity Project is working on getting contracts with media outlets so there are terms that you can expect as a freelancer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Photos by Janice Checchio
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