Stress at Work from Pay. Do you love your work, your colleagues, and your firm, but you just aren’t paid enough for what you do? Are your terms and conditions rubbish? Do you skip into work, but feel resentful, and find yourself saying things like “and all that for X an hour”?

Remuneration is a difficult and emotive subject.

First we have emotions, values and cultural conditioning around the choice to work or not in the first place. Some people feel extremely strongly that, if they are not earning, they are not contributing or they are worthless. It’s no great leap to see how that might generate stress around pay.

We’re not going to dig into the psychology around parental expectation in this article, but the early years of work and the choices and opportunities available then matter. Young people entering the workplace are most likely to be influenced by their parent’s expectations of them in relation to work, which can lead to a lot of work/pay stress later in life as they develop their own independent attitudes.

Even worse – pay as a reason to choose a type of job or career is just never talked about. People generally work because they need to make money, but career guidance talks about kinds of work you might like to do, but never mentions what the average salaries are and what the most you might ever expect to earn in a given field is.

The level and type of remuneration you receive affects everything else in your life. It is intimately tied to status, self worth, societal worth and all kinds of other things. Factor in that many of us are just embarrassed to talk about money or have little financial awareness and it all starts to get a bit messy.

Take something which you have spent a lot of time, brainpower and emotion on; which itself has a whole host of challenges, emotional connotations and frictions. Now cross it with a different, but highly-correlated area – money – and it can just be a perfect storm.

Typical example: I recently met a lovely lady who told me with great pride about her job as a Science Explainer at a prestigious museum. Very cool, right? Easy to see how for a certain kind of person that is a dream vocation. She immediately followed it up (completely unprompted) with “and sometimes I think that I don’t get paid enough to do it, and then sometimes I think I am very lucky to get paid to do it at all.”

The problem with pay is that it is impossible to set an objective value on it – what is the correct global price for one hour of science explaining? There isn’t one. But employers have to set pay. So they go by what they can – which is: we think some types of work are probably worth more than others, and that some people are more skilled or more experienced at their work than others, and suddenly it becomes a proxy measure of comparative human worth. The false logic is more money = you are more valuable as a person. No wonder it can lead to insecurity.

It is possible to be perfectly satisfied by the income you receive from your work. If this is you, great, move on. I even know a lovely lady who is forced to live off disability benefits because she cannot work due to severe ongoing health conditions. Money is very tight for her, but she is content because she feels she is lucky to get what she does; given that she does not have to work for it. You may view her situation differently, but as a way to respond to her situation this is an attitude of gratitude we could all learn from.

When it comes to work stress caused by remuneration, people fall into one of two camps:
People who are not paid enough, and this is a big source of stress for them.
People who are over-remunerated. What I mean by this is people who are unfulfilled or stressed in their work, but who feel they cannot change it because the package they are on is so good.

These are both real problems.

People on either side may look over the fence with envy, but both parties are just sitting on one side of a big imbalance. There is of course a third group not covered by this article – those who are time poor, cash poor and hate their work. These people have the worst of all possible worlds. We are looking here at the conflict between loving your work / hating your pay and loving your pay / hating your work, because many people find themselves in this trade-off.

In camp one we have our science explainer, or perhaps two PE teachers I knew who were married to each other. The teachers really had a fantastic lifestyle and said so frequently. They were home by 3.20 every day, no homework, they had plenty of time to relax, enjoy themselves and enjoy each other. They loved it. The pay and the impact on the rest of their lives they were less keen on, and I actually met them at a financial seminar where they were working on this as a separate project to their teaching careers.

On the other hand, we get people trapped the other side of the fence. They have worked long and hard and got to a position where the package they are on is just fantastic. But boy do they feel they have paid for it! Mostly these people are burnt out, exhausted and a little cynical.

Luck helps, but these days to bootstrap your way to the top where the rewards lie, you do not just have to put in a little extra effort – you have to put in enormous amounts of extra effort, to the point where there is nothing left. And you have to do it for decades. This means your sole interests, passion and values have to stay completely aligned to that single career path at all times of the day and night for years and years on end. The slightest misalignment will cause stress because there is little time for anything else in your life. You have to be “always on” and can never slip. Human beings change over time, and we are wired to seek variety. It’s deeply unnatural and therefore stressful.

I have known many, many people in this position. More than anything they just need some relief, or a change, but they are terrified to make even modest changes in case it all comes crashing down – which in their world would be a disaster.

A great example of this would be the very senior civil servant I met. He had a lot of responsibility and an income which reflected that. He also had a demanding wife and 8 children to support. His dream was to do a completely different, creative career, but he was terrified of losing position, income, and whether it might tear his family apart. Legitimate fears, but stressful because of the daily conflict between his dreams and situation.

I hope this short introduction helped explain the complex reasons pay causes stress at work. The next article is for people who love their work, but not their pay. The article after that covers people who are struggling with their work, but feel trapped by their fears around loss of income or benefits.

Can you relate to anything I have written here? Are there any other reasons pay causes stress that I didn’t mention? Let me know what you think in the comments section below. Till the next time! Veronica