Vulnerable to Passion Exploitation

by Meg Embry

Updated August 25, 2022

So you want to go into a helping profession. Beware: Your passion for doing good might become a justification for your exploitation. Here's how to fight back.

In 2015, researchers at Duke University published a paper exploring an insidious, often overlooked form of labor exploitation. They called it "passion exploitation."

Passion exploitation happens when employers justify the poor treatment of workers who are passionate about what they do. The more passionate the worker, the more likely managers are to view that worker's exploitation as legitimate.

The Psychology Behind Exploitation

Passion exploitation plays out kind of like group projects always did at school: The kids most invested in getting a good grade end up doing the bulk of the work, and everyone else benefits from that labor. It's an unfair arrangement that passionate students just have to accept in order to get the results they want.

In the professional world, managers tend to assume two things about the folks who are most passionate about their work:

  • Passion-workers would volunteer to do this work for free if it wasn't already their job; and
  • Passion-workers get some intangible benefit from the work itself, like a sense of identity or a feeling of satisfaction from helping others.

When "the work is its own reward," it's easy for managers to believe they're doing passion-workers a favor by giving them even more uncompensated work.

What Are Examples of Passion Exploitation?

  • Pressuring employees to work extra hours for no pay.
  • Pressuring employees to sacrifice family time for work.
  • Pressuring employees to engage in undesirable or demeaning tasks that aren't relevant to their job descriptions.

(Kay et al., 2015)

Exploitation During the Pandemic

The pandemic has amplified this phenomenon dramatically. Passion exploitation is no longer simply an icky managerial practice. It's become a widespread societal attitude leveled at the workers expected to help others at any cost: nurses, social workers, and teachers.

As a result, we are seeing record burnout in these fields, with people migrating to new careers at unprecedented rates.

Does that mean you should give up on pursuing passion-driven work altogether? No.

In fact, research has shown clearly that there are major intangible benefits for those who are passionate about their work.

The Positive Power of Passion

This is also a good time to pursue degrees in passion-driven fields like healthcare, social work, and teaching, because the demand is high and the need is great.

LinkedIn reports that since 2019:

If you feel called to one of these jobs, we want to prepare you to combat passion exploitation when you get there. We spoke with passionate healthcare workers, social workers, and teachers who are working faithfully in the trenches right now. This is what they want you to know.


Ashley Noboa is a general pediatric surgery nurse practitioner. She just had her first baby this year. She missed our initial interview because she was called up for a sudden organ procurement and had to jump on a plane instead.

Noboa apologized profusely, as if jetting off to save a life wasn't a good reason to cancel. She said that's pretty typical of nurses, who tend to feel they should be available whenever someone else needs them.

That feeling makes healthcare workers easy to exploit, she said. "Hospitals and administrators will take as much as you are willing to give."

And that has certainly been the case during the pandemic.

"I see nurses being asked to do more and more with significantly less," said Noboa. "Nurse-to-patient ratios in an ICU should be 1:1 or 1:2. Right now, ratios are 1:8 or 1:10.

"We feel like we cannot refuse. If we do, who will take care of the patient? Passion exploitation often means there is no real autonomy of choice for nurses."

Noboa has been caring for COVID-19 patients for nearly two years. She finds the growing shift in public attitude toward healthcare workers unsettling.

"Those refusing vaccination just assume that if they get sick, they can go to the hospital, and we will be there to take care of them. But we are all so tired. We have lost coworkers and friends. We didn't actually sign up for this. Not now — not when there are ways to prevent serious illness and hospitalization. But we are still expected to show up, despite our experiences and struggles and PTSD."

She appreciates the term "passion exploitation" because it puts a name to an invisible pressure that weighs heavily on healthcare workers.

"Physician and practitioner suicide is at an all-time high," she said. "And while reasons for that are multifactorial, I think passion exploitation is at the root of this internal struggle."

How Future Nurses Can Combat Passion Exploitation

According to general pediatric surgery nurse practitioner Ashley Noboa, here are ways to fight back against this problem in the workforce.

  • Set boundaries: "For decades, the joke has been 'I haven't eaten or used the bathroom in twelve hours.' Future nurses have to change this: Take care of yourself; take breaks. Your patients will be okay."
  • Ask for help: "You cannot do everything by yourself. Stop trying. Senior nurses can be intimidating, but ask them for help anyway."
  • Join a union: "In New York, I feel supported by the union; representatives and union contracts protect nurses as much as they can."
  • Find support groups: "Each specialty has [its] own organization, like the Emergency Nursing Association (ENA) or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). Find people to talk to who understand."
  • Protect your passion: "Keep that passion for caring for people — but also keep some for yourself. Make sure you are actively pursuing things you love outside of nursing. It will make you a better, more resilient nurse."

Social Workers

Melanie Carlson has worked in domestic violence since 2011. She recently went back to school for her doctorate in social work. In her experience, passion exploitation is woven into the fabric of social work.

"I think it has a lot to do with messaging. When I was in the field, there was this overwhelming sense of urgency. Everything was cause-centric: We were there to 'end domestic violence.' If you gave anything less than your all at every moment, you were letting the cause down."

That kind of attitude encourages social workers to accept their own exploitation, said Carlson.

That can mean agreeing to take unmanageable caseloads, accepting too-low wages, taking work home, and working through a pandemic without proper safety measures. One of the biggest forms of passion exploitation in social work shows up in the form of unpaid emotional labor, Carlson said.

"We interface with so many institutions and systems that have way more power than us: the police, the courts, private donors. To get what we need for our clients, we have to prioritize the interests of these partners over our own. We have to accommodate everyone else's comfort levels, adopt their language, and appeal to their concerns."

That relational labor takes a toll. It leads to burnout. It doesn't show up on performance evaluations, and it's certainly not part of the job description. "But it's absolutely expected."

Carlson said a lot of her colleagues have also taken on extra duties during the pandemic, in spite of added stress, high turnover, and personal fears for vulnerable family members. She said society has come to expect heroic sacrifice from passion-workers as a matter of course.

"People call them heroes, like the accolades should be enough. But at the end of the day, you don't get compensated for being a hero."

How Future Social Workers Can Combat Passion Exploitation

According to MSW and Ph.D. Candidate Melanie Carlson, here are some ways for social workers to push back against exploitation in their field.

  • Drop the savior complex: "A lot of social workers enter the field thinking they are there to save people. First, that's not actually helpful. Second, you'll struggle to say no and you'll burn out right away."
  • Get it in writing: "If duties are added to your plate, have them added to your job description. Revisit those additions at performance reviews."
  • Protect your colleagues of color: "Different people will experience passion exploitation in different ways. It's not uncommon for teams to expect colleagues of color to provide free education on diversity and inclusion issues. That's not in the scope of their job description."
  • Model empowerment: "If you want your clients to embrace self-empowerment and self-efficacy, you have to model that behavior and advocate for yourself."
  • Ask for what you're worth: "One of my colleagues came back from getting her master's degree and told our employer they were paying below market wages. She insisted on more. As a result, I also got a significant raise."


Tamara Ostrander is the kind of person who could do anything well. She chose to teach. Ostrander is a standout educator with a master's degree, teaching awards, and accolades to spare. None of it matters to her as much as the kids.

"I love them. I love to help them realize they can do anything," Ostrander said. "Unfortunately, love doesn't pay."

Like many teachers, Ostrander started her career believing that teaching meant sacrifice. "I accepted low pay, a crazy workload, lack of respect — all for the ultimate goal: helping kids and changing lives. I said yes to everything."

Years of experience have shown her why that's an unhealthy approach. "People who choose this career path tend to put themselves last. We feel called to take care of others first, no matter what. We are easy to exploit. We care too much."

Her sense of calling kept Ostrander in the classroom throughout the pandemic, even though she considers quitting every day.

"They added 25 minutes to every school day last year. They took away our mornings to get work done and to tutor and put kids in our classrooms instead. They added an extra hour of facetime with kids. It was crazy. But we all did it, hardly any questions asked — 'for the kids.'"

In Texas — where mask mandates are banned, vaccine rates are sluggish, and resistance to protective measures is high — teacher devotion to students has come at a cost.

"One of my friends down the hallway was in the ICU. Other teachers in our district died. Died," said Ostrander.

"Students lost parents to COVID-19. Teachers lost family members to COVID-19. We all worried, every day, about taking it home to the people we love. But here we are at school again, packed in like sardines."

Justin Bair, who worked in Texas public schools for seven years, thinks COVID-19 highlighted a problem that has been there all along: State governments rely on passionate teachers to provide cheap solutions to larger problems.

"Schools across the nation are filled with teachers and social workers who love what they do and try so damn hard to do it well. In response, we give them less and blame them more, all while taking for granted the social services they do provide," he said.

"The difference is that in the middle of a pandemic, there isn't that façade of optimism that 'at least we made it through another year!' Because truly, some didn't."

How Future Teachers Can Combat Passion Exploitation

According to veteran teachers Tamara Ostrander and Justin Bair, these are five things teachers should know if they want to resist their own exploitation.

  • Don't be a martyr: Bair: "If you're being treated unfairly, or if your administration is horrendous, there are tens of thousands of schools and kids who need good teachers. You can leave."
  • Choose your school carefully: Bair: "Choose a school based on the administration and testimonies from the teachers and office staff there. If there is a lot of teacher turnover, that's a bad sign. It means people aren't feeling heard or appreciated, and you won't be an exception."
  • Teach in a state with strong unions: Ostrander: "You need an organization that will fight for you. In Texas we don't have traditional unions, but I'm part of a teaching organization that will lobby and provide legal advice."
  • Know your rights: Ostrander: "It's easy for the administration to make you work through lunches or planning times, but they are legally obligated to give you a certain amount of time for those things."
  • Pick your battlefield: Bair: "The future of education can be dramatically changed by influencing policymakers and lawmakers. The single biggest threat to teachers is a government full of businesspeople who have never set foot in a classroom making policies about classrooms. Changing lives happens with classroom teachers; changing the state of education happens in boardrooms and capitols."

Everyone we spoke to acknowledged that passion-workers often internalize the justifications for their own exploitation: It's all for the good of the patients, the cause, the kids. But these nurses, social workers, and teachers want you to reject the idea that you have to suffer in order to alleviate suffering.

"There will always be another crisis, more good work to do," said Carlson. "You can't show up for other people if you aren't showing up for yourself first. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

Portrait of Meg Embry

Meg Embry

Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Header Image Credit: PM Images, FG Trade | Getty Images

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