Is it time to quit your passion job?

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After spending years building careers in fields they love, some workers are asking whether it’s time to jump ship.

For as long as she can remember, 33-year-old Vanessa Carpentier wanted to work with animals. “When I was a kid, playing family with my friends, I always wanted to be the dog of the house,” she says.

Carpentier, who lives in Montréal, Canada, didn’t have the grades to study veterinary medicine at university. But she was undeterred, and decided to train as a veterinary technician instead. “It was perfect,” she says. And when she got her first job in the field, she thought: “I’ve won at life.”

But Carpentier soon realised her dream job wasn’t as dreamy as it seemed. She encountered toxic colleagues, abusive pet owners and low paycheques, plus extremely long work hours. She moved around in veterinary medicine, switching clinics and specialties to try and mitigate the problems. But when one issue was resolved, another appeared. 

“We were starting at seven in the morning and sometimes we finished at midnight, then I’d have to be back at seven the next day,” says Carpentier. For years, she didn’t know when she’d get home from work, so she put the rest of her life – including her plans to start a family – on hold. 

Eventually, 13 years after she began her dream job, Carpentier quit. “I put everything I had into my work with these animals, and I realised I had forgotten myself,” she says. Now, she works as a fraud agent at a bank. “I work remote, and I’ve never had so much time for me.”

But starting over in a new industry has been tough. Carpentier has not only left behind both the animals she loves and that part of her identity, but also the work she put in and the reputation she built over the years. “I was at the top of my career before, when I spoke people listened; they trusted me,” she says. “In my new job, I’m just a number.” Still, says Carpentier, “I don’t want to ever go back”.

This story rings true for many people who are passionate about their jobs. Many have taken years to build meaningful careers in fields they love, putting in long hours and weathering hard conditions. But in many cases, these dream jobs have become untenable, whether out of toxicity, economic instability or total fatigue. And some workers are asking themselves a big question: is it time to quit the industries they love?

Vanessa Carpentier, 33, left the veterinary field after burnout and long hours (Credit: Courtesy of Vanessa Carpentier)

Vanessa Carpentier, 33, left the veterinary field after burnout and long hours (Credit: Courtesy of Vanessa Carpentier)

Hard conditions and existential worries

Following a passion-based career can be exhilarating – after all, the old adage goes, ‘if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’. Yet as fulfilling as it can be to pursue a dream career, experts say there can also be major downsides to taking this path.  

One of the reasons many passion jobs become unsustainable is that dedicated workers are often undervalued and overworked, yet willing to put up with poorer work conditions because of their love for the job. “If someone is that committed to the work that they’re doing, and see it as a core part of their identity, it’s harder to come to terms with the day to day toxicity of one's workplace,” says Erin Cech, associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, US.

Cech explains that not only are passionate workers more likely to put in more hours and do additional work, they can also be “willing to look past a lot of potential downfalls of their employment”, she says. “That can be things like compensation and benefits and stability, but it could also likely be things like unfair practices in your organisation or a supervisor or co-workers who are troubling to be around.”

Cech says this can also lead to passion exploitation when these ultra-committed workers aren’t being fairly compensated for their extra efforts (which happens often – so often that young South Koreans have coined the term ‘passion wages’ to describe how employers use passion as an excuse to pay less).

If you then leave that job, or the organisation goes away, suddenly you’re at risk of losing a core part of who you think you are, and that can be devastating – Erin Cech

Conditions like this, including the added stress of job-security concerns in certain industries, are driving some workers to consider leaving their passion jobs for other careers. And although it’s always difficult to leave a job, Cech says quitting one of these positions can be particularly stressful when workers’ identities are intertwined with the jobs they love. Leaving can take an existential toll.

“If you then leave that job, or the organisation goes away, suddenly you’re at risk of losing a core part of who you think you are, and that can be devastating,” she says. This can be particularly taxing when workers internalise the narrative that ‘finding your passion’ is the definition of success.

“When I used to tell people my job, I was so proud,” says Carpentier. “When I opened my eyes to how toxic it was, it was really hard.” Despite being burnt out, Carpentier only thought about quitting when her boss suggested she take some time off. “He said, ‘Let’s take a break because I don’t want to lose you’, and I just decided I wanted to stop completely,” she says. Now, Carpentier doesn’t bring her current job up in conversation – it doesn’t feel like part of her identity anymore. “I close my computer and that’s it.”

Is it time to quit?

Amid these tough conditions, it can be difficult to figure out when it’s actually time to jump ship from a passion job. After all, putting years of work into a career, only to scrap it, can feel awful – and, as Cech says, hit workers hard.

Maggie Perkins, 30, always wanted to be a teacher, but decided to step away (Credit: Courtesy of Maggie Perkins)

Maggie Perkins, 30, always wanted to be a teacher, but decided to step away (Credit: Courtesy of Maggie Perkins)

How do you know when it’s time to leave a passion job behind?

The first step can be taking a hard look at the work environment and figuring out if it’s sustainable. Cech suggests workers actively monitor how much extra time they’re putting in, and whether their paycheque adequately compensates them for it – or if they’re in a position of passion exploitation. She also suggests thinking about rest – and if they’re getting enough of it. “If either through explicit or implicit expectation you aren't able to recuperate from the work that you're doing, that’s a big red flag,” says Cech.

Having a sense of where you might land after can be critical step in the decision making, too. That’s what helped 30-year-old, Atlanta, Georgia-based Maggie Perkins leave teaching, the job she’d loved and wanted to pursue from a young age. Deeply burnt out, Perkins was at a breaking point, so she made sure she had a clear exit strategy in place. 

“My plan was to go and work at another school for a year, but just show up, take care of my duties and make sure the kids are safe, but not put my whole passion into it,” she says. “Unless I could find a better job over the summer, then I’d get out.” Perkins ended up finding that job at Costco, a warehouse chain; she started in September. 

For workers who do decide to quit these positions, Cech says it’s important to seek meaning outside work, especially since leaving a passion job can cause a person to struggle with their sense of identity.  

For Perkins, that’s what has softened the blow of leaving her passion industry. She’s still staying connected to the education field she loves, providing students tutoring and digital support, instead of working in classrooms full time. “I never stopped loving teaching,” she says. “I just realised that the environment was so unhealthy that I had to walk away from it.”