Emotional Cost: The Hidden Cost Of Unpaid Internships

The public has discussed a lot about the negative financial effects of unpaid internships, but the psychological toll they have on interns is a well-hidden cost.

Kamaron McNair completed three unpaid internships before she graduated university during her full-time load. While she was one of the lucky ones who received financial support and academic credit from the university for the work experiences, all of the internships were unpaid.

“I’m thankful for the applicable job training and professional connections but the reality is I paid dearly in the name of experience,” she said.

Kamaron experienced significant emotional distress of giving countless hours to organisations, but not compensated for her exhausted labour.

“It was not only the system itself that lacks wages, but it was also promoting a system that values privilege over merit and rewarding those who can afford to work for free,” Kamaron explained.

Contrary to unpaid internships where interns received extensive amount of work, Kamaron’s workload was lighter than most.

At work, she often wondered what it meant to come to work every day, waiting and receiving a task, and go home after 8 hours drained of mental energy.  She felt a great sense of emptiness of gaining only trivial – if not none – experience out of her internship.

“I’d ask myself, Why am I here? What am I getting out of this? Am I valued here? With unclear and negative answers, it got depressing very fast.”

Research has shown that while money plays a role, a larger factor is whether or not the the employee can find a sense of meaningfulness in their work.

Dr. Seth Kaplan, Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at George Mason University, said: “It can be meaningful in various ways—making the world better, it can be meaningful that you were developing in some way, it can be meaningful if you’re helping people on a day to day basis or making meaningful relationships, but somehow either the job itself or you yourself are able to find some meaning in the work you do,”

“For the most part I could not find meaning in my work. I didn’t feel like I was helping the companies in any significant way. The little tasks I completed were important to promote the mission of the organisation. But I felt like an office accessory—nice to have but not really needed.”

As the Fair Work Ombudsman has outlined, an unpaid internship is considered illegal when it satisfies any of these conditions:

  1. The business is using your work on any of their platforms. If this is the case, you are fulfilling the role of an employee and not an unpaid intern.
  2. The length of your internship can also be a sign of illegal proceedings. Generally, if the internship is longer than three months, there is a high possibility that you are more likely an employee.
  3. If the work you are completing is productive, for example, it serves a specific purpose for the operation of the business, then it is likely you are acting as an employee.
  4. If the business is directly benefiting from your arrangement, then it is highly likely you are acting the role of an employee.

From Kamaron’s account, it’s clear that her internship did not directly benefit her. While she did not have an extensive workload, her work was still productive and served in the business’s operations.

So before you dive into an unpaid work experience, it’s important to reconsider the emotional cost of the unpaid internship.

Do you have any similar unpaid internship experience like Kamaron? Let us know below!

With care,



Kamaron McNair 2017, Emotional Debt: The Invisible Costs of Unpaid Internships, 


Fair Work Ombudsman 2014, Internships and Unpaid Work,


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