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Is it possible to be paid too much money?

6 Dec 2016

You have a secure job. They pay you extremely well. As a result, you live comfortably. How could you not be happy?

The short answer is, very easily. We all know the old chestnut that money doesn’t bring happiness, but worse than that, an overpriced salary can actually make your life much harder if you’re unhappy.

According to a survey from consulting firm Aon Hewitt, which polled 500,000 employees, overpaid workers are essentially prisoners.

A massively high salary could mean you’re now priced out of the job market, to the point where even if you were to apply for jobs that are stations above your current role, you will have to take a sizeable pay cut. This can be not only disheartening, but extremely difficult when an employee has been used to a certain amount of money coming in every month.

Anecdotally, Richard Eardley, the MD of Hays Recruitment in Ireland, said this brought to mind “the doorman at the old Bord Gáis place in Dublin 1, whose annual salary increments took him close to €100,000. He stayed even when they put in electronic doors!”

No one could be blamed for staying in that job for a salary that high, but for those who do want to move on, it can be incredibly difficult, especially when you know you won’t be paid as much anywhere else.

“These employees may be interested in leaving, but they do not look for opportunities elsewhere because they have done the research and have found that they are being paid more than they are worth in the open market,” the study stated.

Aon’s survey found that these ‘prisoners’ make up 8pc of the global workforce. While this might not seem like a lot, in a large corporation of about 20,000 employees, it equates to about 1,600 prisoner employees. In a smaller company with 5,000 employees, it’s still 400 prisoners. That’s a lot of employees who are unsatisfied and therefore, unmotivated to fulfill the company’s goals to their best ability.

The survey also found that more than 60pc of these employees are paid more than two points above the market salary for their job.

“Being paid more is of course not a bad thing,” says Christopher Adair, lead consultant within Aon’s talent, rewards, and performance practice. “However, there is much more to defining success at work than pay alone. In fact, we often find that factors other than pay emerge as top drivers of engagement. If a person is only staying at their job because of the pay, do we really think that person is striving to go above and beyond?”

Career changes are important for personal development. That doesn’t mean moving jobs or company every two years, but it does mean looking for new challenges; a promotion, career development, and maybe a new job if the situation is right.

‘Eventually, this unhappiness bleeds into your personal life and can impact your relationships at home’


Being seemingly overpaid for a role on paper might not be the reality. If you’re paid more for additional responsibilities, then your experience will hopefully translate to the market.

However, the trap long-term employees fall into is being paid more money for the exact same job, for a lengthy service, continuing loyalty and as a substitute for a promotion.

Suddenly, you’re stuck in the same role, with the same title, no additional experience to show for it, and now you can’t leave without taking a salary drop.

“Nobody enjoys being in a job they don’t like, even if the pay is decent. Eventually, this unhappiness bleeds into your personal life and can impact your relationships at home,” says Adair.

Employees who feel trapped by their salary need to decide where the trade-off will happen. Would it be more beneficial to take a modest salary drop in favour of a more progressive career and a happier work environment?

Co-author of the Aon report, Don MacPherson suggests workplace prisoners ask themselves if they can be engaged with their current employer.

“If “no”, then you need ask yourself if your health and happiness are worth it. It’s hard to imagine that somebody who loathes their job day in and day out can go home and all of a sudden, be happy.”

Start with a list of what exactly makes you unmotivated about your job. Are there things you could change? Are there things your employer could do to help you bring your best work to the table?

If not, write down a list of what would make you motivated elsewhere. List what you want from your next job that you’re not getting from your current one.

Finally, break down the figures. How much of dip in money are you willing to take in exchange for the things that will make you happy in work? Once you’ve crunched the numbers and come up with a comprehensive list of what you will move for and what you won’t, you can start the process of letting yourself out of prison.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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