Stuck in an unhealthy internship?

At the TUC, we’ve long been calling for fairer and better internships. We’re not saying that all internships are bad, but we believe that too many employers still see interns as a source of free labour, taking advantage of graduates' enthusiasm and desire to find skilled work when the alternative is low-paid and low-skilled casual work with limited prospects.

If you’re concerned that your placement might not be working for you, here are three tell-tale signs you are stuck in an unhealthy internship:

1. You’re working for free

Knowing whether you should be paid or not can seem quite baffling, because it depends on your employment status. But it's actually quite simple for interns: unless you are just observing or work-shadowing, you are almost certainly legally entitled to the National Minimum Wage, and any respectable employer will pay you this plus expenses. Some might insist you are ‘self-employed’ or a ‘volunteer’, so don’t need to be paid. That’s nonsense. It’s about what you do in practice, not the label they give you. If you are expected to turn up and do work at agreed times, you are almost certainly entitled to be paid (even if it was advertised as unpaid work experience).

2. You’re not getting useful experience

Having a well-regarded employer on your CV is all well and good, but it only goes so far if you spent all your time there making tea and being the office dogsbody. If that’s the case, you should talk to your manager about opportunities to develop genuine vocational skills. Is there a specific project you can own or be given a dedicated role in? Don’t be fobbed off with general duties, because being involved in hands-on work is why you applied for the internship in the first place. This is your opportunity to earn the professional respect of colleagues, develop contacts, put solid experience on your CV, and get a good reference.

3. You're working every hour god sends

Certain sectors, such as media, fashion or finance, have a reputation for working staff long and hard, leading to stress and burn-out. Depending on your employment status, it’s very likely you have legal protection against overwork, and if your employer is pressuring you to work longer than you are happy with, you are absolutely entitled to say no.

For ambitious interns keen to impress, it’s very tempting to work excessively long hours. But it’s a dangerous habit to get into and not a good way to get ahead in the long run. Stress is the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence in the UK, and is linked to increased risk of developing mental illness, heart disease, diabetes and a range of other illnesses. Find out more about work-related stress here.

If you have any other concerns or questions about your internship and entitlements, make sure you see our Interns’ Rights section for useful advice and information. You can also try the Rights For Interns app for Apple and Android phones and tablets.