Khrit, first off, I do agree with the others that suggest you should very carefully seek input on your physical and mental position, as indeed unfortunately we often are prone to "make choices" that we really aren't making, when it comes down to it. How many times have we looked back later and thought "what in the world was I possibly thinking there?!?". It's easy to go astray when we hit a rough patch, and it's even easier when we're not OK physically. So please do seek out input from the right people regarding that.
That said, it's depressing that no one even seems to consider the remotest of possibilities that someone might legitimately make such a decision on moral/fairness/doing-the-right-thing grounds.
It could be driven underneath by strong religious/honor principles.
It could be driven by a passion to see the company do well.
It could be because the person is rather quite "hippyish" on things like shunning worldly possessions.
There are lots of different reasons one could reach this mindset, and they're absolutely not all based on questions of sanity or intelligence. But it seems most here just want to convince you that you are wrong.
If someone's fundamental position is that "a man should get what he earns", shouldn't that truly work both ways? If someone is willing to request a raise when their boss doesn't offer one, shouldn't they in fairness also be willing to request a pay cut when they feel they aren't doing their fair share??
A pastor can turn down his salary. A humanitarian worker can venture out for nothing.
Heck, if a company we bought a service from comes back to us and says "gosh, we don't think we did a good job, it's on the house", no one would be in an uproar... so it seems troubling that people would instinctively dismiss your notion.
Maybe it really isn't all about what we can gain from life.
It won't be popular, but if you're a person reading this, and you think it just a great windfall when you score free benefits from others, but outlandish that one should ever do that himself, consider that mathematically there must always be an equal amount of giving to account for those taking.
Such thinking is with survival of the fittest.
Such thinking is also directly in line with the character of Scrooge.
I for one applaud that there may be people that do things thinking more about the bigger picture/others, and that passions for fairness can trump self gain.
It can be easy to make these choices for the wrong reasons, definitely.
Look, Khrit, my advice is that you must you must first work towards strong internal reliability to make unbiased choices.
To be able to dig in, and seek out ulterior motives that may be clouding the picture.
You can't do this to feel better about yourself/pat yourself on the back.
Or to please someone (such as the boss).
Or because you secretly enjoy self-castigation.
Or because you want to feel owed by others.
Or feel at liberty to act as you please, no longer constrained by the weight that comes with salary.
Or you want to feel safer in your job position.
All of those belie there is indeed bias festering underneath. And indeed, none of these reasons will likely bring about your wish in the longterm.
And perhaps most applicably, don't do it because of stress, thinking that it will be the magical release and it will just make it all go away.
Try to really be very challenging with yourself, looking for what deeper reasons are in the WHY you're drawn towards making this choice.
Perhaps it would also be wise to seek some intimate counsel from someone who knows you closely. That's not always an option... and it can also be very tough in circumstances like these where many people are likely to have the same immediate reflex shown here to decry the idea on principle without considering the circumstances more deeply. But if you can find someone who is open and wise, they can offer perspective and help you dig in to see whether any other issues are at play in wanting to do this.
As to the details of it... there are certainly labor laws which indeed could make it challenging.
Ideally, shouldn't it be that a person could somehow legitimately request such a move like this? We're living in a world where the growing sentiment seems to be "you should be free to do whatever you feel like." You can cheat on your wife, slash your wrists, or gamble all your money away without any restriction or mandated repercussions, but cannot turn down a salary based on ethical positions???
Unfortunately, I do also see the other side... it'd likely be quickly taken advantage of by some unscrupulous companies, and be pretty tough to patrol.
That said, maybe there are still some feasible options to work without getting paid. Maybe you could shift into a volunteer position or intern. It would depend both on what the law would allow, and on how much the company is interested in respecting your position.
Additionally, since you did mention you are in a startup, perhaps a lot of your concern is rather in a wish to see the company survive the period and grow into its potential? If that is where it's at, you could see if there are legal ways you can get paid in stock rather than salary. You wouldn't be the first to do that.
Perhaps you should sit down for a quiet talk with the boss, and try to explain your feelings. Face the problem straight on. Trying to get around it by fiddling with the payroll system probably (almost certainly) just winds up making things more complicated. If you really feel this way, you have to do it right.
Your boss will probably struggle with it a bit, show a bit of shock, and may well propose that you're doing this for wrong reasons. But perhaps if you make your request earnestly and soberly, and you continue to show you're acting rationally and thoughtfully in your everyday interactions, maybe you could convince them to work something out after a little while.
Now it may well also not be taken well. The company may flatly reject your request without any real consideration. Perhaps that leads to things getting worse, maybe even driving you towards questions of whether your employers themselves make smart/caring/fair/committed decisions, whether this is the right spot to be.
Or they may lose confidence in you, start to see you as a loose cannon. Or it could even give them the motivation to inspect your work more, and realize you really aren't the employee you want!
Also realize, if you do wish to keep such an act quiet (perhaps wishing not to be a distraction/spectacle, or to make others feel bad)... people at your job may well still get wind of your choice (perhaps because others need to be brought on board to facilitate it, perhaps because of gossip, perhaps because the boss doesn't feel comfortable keeping such secrets, etc). And once it's known, quite a few people may start to see you as some mix between being self-righteous and being legitimately nuts... and it may be much colder at the workplace if that happens...
That said, if you're convinced you're doing it for the right reasons, society is always telling us not to make choices based upon what people will think.
And generally it will blow over with time, if people get to know you for who you really are.
Honestly, if we live in a world where a range of people from Donald Trump to Michael Bloomberg to Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg can all turn down salaries, for a variety of reasons, is it really so preposterous that we might carefully choose such? Even moreso if we are indeed convinced we have done bad work?
khrit, I really hope your work turns around, and that you can soon oncemore feel confident that you are doing very productive work. It may not be popular, but there are people out there in their right mind who have made this choice and it has worked out ok. You have my support in this challenging time sir! Best wishes with it all!