Volunteer Expectations

Will Edwards won’t be replying to your messages outside of office hours

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Flashback to my summer holiday. I was sitting in a Fidel Castro themed café in Wellington, New Zealand with my best friend, a Kiwi whom I see about once a year. For the tenth time since my milkshake arrived, my phone buzzed. “For fuck’s sake,” I grumbled, “who wants what?”

I probably should have turned my phone off before it reached that point, but OWeek was rapidly approaching and I couldn’t shake the persistent worry that one of those notifications would be important.

Like many people involved in campus culture, I had volunteered to take on certain responsibilities, so I can’t really fault people for asking me to do what I said I would.

But there’s still a problem here, which I never noticed until I had the gall to take a holiday. At home, receiving urgent demands at all hours and stopping whatever I was doing to satisfy them was a standard part of my routine. It wasn’t until I tried to take a break from my student lifestyle, to enjoy travelling and the limited time I had with someone dear to me, that I noticed how demanding that lifestyle is.

It’s not that I want to shirk my responsibilities. Apart from the moral duty to keep promises, I genuinely enjoy the roles I volunteer for; that’s why I do them. But under the status quo, volunteering in campus culture – be that clubs and societies, student politics, journalism, or performance – often requires being on call all day, every day.

And that simply isn’t healthy. The mental health risks of working on call are well documented. Paid work usually involves set hours for good reason. Unions fought and continue to fight for limits on working hours for good reason. Yet when it comes to volunteering, people seem to think that removing the obligation to pay people also removes the obligation to give them a fucking break.

A factor which severely compounds the issue is social pressure. Most volunteering roles on campus don’t formally require permanent availability, but those of us who occupy them are quite willing to demand it of each other anyway. Whether it’s by passive-aggression (I was once told, upon not replying to a message quickly enough, “You’re the President of [club], remember? :)”) or even by more well-meaning exhortation, our fellow volunteers are as often as not the cause of our stress and worry. The work may be hard, but the fear of letting down your friends is harder. We’d all find our roles easier if we didn’t perpetuate that fear.

I do want to help. But I also want to eat dinner in peace, spend time with my friends, get to sleep on time, and fulfil all my other duties.

So by all means, ask me to help you. You can even send the message at 2am on Saturday if you like. But don’t expect a reply before work hours on Monday.

Art: Frankie Hossack