I have never belonged to a union. For someone who’s spent almost all of her career in offices, this isn’t terribly surprising.

I’ve had interesting conversations with people whose careers have been spent in the trades, though, and who have only ever been unionized workers. I recall one of them mentioning that unions protect workers from the company, but also protect the company from workers. The latter possibility had never really occurred to me.

I’ve also had interesting conversations with a friend who is a manager in a unionized office with many long-tenure staff. It can be… challenging.

Typically I’ve considered the idea of office/knowledge workers needing unions to be a bit ridiculous. Protect the quality of the coffee stocked in the kitchen? Ban the social committee from Comic Sans abuse in emails?

And yet…

Unions were originally founded pretty much to ensure that companies couldn’t kill workers. Or just ruin their lives and health without consequences.

There were also side benefits, like keeping toddlers out of mines and factories, and perhaps limiting the amount of sexual assault female workers were subjected to on a daily basis.

I think we can all agree that these are reasonable goals.

Funny thing, though. Many tech folks these days have degraded lives and health, but their companies aren’t necessarily the cause. They’re doing it to themselves. We’re doing it to ourselves.

Working evenings, weekends, and holidays? No one would raise an eyebrow, especially if you’re in those critical early days of building a startup. (When do those days end, exactly?)

Vacation time piles up unused, and we roll our eyes at folks like those lazy Europeans who take months off every year. Those inconveniently scheduled school concerts? Yeah… sorry…

I recall catching up with a friend who told me work was going great — he’d moved up in management. Oh, but he was getting divorced. I don’t know if he loved his job that much, or if his marriage wasn’t working so he threw himself into work. Either way, something broke.

Sure, some people totally love what they do. They even consider it a calling. (That word makes me very twitchy.) But you still need to take a break from doing what you do sometimes.

In the same way bodies and brains need to stop going and sleep, we need to de-work. Physically doing it, thinking about it, stressing over it. Trodding the same path over and over wears ruts into it. A brain endlessly focused on work will get stuck in ruts, too.

This dedication can actually make you worse at your job. A brain trapped in these patterns can’t problem-solve as effectively because you can only see what you’re used to. You’ll be less creative because you’re immersed in what already exists.

You’ll be a crappy collaborator, focused only on interacting with people you know can help you get done what’s already on your plate. Which means you’ll have zero visibility of the big picture of your project, department, or company.

A few years back, I recall a co-worker arriving at the hospital in labour, BlackBerry still in hand. Her device was back in her clutches once her baby was born. She’s… somewhat better now.

You see, companies aren’t mandating working us to death officially, but it’s pretty common for certain cultural expectations to be set. And if we decide to be connected to the digital umbilicus 24/7, they’re not exactly begging us to stop.

This is why I had a bit of a wake-up call recently. It came from an article positing an alternative approach to combatting our epidemic of overwork and life imbalance. The claim was that we need unions more than ever today. But not to protect workers from companies, exactly. To protect workers from themselves.

I’m sure every one of us knows someone desperately in need of that kind of intervention. Sometimes that person’s in the mirror. I had to smile at the article’s references to working in your dreams. Doesn’t everyone have a horrible recurring work dream…?

Companies’ cultural expectations don’t need to be explicit. They’re just sort of baked in.

When you start a job, you’re handed a laptop and a cell phone. Work can go anywhere with you! And it’s hard to leave the office when it seems everyone else is still at their desks, even well after dark.

There’s also this false idea that being online or “working” equals productivity. It doesn’t. Hours go up, productive work goes down.

So, congrats, you might have visible proof of your dedication being online at 3 a.m., but whatever you’re doing then is likely crap. Unless you’re a night owl and the wee hours are your regular hours.

Hey, if you’re going to waste your time, might as well just get drunk. Sleep deprivation has pretty much the same effect, anyway. I don’t think anyone would argue that they do their best work liquored up. (Always drink responsibly.)

Anecdotally, domestic life can sometimes help protect us from trying to work ourselves to death. In offices where I’ve worked that have a lot of people who have partners and kids, it gets pretty empty by 4 or 5 p.m. Sure, a lot of folks get in to the office at 7 a.m., but that’s so they can leave in time for school pickup.

That doesn’t mean they don’t log back in after the kids are in bed, but at least it gets them offline and out of the office for a while. Beyond that? Well, pursuing sanity is up to each of us. Enforcing it is up to management.

Or, barring that… what’s the tech equivalent of bread and roses?

Photo: Unión by Eduardo Sánchez is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or me@melle.ca.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.