I got my COVID booster shortly before Christmas. The site was cheerfully and ruthlessly efficient, and run in good part by volunteers. All festively attired, of course. They’re doing good work.

Over the same time period, I caught up with friends whose lives have changed substantially over the last two years. Work travel (200+ days a year) had stopped. Anchored in place, they were forced to look around at what else made up their lives. 

It turned out that, on a lot of fronts, it wasn’t great or wasn’t much. They’d been volunteering a lot – for the companies they worked for. Now, they’ve had time to look at, reckon with and reassign those hours, efforts and attention.

Pre-pandemic, these friends, and plenty of others I’ve talked to, didn’t realize they were volunteering. I’ve been guilty of it, too.

Scope creep in our jobs, for many people, is all too common. Often it stems from ambition, or trying to prove ourselves, out of fear, or in search of security or stability that may never materialize.

A lot of it can come from just accepting peripheral demands on our time, attention and presence. Things like commutes, travel, preparation for big presentations or special projects that we don’t have time to do during our work days when we’re doing our other work…

How much do you do that’s not actually in your job description? Do you even have a job description, or just some vague recollection of the job posting you were hired for? The job is whatever the job needs to be, right? What matters is that the work gets done. But when is the work ever done? More will always be needed from you.

Have you ever noticed there’s no past tense to those aggressive, “motivational” work verbs? You don’t see commentary on having hustled, having crushed it, having ground. What comes after? More of it. That’s what you sign up for.

Has your role expanded over time due to attrition or new operational needs that just found their way onto your plate? Probably because you did, indeed, prove yourself. And it kinda backfired. Work never just changes without expanding, does it? Did you ever actually agree to that?

Volunteering doesn’t always require your body, either. It’s as often mental as physical. Just like work takes commuting or travel time from your life, work can hijack your mind, attention and presence. How often do we keep mulling over something from work after we go home, possibly while someone else is requesting our attention? How many vacation days does it take to get our minds out of gear?

But employees are not volunteers and shouldn’t act like it. Are you benefiting from it? Helping people (not just a company)? Learning things that fascinate you? Building more skills you always wanted to have? Having fun?

What are all those hours you’re spending making money for a company doing to improve your family life or social relationships? When you actually see folks do you have anything to talk about besides work? Among other things, volunteering too much for the wrong things makes us really boring humans.

Too many companies are never going to look out for you or put you first. And a lot of workers lack the power to avoid or roll back their amount of expected volunteering. Such is the way our society is structured.

However, if you’ve been a good little volunteer, good luck extricating yourself from metastasized volunteering. It doesn’t matter how tired or stressed you are or that you never signed up for any of it in the first place. Those in charge are getting what they want. If you stop doing it, it creates a problem – and work and expense – for them.

Now, this is not to say there aren’t ways to actually volunteer at work that aren’t exploitative. If there’s some project or effort that you truly believe in and want to see come to fruition. Some can be valuable to build good community standing, and to develop and maintain corporate culture. If you want to be involved in planning and executing charity events, team building, the Christmas party, a Habitat build, etc., have at it.

But if it’s a repeat ask for your unpaid time, if you don’t feel like you can say no even though you want to, or it’s a management ask that tends to get assigned to a woman, often young, probably in HR or Marketing – think about what kind of volunteering this really is. Why is no one else jumping at the chance?

By the time a company reaches a certain size, a lot of “volunteer” work should be a role, or even a department. Someone’s job, for which they get paid. But companies don’t tend to want to embrace that. It’s only valued as long as it doesn’t cost extra.

There is nothing wrong with just doing your job. There is nothing wrong with leaving at 5 p.m. (or whenever your work day ends) and not taking work, doing work, or thinking about work until whenever your next work day starts. You are still a team player if you say no. (You may be more of one since you’ll likely bring more energy and focus and less resentment to your team and the rest of your work.)

If you want to determine if you’ve been doing bad volunteering, see what happens when you try to stop doing it. Odds are you’ll receive significant pushback, will be told it IS your job, or not a single soul will actually volunteer to take over for you.

I think about my friends who used to travel all the time for work. I think about how many meals they didn’t have with family and friends. How many books they didn’t read while just relaxing. How many local cultural events they didn’t attend. Because they were at airports. Even if they flew first class or were put up in great hotels, was it really worth it?

Plenty of motivational sayings reference how we all have the same number of hours in a day. Which is true. We do not all have the same privilege and discretion about how they’re spent, however.

Those hours can get siphoned away at increments we may not even notice, or in ways we think we have to acquiesce to. Until it takes something cataclysmic to stop it – and everything else – and make us realize we’ve been “volunteering” our lives away.

What have you been volunteering for? How much? For whom? Does it help you or others, or are you just helping someone else make money? Even if it’s for a good cause, do you actually want to be there, or does it exhaust you and breed resentment? What have you missed because you were doing it?

Ultimately, there is no such thing as “free” time. In one way or another, you’re paying for it. And you may be running a greater deficit than you realize.

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 on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca