We’ve been hearing a lot about excessive air-conditioning, but what about excessive heating? My office is in a large building in the middle of New York City, and since the heat has been turned on, temperatures in our unit have routinely exceeded 78 degrees Fahrenheit. My colleagues and I have trouble focusing when it’s stuffy, muggy, and hot at work, but those in management don’t seem to care; they just tell us to dress in layers. To make matters worse, they have locked the thermostat so we can’t turn on the air or fans, and they reprimand us for opening windows.
Do we have any legal or other recourse? How can we reason with not just our bosses but also the people who run the building?
—Roasting in Midtown
This is untenable! While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t regulate workplace temperatures, it does recommend that they fall within the range of 68 to 76 degrees, so as subjective as these matters can be, your office’s are clearly too high. If you have a union, please file a grievance. If you’re not represented by a union but some of your coworkers are, ask them to do this. Otherwise, since it sounds as if your colleagues agree with you, visit with your bosses as a group, in person—as many of you as possible—and demand that they address the problem with the building management. You have no leverage with the building management, but your bosses do; they’re the tenants. Present your bosses with some data that might interest them: The heat in your office could be affecting productivity. Office workers perform best at around 71.6°F, and productivity suffers at temperatures much higher or lower, according to a study by researchers at the Helsinki University of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. And if you’re all pretty irreplaceable and secure in your positions (I realize this is unlikely), you might consider threatening to work from home until the issue is resolved. While the law may technically protect such an action, it is unlikely to come to your rescue, so you’d need to be sure that all your coworkers agreed before taking such a step.
Sometimes I feel this sense of despair when I think about how tired and overworked I’m getting. I’m only an undergrad, but sometimes I look at all the things I have to do, and I just think to myself, “This is what the rest of your life will be.” Will there ever be a time when I can just chill? —Ready to Kick Back
Isn’t it terrible that with such a world of leisure to be enjoyed—sex to be had, literature to read, fascinating people to hang out with, good music to listen to—every life stage under capitalism exacts so much work from us? That’s part of what makes it a bad system. Anti-work thinkers such as Wilson Sherwin, Kathi Weeks, and James Livingston argue that we should not only end the exploitation of workers by capital, as socialists have been advocating since the 19th century, but also fight for a society in which work doesn’t take up nearly as much of our time and headspace.
No doubt, being a working-class undergrad is one of the most exhausting challenges right now. I have seen this as a teacher. You may have a job to make ends meet on top of a full load of classes. If that’s the case, yes, when you graduate, your life might be a little less tiring because you will only be working and you won’t have school. However, you may have kids or need to work multiple jobs, perhaps to pay off student loans, so I can’t promise that things will get much easier.
Then again, perhaps you are a person with options, an upper-middle-class student who is working this hard because you have been programmed to be a high achiever. You got into a good college by working hard, so you kept doing that—in which case, stop right now. You’ll never get your youth back, and your mental and physical health are worth far more than a 4.0 GPA. And please take the same lesson into your postgraduate work life. If you end up in a profession, being considered successful can result in having little time you can call your own, paradoxically. It’s supposed to be its own reward, but it isn’t.
Many graduates notice that after they get out of school they enjoy more leisure, because in many cases work can be left at work, whereas schoolwork never feels done. (Even if you’re out with your friends or enjoying a hike in the woods, you feel you should be writing a paper or studying for a test.) The problem is that the ruling class is always trying to undermine our entitlement to leave work at work, either through conditions so precarious that we are too stressed out to enjoy our leisure, pay so low that we have to work too many hours, or communications technology that obliges us to be in touch with our manager even when we’re at home. But whenever it’s possible to set that boundary, you should do so, whether in solidarity with your coworkers (working less can be an important collective demand) or (usually less effectively) through your own assertiveness.
I’m guessing that you haven’t chosen a career yet. Ask people in the fields you’re considering about their work/life balance. We use this term too often as a euphemism for balancing jobs with family responsibilities. But we shouldn’t just ask, “Does this job offer me time for domestic labor?” We should also ask, “Does it allow me time in which to perform no labor at all?” You’ll find that even in professions like medicine, some specialties have a lot more leisure and flexibility than others, and it’s good to keep this in mind while you’re still able to make choices. In selecting one career over another, don’t be embarrassed to let your leisure time be a factor. It’s not as if you get to live your life over again and come back as a house cat—or a member of the idle rich.
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