THREE ON THURSDAY
Today’s topic is on overworking — a.k.a. workism — and the way it’s impacting our lives today. Here are links to three articles on this topic:
Workism Is Making Americans Miserable by Derek Thompson
“Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants. What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
Sunday Night Is the New Monday Morning by Kelsey Gee
“Workplace experts say such job creep has become a prime contributor to burnout — a phenomenon getting renewed attention since the World Health Organization included a more detailed description of it in the most recent edition of the International Classification of Diseases in May. . . . The proliferation of smartphones and workplace communication apps has created unrealistic expectations of how easily — and often — workers should be able to switch from personal to professional tasks, researchers say.”
And God Saw That It Was Good But I Was Too Busy to Pay Attention by Anne Kennedy
“I’ve been pushing myself along at an insane pace the last month . . . well, maybe six weeks, ok since May . . . whatever, don’t question me. I am the kind of person, apparently, who is pretty sure that work will be my salvation.*. . . So, in my middle age, I don’t know how to rest. The lights never have to be turned off. The water flows over my kitchen sink and into the basement because, though I put in the stopper, my handheld device distracts me and I wander away.”
THE GIFT OF WORK AND THE GRACE TO AVOID BURNOUT
I had all the signs of being a workaholic:
- I buried myself in my work.
- I took on more projects than was reasonably expected.
- I neglected my health and never exercised.
- I regularly chose work over sleep.
- My stress levels were constantly elevated. (Hello, cortisol.)
- I was all work and no play; seriousness pervaded my mood every day.
- I didn’t have time to go on a vacation, and if I did go, I took work with me.
- And here’s the real kicker . . . I liked it. In fact, I loved it.
I like working. I find deep satisfaction in a job well done, and I look forward to the next project. But my work pace was taking a toll, not only on my health, but on my relationships as well. Something needed to change, so I did what I do best: I conducted research. I launched myself into a personal study on the theology of work.
How does God feel about work? What does the Bible say about overworking? Are there limits to how much a person should work? If work is a good thing, and I believe it is, how do we as humans turn it into an unhealthy thing? Ultimately, how can we create healthier work lives, not only for ourselves, but also for the sake of our loved ones?
These questions spurred me on through countless books and articles on the topic, and it became painfully obvious I am not alone. Overworking has become a way of life in American culture. Nowadays, employment is more than a means to pay bills and buy groceries. In our individualistic society, work is upheld as a guaranteed path to personal fulfillment — the way to self-actualization where you become the best version of yourself.
Overworking — also called workism — is described as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.”
We see this play out every time we meet someone. One of the first questions we ask is “What do you do?” Our work is our identity; our identity is our work.
But whenever the centerpiece of our lives is anything other than the living God, the Bible calls this an idol. Sadly, when it comes to overworking, many Christ followers, even pastors, struggle in this area. I was no exception.
One of my favorite books that explored a sound theology of work is Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller. In it he says:
“In short, work — and lots of it — is an indispensable component in a meaningful human life. It is a supreme gift from God and one of the main things that gives our lives purpose. But it must play its proper role, subservient to God. It must regularly give way not just to work stoppage for bodily repair but also to joyful reception of the world and of ordinary life.” (29)
In other words, work is good. Indispensable even. It is a gift from God, and it gives our lives a sense of purpose.
The reason so many hard-working folks get sucked into overworking is because it comes with so many positive rewards. In addition to a paycheck, work brings a positive sense of contribution to something larger than the self, along with the occasional pat on the back that says, “Job well done!” Who doesn’t like being told they did a good job?
A good job brings many good things. None of these are contested. Good ole’ hard work turns pernicious, however, when it becomes all-consuming. We get into problems when our work takes precedence over everything else in life, like family and church and personal health.
When we look to our work to fulfill us, we will be sorely disappointed. Work was never meant to be the source of our deepest satisfaction. Timothy Keller says, “thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person and . . . undermines society itself” (2). The word “slowly” here is important because overworking isn’t like substance abuse, where the demise to one’s health is forceful and quick.
Overworking slowly crushes a person. It might begin with taking on too much and then needing more time to accomplish it all. Another “Job well done!” leads to saying yes to more work and the cycle continues. Soon, work replaces sleep and perhaps an even higher intake of caffeine is needed to stay up later so you can work longer. Friends and family wait longer for you to join them until they give up on you ever joining them.
Eventually, health problems start making an appearance. It could be high blood pressure or high cholesterol. It could be insomnia or anxiety-related issues. It could be high blood sugar or weight gain. It could be any host of things, but slowly, overworking leaves a person devoid of fulfillment and isolated from friends and family while facing a growing list of health concerns.
Who is to blame for this overwhelming push for more and more work?
In addition to finding one’s identity through work, the technological revolution has completely changed the world of work. A typical Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 kind of job has virtually vanished amidst the new digital landscape. Workers are expected to respond to emails within hours (or minutes!). In addition to email, texting has become a regular means of communication between co-workers. It’s now common to be at a sports event for a kid and receive a plethora of work-related text messages where you’re expected to respond ASAP.
While sitting at my son’s high school football game this fall, nearly every parent in the stands had a phone in their hands. It’s possible, of course, they were on social media and not checking their work-related emails and texts, but the fact remains: We now live in an overconnected and overworked society.
The temptation to find our identity in our work is, of course, nothing new. As far back as Genesis 11, people were trying to make a name for themselves by working and building something they could point to and say, “I did that.”
We are no different. Whether we’re trying to build a tower or a company, a church or a family, we all fall prey to the human desire of wanting to point to our accomplishments and say, “I did that.” And that is where our good and holy work goes awry.
When our work becomes about us and our accomplishments, we steal God’s glory. But when we see our talents and abilities as gifts he has given us, it becomes harder to take credit for “our accomplishments.” And when we see the doors of opportunity that have opened for us as sheer gifts of his grace, then it becomes nearly impossible to bask in the glory of self-accomplishment.
The Bible says there’s nothing we need to accomplish to be considered a worthy human being. From page one, the Bible declares a person’s worth as wholly good for the simple reason that all people are born with inherent dignity as God’s image-bearers. Again, this is grace.
When we view all our abilities and opportunities as a gift of his grace, our thinking changes. We no longer see our work as a means to gain status or curry favor. We are free to see our work as the beautiful and amazing gift it is — a gift to be received and then shared.
From the beginning, work has been a good thing, and God gave the first inhabitants of earth the command to cultivate (to work) the garden (Genesis 2:15). God even modeled the necessary relationship between work and rest. After working six days, God rested on the seventh day, not because he was tired, but because he wanted to show us how best to live. Work six days, he says, then rest on the seventh (Exodus 20:8-11).
Today, we live in a world where it is far too easy to fall in line with the cultural status quo. But as Christ followers, we are not without a guide or a guidebook. The Bible explains who we are, why we are here, and how we are to live. And the Holy Spirit empowers us to think and live differently from the world around us.
We don’t have to work until our hearts stop beating. We can be transformed. By his grace and strength, we can learn to think differently about our work and live better.
While I enjoyed certain things about my work, I knew I needed to break the cultural conformity that had seeped into my work life, so I started making changes, which meant putting limits on how often each day I checked my work email, as well as the group Voxer account and the dozens of Slack channels that were supposed to “make work easier.” I started going to bed at a decent hour, and I made the Sabbath a priority again.
My work associates may have thought I was turning into some crazy luddite when I was no longer available 24/7, but my family was enjoying my presence and I was beginning to feel like a human again.
I still love to work. I still get excited about diving into a new project. But the more I see my work as a sheer gift of grace, the more I can enjoy it and not be consumed by it.