How to Put Work in Its Proper Place

Many of us work far too much and enjoy it far too little.

We determine a person’s value by what kind of work they do. We let vacation time go unused. When we do take vacations, we bring our email with us. We put in 50 or more hours and sometimes add a side-hustle or two.

This is the ceaseless American work ethic, or what some are calling workism: “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.”

How did we get here?

The Religion of Workism

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson explains that the decline in traditional faith in American society has led to the worship of a pantheon of gods: “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.”

Thompson points to two recent studies to prove Americans’ growing religious devotion to work. The first was a 2018 paper on women at elite universities showing their primary reason for attending a prestigious college is not higher pay, but more hours at work. The second was a Pew Research report on anxiety among our youth that revealed 95 percent of them value having a job they enjoy over loving their neighbor or getting married. “Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people,” writes Thompson.

Predictably, turning work into a god goes as poorly as deifying anything else. Today, work promises identity, community, even transcendence, but fails to deliver. The problem with the god of work is that it always disappoints: “a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout,” says Thompson. He goes on to say, “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight.”

Why are we burning ourselves out? Because our hard work pays off. Or at least, it appears to. Hard work and obsessive dedication will often produce favorable results, or “goods” — affirmation from a boss, the satisfaction of a job well done, higher pay, a sense of making a difference.

But these goods come at a cost.

What Monks Can Teach Us About Work

After researching a story involving a monastery in New Mexico, Jonathan Malesic decided to visit. To enter a monastery is to step out of the rhythms of one’s daily life, particularly the demands of work. As Malesic left his daily tasks behind, he pondered the American work ethic (including his own). He began to identify it as a demon that is “chasing us over a cliff.” But the monks surrounding him — all of whom have their own work of some form — didn’t appear to be haunted by the same demon of workism, though they surely have their own.

Why weren’t these monks slaves to their careers? They had learned to put work in its proper place. Though they experience the same temptations to perform for those “goods” mentioned above just like those outside the monastery, they don’t let the pursuit of work or its goods supplant their primary objective: a life of prayer in service to God. Malesic writes, “For monks, these goods compete with their spiritual ideals and relationship to God.”

If they sense their work is pushing God too far to the margins, they begin to limit it in order to stave off the negative effects. If this isn’t possible and they can no longer keep up their way of life and the work at the same time, they walk away from the work and find something else to do.

If Monks aren’t keeping a close eye on their work life, it can eclipse their devotion to God through prayer. If we’re not careful to keep ourselves from burnout, we become unable to sustain our relationship with God.

How can we, who are not monks, keep ourselves from burnout and put work in its proper place?

A Personal Solution to Workism

Thompson suggests that one solution to workism is to take some of the misery out of work. “But maybe the better prescription,” he writes, “is to make work less central.” While that’s not a bad place to begin (it’s a major part of the solution, as I’ll explain below), a better answer to workism is to make God preeminent in our lives, thus putting work in its proper place.

Monks tame the demon of work by limiting it, Malesic explains. This limitation frees them up to pursue higher goods (a life of prayer and study). He suggests that for us non-monks, “the monastic principles of constraining work and subordinating it to moral and spiritual well-being might help us keep our demons at bay and recover the dignity in our labor and in ourselves.” That means we would limit our work to healthy amounts and view our work as one means to help us live a life devoted to God and serving others (which I assume is the goal of life for evangelical followers of Christ).

Intentionally limiting work sounds like a good way to get fired though, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. Studies continually show that burned out workers are far less productive than those who limit their work to a healthy amount and take regular days off. If you work hard and rest hard, you’re likely to be more productive than if you work hard all the time. As Malesic writes, “Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those are worth as much as your dignity as a person.” To work all the time is to view ourselves as undignified because it limits our value to our productivity.

This is why the solution to workism starts with individuals. We have to decide to constrain our work and relegate it to its proper place as we first pursue a life of devotion to God and service to others. I’ve worked hard over the last seven years to limit my work so I can sustain the family and spiritual life the Lord has called me to. Life is more enjoyable (and I’m more productive) when I work hard during work hours, then “turn it off” until the next day or week.

Based on what I’ve learned, here are some ways you can put your work in its proper place:

  • Pause before lunch each day for a time of prayer, asking God to keep you focused on him throughout your day.
  • As much as possible, do not check or respond to work email after hours.
  • If possible, do not add your work email account to your phone.
  • Review your calendar weekly and make sure you know when your work hours are, and ask yourself if you are able to stay devoted to God and others with that schedule.
  • Before ending your work day, review your calendar for the next day so you know what to expect.
  • At the end of your workday, spend five minutes in prayer and silence, asking God to prepare you to leave work behind and to focus on what or who will soon be in front of you.

While each of us can limit the effects of workism in our lives, it takes organizations partnering with individuals to really make put work in its proper place.

A Corporate Solution to Workism

An organization’s work ethic is a matter of dignity just like your personal work ethic. Malesic writes,

Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem exercens: “human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject.” We need to acknowledge this value, in others and ourselves, if we’re going to keep the desire for productivity from turning demonic. A quarterly profit goal isn’t worth as much as the person who labors, at the cost of her health, to meet it. No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints. Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.

An organization — even a religious one — that demands more of you than is healthy is one that does not respect your dignity. By expecting or requiring over-production of its employees, an organization is saying its margins, services, or goods are more valuable than the people producing them. This is, unfortunately, exactly how most workers feel.

But this means the inverse is also true: An organization that does not demand more work of you than is healthy is one that respects your dignity. An organization that truly values its people as people is one that will allow its employees to have needed time off and not expect that they check in after hours and put in regular 60-hour weeks.

Employers have a responsibility to help their employees live a more balanced life because they’re working with people, and people have dignity. Here are some ways employers can treat employees with dignity:

  • Instruct managers to send emails during regular business hours, reserving after-hours emails for true emergencies (they can use services like Boomerang to schedule emails to arrive in inboxes at the beginning of the next business day).
  • Monitor employees’ workloads and shift things around teams as necessary to lighten individuals’ loads.
  • Require employees to “cash in” at least some of their vacation days each year, or limit the number of carry-over days to encourage employees to use them each year.
  • Be careful not to praise someone for putting in obscene hours on a project; thank for a job well done, not how the job was done.

Putting Work in Its Proper Place

Let’s start treating ourselves, our coworkers, and our employees with dignity. Let’s choose to prioritize people over products, sons and daughters over services, men and women over margins. Let’s tame the demon of workism.

Let’s put work in its proper place.