Work used to be something about you, not something that defines you.
Now, we ask someone what they do as soon as we learn their name. When we ask each other how we’re doing, the answer is almost always, “Busy!”
We seek jobs with lots of vacation, but most of it goes unused. When we do take vacations, we bring work with us. We put in 50 or more hours a week, 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 an 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,” concludes 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,” writes 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, as Jonathan Malesic discovered.
What Monks Can Teach Us About Work
After researching a story involving a monastery in New Mexico, 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 same marketplace “goods” mentioned above, they don’t let the pursuit of work or its goods supplant their primary objective: a life of prayer in service to God.
If they sense their work is pushing God too far to the margins, they begin limiting 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. This is important for us, too. If we’re not careful to keep ourselves from burnout, we become unable to sustain our relationship with God.
But how can we non-monks keep ourselves from burnout and put work in its proper place?
The Solution to Workism
Thompson suggests that one solution to workism “is to make work less central.” While that’s not a bad place to begin, 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, “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.
Intentionally limiting work sounds like a good way to get fired though, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. Studies continually show that burnt-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 treat ourselves with little dignity because it limits our value to our productivity.
This is why the solution to workism starts with individuals. We must 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. I work full-time and have two part-time gigs, in addition to being a husband and father of four young kids. Life is more enjoyable — and I’m more productive — when I work hard during business hours, then “turn it off” until the next day or week.
How You Can Put Work in Its Proper Place
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 brief 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 ask yourself if you can stay devoted to God and others with that schedule. If not, make some changes.
- Before ending your work day, review your calendar for the next day so you know what to expect and what you on your schedule calls for prayer.
- 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.
Taming the Demon of Workism
We can’t completely solve the problem of workism, but we can tame it in our own lives.
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.