I’m sure you have become aware of the debate gaining popularity about limiting the work week to four days from five. Jonathan Malesic, a religious studies scholar and author of The End of Burnout, has offered some cogent advice, based on philosophy, psychology, and spirituality for consideration toward a four day work week. But even discussing this possibility rattles the cages of Americans who believe the credo that hard work gets you everywhere and slackers are not to be tolerated. Some will even quote the Epistle of St. James who warned his community of followers that “…those who do not work should not eat!” Now, how’s that for a mission statement of an incipient Christian community.
Work in America has gone through stages of growth. I remember six day work weeks and the violence of clashes between employers and unions for basic pay and eventually, the five day work week. Malesic’s theory is simple and rooted in faith: “…we exist to do more than just work.” We need this truth, he says, more than ever as millions return to in-person work after two years of working from home. Our conventional approach to work is the 40-hour week with the “ideal of upward mobility.” Some of us will work longer and harder to achieve this mobility sacrificing family life, personal growth, and spiritual balance. But the good news, says Malesic, is that “…we now have space to reimagine how work fits into a good life.” He advocates a love for your work which grows when you are not overworked. He encourages the development of other interests, especially as you near retirement and even while new at your job—because you never know when any of life’s cataclysmic experiences will change your work status.
So how does “…work fit into a good life?” Our attitude toward work and workers has to be re-examined. Malesic says “… jobs ought to fit the capacities of people who hold them, not the productivity metrics of their employers.” He cites Pope Leo XIII, known as the labor pope of the industrial age, who wrote that working conditions, including hours, should be adapted to the “health and strength of the workman.” We have to begin looking at the work loads of medical professionals following this pandemic. Further ways work fits into a good life is to “…subordinate work to life.” “You can’t get [a life] without freedom from work’s domination,” says political philosopher, Dr. Kathi Weeks. Human flourishing is more than a pay raise. Work can help you flourish but only in the human context, not the pay scale. When we concentrate on our individual talents outside of work and on our spiritual development, we become more whole as God made us to be. Malesic adds, “We should look for purpose beyond our jobs and then fit work in around it.”
The New York Times did a survey to add to Malesic’s article asking people to complete two resolutions as they prepare to return to work in-person. Here are a few responses:
I am never going back to:
“being the last parent to pick up my child at school.”
“being separated from my child ten to eleven hours per day.”
“sending work-related emails after dinner or on weekends.”
“listening to angry podcasts…”
I resolve to:
“go home when I feel sick.”
“save more and stay put.”
“put my work second. My family and I come first.”
“remember my boundaries. ‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
God has created us to love Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next. That’s it. That’s the answer to the first question in the Catholic catechism. We are not created to amass wealth or to dominate others. We flourish when we are happy using all the talents God has given us being curious about all the universe and all the gifts we have. If we are fortunate to enjoy a good job, we need to make sure it doesn’t consume our interests beyond sharing time with family and friends.
The debate continues about the length of the American work week and I do not have
any answers except that we need to do something to help families appreciate each other. Malesic contends that the recent government checks to the unemployed signaled that people did not have to lose their dignity just because they lost their jobs. Has the pandemic made you think about your work and its meaning in your life? I suggest we respond this week to the resolutions Malesic made in his essay: I am never going back to…and, I resolve to… Can you write some resolutions under each of these? I encourage you to share with our readers what you are inspired to write. When the Spirit speaks to any one of you, the Spirit speaks to all of us.