Breathe Deep and Stop: Our Culture’s Obsession with Overwork

Working On A Laptop Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures
A person works on a laptop, public domain image.

I stumbled upon an article that was fierce in its truth telling. Its words brought home a crucial point we need to hear: Wellness is not the answer to our overwork.  That is, it isn’t the answer alone.

The only cure for overwork is to stop working.

We live in a culture fueled by a growing insatiability for greater profits and production. As such, we are working longer hours than ever before with pressures for constant availability, and there are fewer days off. But if we want individuals and communities to be truly healthy — including our sense of teamwork at work  —  we actually have to work less, and we actually have to make that commitment a priority.

Zoë Krupka brings this home in the article I mention: No, it’s not you: Why ‘Wellness’ Isn’t the Answer to Overwork. Krupka is concerned that we run this rat race of overwork continuously, thinking that a little meditation, yoga, or exercise will be able to keep its effects at bay. Physical and spiritual practices of wellness are truly great for us, but over time, the cumulative effects of overwork do harm our bodies, mental health, and relationships.

We have limits, and
We actually have to stop working.

And let’s get honest: There can be a cost to honoring this commitment.  In the article, Krupka mentions stories of clients she counsels in therapy. Her clients are hard workers who gave their best efforts, but their work was never perceived to be enough in their workplace culture. In one company, all people were told if they do not perform at 150% capacity of their position descriptions, they are not pulling their weight.

It takes courage to assert human needs for limits and balance. It can even get you disciplined or fired. Without question, that feels scary, and even more so when we have financial needs, family members who depend on us, or a desire to progress in our careers. But do we really want to work in a cultures that thrive on this kind of fear? When we’re working 60, 70, and 80 hour weeks consistently, even when we’re meeting the goals, those fears can still hang over our heads. No amount of work seems to keep them at bay.

And sadly, the great irony is this: More and more, studies are showing that productivity is significantly higher with fewer hours. Productivity drops after 50 hours, and it falls off a cliff beyond 55. We are working harder and losing more of our lives for less productivity.

We all want to work hard and do our best. Above all, we want to work in ways that add meaning, creativity, worth, and purpose. But when we feel like we’re losing our life to work  — losing time with family, depriving ourselves of friendships, always rushing, and continually feeling the pressures of the impostor’s syndrome — is it really worth it?

We have to stop, and
We have to change our relationship to work itself.

Dr. Cynthia Rigby, one of my professors in seminary, talks about this, and I love her language for it. She says that often, we think we need a bit of recreation to refuel us with more energy to jump back into the rat race. Instead, she said, we need Sabbath and play to help us change our relationship to the rat race itself — not mere recreation but re-creation.

Let’s chase that.

Renee Roederer

As an addendum, I also love this quote from Barbara Brown Taylor:

“At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage. Close the door to the tool shed and turn off the computer. Stay home, not because you are sick, but because you are well. Talk someone you love into being well with you. Take a nap, a walk, an hour for lunch. Test the premise that you are worth more than you can produce–that even if you spent one whole day of being good for nothing, you would still be precious in God’s sight. And when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so–remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth.”

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