FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 05/19/2010

Work’s Newest Danger: Resisting Rest

April 21, 2010                                                               Volume 3 Issue 8
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Kent W. Seibert
Thirty years ago I took a class on the psychology of the workplace. I can still remember discussing how the forty-hour work week would soon become a thing of the past. American workers, aided by emerging technologies, were becoming so productive that there would not be enough to keep them busy eight hours a day, five days a week. By the year 2000, the thinking went, people would have so much free time they would know what to do with it all.
So much for that prediction. By the 1990s the U.S. surpassed Japan among developed nations in the total hours people worked each year. Not only are we not working less today, the forty-hour work week now sounds rather quaint. No more nine to five. Today’s working world is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The technology many thought would liberate us now seems to enslave us.  
Even the current recession in which we find ourselves has not changed things. Those who are out of work know that finding a new job is a full-time job in itself, and more so with instant access to Craigslist, Monster Jobs or LinkedIn. For those who are fortunate enough to have kept their jobs, they’ve also absorbed the added responsibilities of their fellow co-workers who were let go. So complaining about being overworked just is not an option in today’s job market.
It’s not that we don’t want time off. Indeed, Americans embrace weekends, vacations and retirement. But I find it no little irony that the same time period that saw an alarming rise in hours worked also witnessed the growth of the leisure industry – where opportunities like cruises, theme parks, video games, and extreme sports abound.  
Now we shop for just the right gear that will fit in our car, and fight traffic to get to the beach or the park where we can finally relax. Of course, lurking in the back of our minds while we are “relaxing” is that we will soon have to re-pack the car and fight the traffic to get back home.
Yes, we need time off from work, and not just so we can recharge physically to return to the job. But “vacationing” these days can be just as exhausting as the life from which we’ve retreated. We return home ready for real vacation.
Why, then, are we so resistant to stopping? To resting? Why do even our leisure pursuits become stressful and demanding?
Perhaps we don’t fully understand how essential it is to our physical well-being that we stop from the pressures of work. Rest is also crucial to our social, emotional, and spiritual health; we are wired for it. After all, we are human beings, not human doings.  
And despite our culture’s career-driven mantra to work, work, work, our fundamental identity is that we are, not that we do. Yes, we are also wired to work. And being productive and creative is a central element of our humanity. But so too is simply being. We don’t always have to be active or productive to find meaning and satisfaction in our lives.
The rare and recent occasions I have made, for instance, to slow down have been immensely refreshing. I’ve taken long, slow walks alone in the woods or on the beach with no other purpose than to be in the moment.  Or I’ve listened to music, not while I am working out or doing something else, but simply to set aside an hour to sit still, to listen.  Or I’ve spent prolonged time in silence before the God I worship.
Each has led to some of the deepest spiritual experiences of my life. But I confess, I don’t make time to cease and be nearly enough. I convince myself I have more worthwhile things I should be doing with my time. And I don’t think I’m alone here.
Which is why we must begin to resist the non-stop pace of our culture and our lives, and learn simply to rest. If we don’t, I fear what predictions we’ll face in our 24-7-365 world.

Dr. Kent W. Seibert is associate professor of economics and business. He and his wife and their two daughters live in Ipswich, MA.


Kent W Seibert