Do you work to live? Or do you live to work?
America’s Unhealthy Work Culture
This week, my youngest daughter, Bella defended her senior thesis with glowing responses from the judges. For a family of storytellers, this is a big deal. I’m posting the thesis on Headspace for a couple of reasons beyond being a proud dad of a 17-year-old who is also a deep thinker, an observer of the human condition, and an eloquent communicator.
She touches upon the unhealthy idolatry of work in America. A corrosive cultural reality that seems inescapable for so many of us.
She offers a sobering and moving perspective of the ones who suffer the most in this cultural reality - our children.
In the end, I also reveal a published book by my middle child - Violetta Flores.
America’s Unhealthy Work Culture
Do you work to live? Or do you live to work?
As an adolescent, I’ve observed a variety of family dynamics in different homes. I see large houses, white fluffy dogs, high ceilings, and more rooms than one could need. But I also see children who long for their parents’ presence, families that never sit together or have time to converse about their well-being, and parents who care more about getting a promotion than they do about attending their children’s recitals. I am very fortunate. My parents have never valued their work over our family. My father has never missed a recital or important school presentation, and my mother chose to work part-time so she could invest her time in our education. They have always been present in my life. Others have not been so lucky.
Allow me to tell you a story. Imagine a large room, black floors, and a spotlight shining in the middle of the floor. Parents crowding in, flowers are being sold, and the lights flickering on and off, signaling the show is about to begin. Now think of the room next to it. Small, lined with mirrors, and filled with young girls zipping up their costumes and touching up their hair. In that room I sat in the corner with a friend, holding her tight and attempting to not let her tears ruin all her makeup. She says to me “Why is she always like this. Why does she love her work more than me?” She was speaking about her mother, who minutes before had picked up a call from her coworker telling her to come back to work. Her mother left as the show was about to begin and she came back hours later, having missed her daughter’s performance. My friend was crushed for days.
We were only 11 years old. Our society raises us to believe that our value comes from our work- that it’s more important than our personal lives. So, we work. We work until we drop.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care. She cared for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives and recorded their dying epiphanies, turning her observations into a book called, "The Top Five Regrets of the Dying."
The top two regrets were; I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me, and I wish I hadn't worked so hard. Ware says, “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
In America, we are taught that work means success. If you’re busy, you have meaning. If you’re unemployed, you’re worthless. Travel bloggers are seen as immature or uneducated, whereas someone who works a 9-5 job and makes six figures is seen as a role model to be imitated. We are the wealthiest nation on earth, but at what price?
“We have deadlines instead of lifelines; sick days instead of mental health days. It’s rise and grind instead of rise and shine.”- Bryan Robinson, Forbes.com.
Defined by the Oxford dictionary, unhealthy means, “not sensible or well balanced; abnormal and harmful.” Work culture is, “a collection of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that make up the regular atmosphere in a work environment.”- Indeed.com
According to Forbes.com, one of the most important factors of healthy work culture is a steady work/life balance. Balance is not something we do well in America. A Gallup report from 2014 estimated that the average full-time worker in the United States works 47 hours a week. That number has only increased over the years. Skye Learnings' survey states that 38% of American workers cite a lack of time for their personal lives, 40% say they work between 8-12 hours a day, and 23% report a negative workplace culture. There are 24 hours in one day and billions of people work for at least half of those hours, leaving them with very little time for personal health, family interactions, or proper rest. 8 hours of sleep is the recommended amount of sleep needed to properly function, with a 12-hour workday and 8 hours of sleep, we are left with a pitiful 4 hours a day to interact with family and friends and eat 3 meals.
Something seems to have gone terribly wrong.
A 2015 Harvard Medical School research study found that people who work 55+ hours a week increase their risk of going into cardiac arrest by 13%. They are also 33% more likely to suffer a stroke, compared to those who work 35-40 hours a week. Overworking leads to anxiety and depression which not only affects the worker but also the economy. Depression and anxiety cost 1 trillion dollars every year due to loss of productivity.
Overworking also causes people to forget to eat or drink enough water, which leads to hypoglycemia and dehydration. Immediate consequences of which only cause hunger pains and cracked lips, but these symptoms get progressively worse and can lead to coma or death. According to Hult International Business School, professionals average 5-6 hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation increases the chance of diabetes and heart disease because sleep is involved in healing and repairing your heart and blood vessels. When asleep, breathing and pulse are slow and steady, but the brain is processing the events from throughout the day, sorting and filing information, making connections, and solving problems. Efficient sleep is critical to a person’s overall health and well-being.
According to nibusinessinfo.co, “A good work-life balance can enable staff to feel more in control of their working life and lead to increased productivity, fewer instances of sickness and absenteeism, a happier, less stressed workforce, staff feeling valued and that their personal and/or family life is important, improvements in employee mental health and well-being, more engaged staff, greater employee loyalty, commitment and motivation, and staff less likely to leave.”
Let us look at healthier work cultures in other countries.
The Dutch like to add a sense of equality in the workplace. Both managing directors and employees are all considered co-workers, in doing so the workforce acts more as a team. Employees don’t consider the boss to be the only expert but see them more as a problem or conflict solver. In Dutch business strategies and planning, they emphasize bringing multiple specialists together to improve diversity and expertise. Their business decisions may seem to be unnecessarily time-consuming, but the implementation of the decision is quite fast and efficient. The Dutch seem to have a “time is money” perspective on life. There are not many small talks in meetings, and not being on time can be viewed as disrespectful. In their meetings, the attire is most often quite casual, as wearing nice suits is saved for government important meetings. 0.4% of the Dutch in the Netherlands work long hours. They spend the majority of their day, 16.4 hours to be exact, on personal care and well-being. “The Netherlands also boasts very low rates of youth unemployment, high literacy levels, below-average levels of child income poverty, and very high levels of satisfaction in childhood.” In fact, over 93% of 11-15-year-olds report above-average life satisfaction. The work is shared in the Dutch households, either between the mother and the father, or the responsibilities are fully split among the family. The Netherlands has high rates of women in employment. Doubling from their rate of 35% in the 1980s, their rate now stands at 69.9% of women in employment. The Netherlands was named third best country for work-life balance in a 2011 report from the OECD. The Netherlands has one of the richest economies in the EU. They are full of fresh job opportunities and if you’re looking to start a new business, the Dutch government helps small businesses grow by simplifying bureaucracy, offering tax breaks, and continuously updating government policies. The Netherlands has a high standard of living, an open-minded and welcoming community, and one of the healthiest work cultures in the world.
Italy comes in second place for having the best work-life balance. Only 3% of employees work long hours, which is much less than the OECD average of 10%. Full-time workers in Italy spend a full 69% of their day on personal care and leisure. The Italians deeply value family time and personal care, so their workdays look similar to those in Spain, with it being split into two parts with a long lunch break in the middle.
Spain also has one of the healthiest work cultures in the world. The Spanish law ensures a minimum of 12 hours of rest between workdays which helps to minimize overworking. Their workdays are from 9 am-1:30 pm and 5 pm-8 pm, leaving them time to go home and be with their families or to rest. In Spain, it is illegal to work more than 40 hours a week, and 9 hours a day. They have 14 public holidays and employees are entitled to a 30-day paid holiday. Life is slower in Spain; people are much more relaxed and at peace.
“There is a contentment that’s palpable in the air. In America, time is sacred because time is money but in Spain, time is not sacred, life is sacred.”-Cameron Chang.
Food is also sacred. Both the preparation and the enjoyment of it. In the Spanish culture, there is time for everything, or you make time. “Don’t confuse busyness with success and definitely don’t confuse it with happiness.”- Cameron Chang. Only 4% of the Spanish employees work long hours, and full-time workers devote 66% of their day to personal care and leisure.
As we can see, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain have achieved stable economical standings with a healthy work culture that emphasizes work-life balance and rest culture.
Biblical wisdom has taught this for millennia, and cultures that have embraced it have historically thrived. The Bible emphasizes rest as spiritual and essential to worship. “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”-St. Augustine. The way of Jesus is clearly rooted in a state of rest. For instance, one of the foundational cultural values of the puritans was Sabbath rest. This combined with the value of work as worship, is considered by scholars to be a source of the unprecedented wealth created in our country. How and when did we lose our way in America? Most of us don’t rest until we have to, and we don’t rest well. Abandoning a healthy work and rest culture, we now confuse rest with entertainment. Lying in bed to watch TV to “rest” isn’t the same as lying in bed to take a nap to rest. We rest to manage life. But without rest, we cannot live the life Jesus has to offer.
A smart marketing strategy feeds on our desire and longs for rest. Commercials will show breakfast in bed, candles lit around the room, fluffy pillows, and people running and jumping into the Caribbean.
Do we need all of those things to truly rest? To Sabbath? No. Hebrews 4:9-11 says “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.” It seems that modern Christians have abandoned the Sabbath rest to our detriment.
Ronald Rolheiser says it well. "True restfulness, though, is a form of awareness, a way of being in life. It is living an ordinary life with a sense of ease, gratitude, appreciation, peace, and prayer. We are restful when ordinary life is enough"
As Christians, we may need a Sabbath practice if… we live a parallel life with our children, we feel uncomfortable being alone with our thoughts, we feel guilty doing nothing, we lose sleep and stay up late at night planning and problem-solving, we have accepted anxiety as simply a part of life, or we desperately long for delight.
Everyone needs a Sabbath but almost no one takes it.
90% of people check their phones upon first waking up, 37% take fewer than 7 days of vacation a year, 14% take more than 2 weeks per year, and 20% still stay in touch with their office while on “vacation.” The Japanese have a term for this.: “Karoshi” which means Death by Overwork. Americans work 137 more hours a year than the Japanese, 260 a year more than the British, and 499 hours more than the French. In American culture, to be busy means we matter. In fact, the number one answer to “How are you?” in America is “Busy.”
Genesis 1:31 - 2:3 says “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning -the sixth day. Thus, the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so, on the seventh day, he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Jesus teaches that Sabbath is a gift to humanity. It’s something for our benefit, something to be more like Him, something that God set up as a part of creation's rhythm for our enjoyment. “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”- Mark 2:27. Could it be that our abandoning Sabbath practice has created more distance between us as a nation and God?
Some people believe the American work culture is healthy. They say that the work ethic is what makes us successful. In a 2021 fox news article, Laura Ingraham said "Working really hard is what successful people do. It's a simple message, and it's getting lost today because Biden and the Democrats too often seek to punish and demonize success.” She said, “It is through hard work that America has always shown her true colors and it's time to fly them again, boldly and unapologetically." Laura Ingraham is only partially right. A strong work ethic is encouraged in the Bible, but so is rest and Laura makes no mention of that.
“We are overworked, underpaid, and stressed out with no free time. And the worst part is that we eat this up! We add ping pong tables to offices and call it a positive team culture while at the same time expecting employees to sacrifice every aspect of themselves to ‘foster corporate values.’ We need to stop it. We need to make a massive cultural change regarding work.”- Melanie Allen, CEO of Partners in Fire.
America has an unhealthy work culture. We see it in the lack of work-life balance, in comparison to other countries and their healthy work cultures, and we see it in the Bible which puts a strong emphasis on how having a healthy work culture depends on having a healthy rest culture- a Sabbath. Starting with the family, let us teach our children that their success and value are not defined by their busyness. Let our universities nurture young professionals who both work hard and rest well. Perhaps, businesses will then create balanced work and rest environments to attract the most gifted employees and be more competitive in the marketplace. No more deadlines instead of lifelines; sick days instead of mental health days. No more defining someone’s success by how busy their schedule is or considering someone unworthy because they don’t work a 9-5 job.
What would your life look like if your worth was not connected to your busyness? What would we look like as a people if Sabbath rest was central to our week, overflowing into a joyful productive work week? Would the business world follow suit by changing policies to accommodate healthier life rhythms and attracting better employees? Would politicians pass healthier laws, not to limit productivity, but enhance it? I believe we would have fewer stories of fathers on deathbeds mourning over missed experiences with their children and instead have fathers delighted to have lived a full and rich life with their loved ones.
I believe that I would no longer have to sit in the corner of a dressing room wiping my friend's tears as her mother chooses to work over attending her daughter’s recital. It is time we ask ourselves; do we work to live? Or do we live to work?
Isabella Flores - Senior Thesis
Know someone who needs to read this? Be a good friend and share this.
Violetta Flores, also a beautiful writer published a children’s book as she was graduating high school. It’s a story about the journey of Shelly The Shell-less Hermit Crab. You can get in on Amazon.