Work has conquered every day of the week. How do we remain human in a world that worships toil?

Justine Toh writes for The Guardian Australia about how our idea of rest is thinned out in a culture that worships overwork.

Left unchecked, work will rule your life. If we can’t entirely exorcise the work demon, we should, frankly, make it harder for it to do its thing.


The best advice I’ve ever heard about rest also feels the most impossible: put it in your diary before anything else. Schedule it in, as deliberately as you would any other activity, before work colonises your entire consciousness. Like that TikTok user who started seeing an overstuffed Outlook calendar in random places, including the boxy pattern on an upholstered train seat.

Left unchecked, work will rule your life.

Which isn’t to say work is bad in and of itself. It’s good for us in an entirely non-“eat your vegetables” sense. It’s a means of providing for ourselves and those we love. Whether or not you love your work, paid and unpaid, for those of us who are able to work, it’s a route to dignity and skill, and a necessary contribution to the common good.

But the good of work gets warped in a 24/7 global economy where productivity tools and wall-to-wall wifi mean you never need stop working. If money never sleeps then nor, it seems, need you.

In this city of strivers, if you’re not working yourself to death, are you even alive?

Plus, if (like me) you live in Sydney, you know the place demands endless hustle. The cost of living is biting? Get a second job, said the former Reserve Bank of Australia governor. Want to own a home? In the second-most expensive property market in the world (after Hong Kong), some say you’ll need to earn $250,000 a year to afford a typical dwelling.

In this city of strivers, if you’re not working yourself to death, are you even alive?

These anti-human conditions point to an unnerving spiritual possibility. For Jonathan Malesic, the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, we need to tame the “demon” of work.

“The ceaseless, obsessive American work ethic,” Malesic writes, is actually a kind of demon haunting him and just about everyone else. “We are a society almost totally under its power.”

Sounds extreme until you consider the demand for constant productivity, our obsession with efficiency and optimisation, and how we value people based on their employment status. The fact that workaholism is so socially acceptable, even if overwork hollows us out.

But is the d-word metaphorical? One can only hope.

Either way, I now think of my calendar when Gandalf faces off against the Balrog in Lord of the Rings. When the work demon threatens to intrude on non-work time, I channel my inner Grey Wizard: “You shall not pass!”

I’m learning that something far more precious is at stake: the ability to remain human in a world that worships work. Enter rest – but not rest that simply recharges us for work, for that just recruits rest to the cause of greater productivity. Instead, rest that allows us to recognise what all the work is for.

In the Jewish and Christian creation stories, God rested on the seventh day of creation after all his work. Along with the world, the ideal week was born: six days of work, followed by one of rest. A pattern of time observed by God himself, even though a perk of divinity is surely infinite reserves of energy. This rhythm of life keeps work in its place: key to a thriving life but not the entire point of existence. Also, a reminder that despite the monikers of some companies, the fate of the world doesn’t ultimately rest on human shoulders.

Sunday, traditionally, recalls that original day of creation rest and summons a spirit of celebration. One that as described by theologian Norman Wirzba allows us to “come into the presence” of someone or something else: to look within ourselves, at each other, the wonders of the world around us and, for some of us, up to God, and linger over the gratitude we feel that any of this is possible. This is what grace feels like: the satisfied exhale of the soul.

It’s worth protecting the chance to experience that. But the ban on Sunday trading (sport, too) lapsed long ago. Capitalism has conquered every day of the week. If we can’t entirely exorcise the work demon, we should, frankly, make it harder for it to do its thing. At a bare minimum, penalty rates should be higher.

Moreover, we should have far greater ambition for rest than a lazy nap on the couch on Sunday afternoon, even if that’s also something to be grateful for. That kind of rest only skims the surface of its theological riches.

“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace,” wrote the American writer Frederick Buechner, before explaining what this means. “There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.”

I can’t think of anything more restful than that.

Justine Toh is senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of Achievement Addiction.

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