"There Is a Serious Downside to Overworking People"

Rabbi and social activist Arthur Waskow talks about the toll taken by long hours on the job and the importance of downtime

Their's was a deeply religious community, those dour but busy Puritans, who bestowed on America its signature characteristic: industriousness. Now, several hundred years later, quite a different religious community -- an informal interfaith group of mainly progressive clergy members and like-minded scholars and activists -- is saying the American way of busy-ness has gotten out of hand.

They assert that Americans of all classes -- whether wealthy professionals on call 24/7 or low-wage employees who have to moonlight to make ends meet -- are working overly long hours. The result, they say, is too little time left over for family, community, and spiritual life.

The group, whose ideas were posted recently on a Web site called Free Time/Free People, looks to religious tradition to make the case that downtime is a human necessity. "I think [Free Time] is a splendid idea," says Harvey Cox, a prominent professor of divinity at Harvard University. "It's also not a new one. It traces back to the ancient and honorable tradition of the Sabbath -- which is based on the principle that even God needs to take off one day a week."

Cox has signed a statement supporting Free Time's principles, as have a number of others, including Michael Lerner, a rabbi at congregation Beyt Tikkun in San Francisco and editor of the progressive Jewish bimonthly Tikkun; Monsignor George Higgins, a labor advocate and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree; Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist; Meg Riley, a Unitarian Universalist minister and director of the Unitarian Universalist Assn.'s Washington (D.C.) office; Walter Brueggemann, a United Church of Christ minister and theologian at Columbia Theological Seminary outside Atlanta; and Julie Wortman, publisher of The Witness, a magazine targeted to Episcopalians. The driving force behind the group is Arthur Waskow, a longtime social activist, Philadelphia rabbi, and author of a number of books about Judaism, including Godwrestling -- Round Two.

BusinessWeek Online writer Pamela Mendels talked recently with Rabbi Waskow to discuss the issue of overwork, which is never far from the minds of most Americans. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation:

Q: What is Free Time/Free People?


It's a gathering of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarians, Quakers, and other religious communities as well as secular scholars, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and political activists. They are addressing the issue of the drive, the economic and cultural pressures for overwork in American society, and trying to reverse that trend. Free time means time for family, time for community and neighborhood, and time for one's own individual, personal, and spiritual search.

Q: Is it a formal organization?


It's more a working group. The signers of the Free Time/Free People statement are in touch with each other, often through e-mail, sometimes by telephone, occasionally via meetings. We've been working on such projects, initially, as getting some of the progressive Christian and Jewish and Buddhist magazines to explore these questions.

Q: What prompted this on your part?


There was one crystallizing moment [at a folk music concert several years ago] when I heard the response of a crowd of people to the song line: "Whatever happened to the eight-hour day?" The response was a kind of roar of recognition of people who, in fact, were incredibly overworked. Even though I keep Shabbat -- the Sabbath -- in a profound way, and love the practice and the idea of both, I was feeling overworked and pushed. Suddenly, I realized that I was hardly alone in this.

As I began exploring, I realized [this generation] includes $200,000-a-year lawyers who are warned that if they're not willing to put in 70-hour weeks, then they should not expect to be made partners. Down to the Verizon blue-collar workers, many of them women, who said they couldn't go home to be with their kids, or to the PTA or anything like that, because they were being pushed into 20 to 30 hours a week of overtime. [Verizon, the telecommunications company created in a merger between Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp., was the target last summer of a strike where one of the key issues was mandatory overtime.] Down to very poor people, working at bare-minimum-wage jobs, and then having to hold two or three of them, because their jobs pay so badly and don't include health benefits.

I searched out Juliet Schor's book, The Overworked American, which turned the anecdotal information into a statistically based sociological survey. So, it's clear that this is not just anecdotes of the people I happen to bump into, but a broad phenomenon.

Q: Why is this overwork happening?


Part of it is economic, whether it is lawyers who are warned to do a 70-hour week if they want to stick around or the very poor person. There is also enormous cultural pressure. It's not only that you won't get hired, or you won't get a raise, but that people won't think of you as a fully functioning human being if you don't get to the office before the next person. If you don't stay late, there's something wrong with you. The bravado you hear a lot of -- "I'm working harder than anybody around" -- sounds to me mournful on the surface, but if you listen, you hear there's a kind of bragging underneath the mournfulness.

Q: Why is your movement growing out of a religious context?


One way [that religious and spiritual communities] define their difference from the automatic assumptions of modern life is the belief that work and doing are not the only important things. That meditation, rest, reflection, love, community, family are very important values in life. I think those values got squeezed under the pressures of modern technology.

The religious communities created traditions of catching your breath, whether it's the Jewish Sabbath, the Christian Saint Days, or Buddhist meditation. They created ways of taking time to breathe, a very different mode of life from the work-produce-do-make mode.

The Jewish Sabbath, for example, traditionally meant that from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, you didn't work, you didn't use money, you didn't carry stuff around the world. In other words, you might say, you didn't make change happen in the world.

Q: How do you think business will respond to your ideas?


A lot of business folks are beginning to realize that there is a serious downside to overworking people, that people get depressed, anxious, jittery when they don't get to spend time with their families, when they don't get time to pause and catch their breath, that absenteeism rates climb, and illness rates climb. That ain't good.

So, businesses are beginning to discover that there is a correlation between absenteeism and sickness rates, and overworking people, and that it may not even be so great for the bottom line to overwork people.

Then, there are also issues of the quality of work. The shoddiness of people who are overworked, who don't care about the work, because they're just going at it because they're feeling forced to.

Finally, business folks are also workers, right? They also discover that they feel overworked. At some point, some executives suddenly realize that they are losing a chunk of life that they feel regretful about.

Q: What projects are you working on?


One is Sabbath for the Sabbath. There are a lot of Sabbaths for the environment and Sabbaths for the poor, and Sabbaths for this and that. But we realized that practically no religious community says, "Well, wait a minute, why are we doing this Sabbath? Why do we set aside this celebratory time? And what would it mean to take this idea into the rest of our lives?"

The second piece is work with people in the labor movement. There's another area -- we're at an earlier stage in this -- discussions with business folks. For instance, I met with a group here in Philadelphia and said to them, "What do you think would be the impact, and how would you feel about it, if you said to your workers, for seven minutes every morning, and seven minutes every afternoon -- the same seven minutes for everybody -- the place is going to go quiet?"

We want to have more conversations like that and begin seeding these ideas into the bloodstream of this society.

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