Balancing act

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The ‘struggle to juggle’ paid work and the rest of life is not new, but it is confronting many Australians so starkly that the Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) now uses the term ‘work-life interference’ rather than ‘work-life balance’.  Most workers are telling the survey that ‘work’ and ‘life’ are equal and separate categories, rather than work being a part of life. The language slips when it implies ‘life’ is somehow opposed to ‘work’, rather than being inclusive of it, but the most recent AWALI shows the tension is getting worse, especially for women and sole-parents in full-time work. The issue of overwork is linked ironically to unemployment because it often stems from job insecurity and understaffing, but the social and personal consequences are more subtle and hidden than the problems of joblessness.

The tension might be familiar: community groups facing the reality that no-one has discretionary time; time-poor people taxing their families and neglecting their friends; people working several part-time jobs; the flexibility of technology wiring work into home and holidays.

Hugh Stretton’s chilling account of public policy, Australia Fair, published nearly a decade ago, predicted the trend. Between 1982 and 2002 the number of Australians working more than 50 hours a week doubled. A report in 2004 found Australians were working the longest hours in the world: around 1855 hours a year, compared to an international average of 1643 hours.

So, if Australian workers took their four weeks annual leave in the first part of the year and worked the average number of hours we do each week, we could all stop work on 20 November each year and still have worked the average number of hours of the OECD countries. But many Australians don’t take annual leave (58 per cent do not) either because they are too busy or they can’t find a time that suits them and their employer. About 20 per cent of Australian workers had no paid leave entitlements in any case.

The AWALI study’s new term ‘work-life interference’ (http://w3.unisa.edu.au/hawkeinstitute/cwl/documents/AWALI2012-National.pdf) aims to set work into a better perspective. It is a phrase that aims to rehabilitate other responsibilities, so that family and community commitments, church and social involvements, and other choices people might make about what to do with their time, have a place alongside work.

The right to employment was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but long before then Australians had forged traditions of industrial protection and fair wages that also implied a right to ask the question: ‘What are we working for?’
There was ground-breaking legislation in Victoria in 1856 to set an eight-hour working-day, arbitration to provide for leisure and rest as well as work in 1907, and countless hundred local bylaws to keep Sundays free from work. We might smile about old-fashioned fines in Melbourne for churning ice-cream or whistling on the Sabbath, but principles of labour and industry that go beyond production and consumption draw heavily on Christian traditions.

Ancient Christian writers warned against the disrupted relationship with time that caused overwork as a spiritual danger. The ‘noon-day demon’ of acedia that caused both listlessness and restlessness is a key part of a history of reflection on the place of work in Christian life.

The most famous definition of acedia comes from the desert teacher Evagrius of Pontus in the fourth century. The spiritual illness is likely to strike mid-morning, ‘so that the day appears 50 hours long’ but sufferers cannot focus on anything. They are hyperactive on the one hand and bored on the other; looking out the window to make sure the sun is still moving, inventing tasks, dwelling on difficulties. It attacked any tranquil sense of time as a friend. Acedia was a paralysis of the soul that ultimately destroys the capacity to focus on God.

Acedia may have been diagnosed in the desert of ancient Egypt, but it still sheds light on the significance of work, not for itself but as part of a larger task of moving through time towards God.

The Christian tradition holds work and grace together in understanding the ‘Godly’ use of time. The 16th century reformers claimed this tradition strongly when they collapsed the boundary between secular work and sacred vocation, teaching their churches to find God in the everyday. In Calvin’s Geneva and Bucer’s Strassbourg, the wise use of time undergirded a Godly life as an active citizen.

The tension between the demands of employment and other commitments stems from the reality that time is both limited and our most valuable resource. The choices we make about how we spend our time, or perhaps more accurately ‘invest’ it, make an impact on well-being, as individuals and as a community. Both overwork and unemployment are theological issues as well as political and economic questions.

And the ancient cure for acedia? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the advice was to persevere and to engage calmly with the work at hand. Quiet attention and commitment interspersed with prayer and rest, would heal the soul and free sufferers from anxiety-driven overactivity.  It is an attractive vision.

Dr Katherine Massam
Professor, Church History
Centre for Theology and Ministry

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