Have you ever found yourself in such a state of frenzy to get your work done that you pulled an all-nighter? Have you ever stopped eating, except for pop-tarts while you worked? Have you ever sacrificed time with family or having leisure on Sunday to get closer to feeling caught up?

Work deeply affects the health of our body and our soul. The Church recognizes this and speaks to how work arrangements need to be regulated to allow the cultivation of our personal identity and ability to live out our vocation to know, love, and serve God. In fact, the rights and dignity of workers are important enough to be one of the Church’s seven pillars of Catholic social teaching.

#1. Put the Worker First

The first guiding principle of Church teaching on the rights and dignity of workers is this: The worker has a primacy in order over the economy. The Church realizes that the economy is secondary to the rights of the workers who drive it. Work is from man and so it is for man.

Pope Paul VI makes this abundantly clear in Gaudium et Spes: “Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.”

Principle in Practice

The reality is that it is a person who works, so that person’s rights are primary and should not be violated. No economy can say that it is greater than your power to create it! Policies that offend this principle include insufficient wages, unjust lay-offs, insufficient maternity leave, or poor working conditions.

The rights of the worker include the right to work. St. John Paul II addresses this in Centesimus Annus, where he writes:

The obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace.

Business Connection: Attempts to Make the Workplace More Flexible

Attempts to shift the modern workplace to a more person-centered environment have appeared in a variety of guises. One interesting attempt that has been experimented with is described by the acronym ROWE— Results Only Work Environment. The strategy of ROWE, as an attempt to focus more on people’s unique talents and need for flexibility, is to reward and pay employees for results rather than the number of hours worked.

While the success or prudence of ROWE is debatable, the strategy has been adapted by some who advocate a more personal approach to work. In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink discusses CEO Jeff Gunther’s adoption of ROWE for his company Meddius. Gunther described his motivation for ROWE as follows:

My dad’s generation views human beings as human resources. They’re two-by-fours you need to build your house. For me, it’s a partnership between me and the employees. They’re not resources. They’re partners.

#2. Respect the Common Good

The second guiding principle of Church teaching on the dignity of workers is as follows: Workers must have a legitimate respect for the common good whose advancement they serve. While the workers have a right that their inherent dignity always be respected, workers have a corresponding responsibility to work diligently, honestly, and to the best of their potential in their job.

The workers’ vocation to work for the common good flows from their personhood. In some cultures, the idea of the person might be “one who endures” or “one who sacrifices for the group.” Yet, the Christian idea of the person is this: The human person is an agent of history. This means that the Christian in the workplace is not called to blind sacrifice or endurance, but rather to work as a creative agent to develop the economy and to meet the needs of the community.

#3. Be Human and Efficient

These first two guiding principles show how the hallmark of the Catholic genius is finding balance, in this case helping us discover what it takes to make work both human and efficient. This leads to a third point all Catholics should know about the dignity of workers: To be sustainably promoting the dignity of workers, we must strike a balance between making work flexible to meet individuals’ needs and respecting business’ need to create profit.

Can you think of a time when your work environment enabled you to live that balance well? What qualities of your employer and workplace enabled that? Were you empowered by your superiors and given a sense of responsibility? Were relationships fostered in the workplace? Were there limits to efficiency? Good pay and benefits?  

Now think of an experience where it seemed nearly impossible to find a balance between profit and personhood. What were the qualities of that environment? Did they include purposelessness, a lack of listening, or a lack of challenge? Or was the struggle a result of inefficiency, brutal work hours, high-stress, or poor leadership?

Starting with our own workplace experiences is a good way to analyze characteristics that make a workplace both human and efficient. Drawing on these experiences in light of the truths of Catholic social teaching can help us become leaders who are able to facilitate environments that respect and cherish the dignity of workers.  

#4. Work Profoundly Affects the Person

It is interesting to consider how scientific research backs up the Church’s affirmation that respect for the dignity of workers and the primacy of personhood is needed for healthy efficiency. Studies have found that our well-being at work affects our productivity and we’re not actually functioning at our best when we cannot cultivate human relationships or when we have to sacrifice family and friendship time for longer work hours.

In “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic,” Vivek H. Murthy reports that more than 40% of adults in America feel lonely. He continues:

At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly… On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains?

As Murthy notes, work is one of the major contexts we live in. Currently, it is often a place for loneliness to expand and grow, as we fail to find the human relationships and personal growth we direly need.

The Church warns that such unhappy workplaces are a result of a failure to put the person at the center of the workplace. When the rights and dignity of the workers are respected, however, the workplace can look quite different. It can be a place, according to Pope Francis, for “rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.”

#5. Don’t Fall into Efficiency Traps

Thoroughly understanding the Church’s teaching on the dignity of workers also means being ready to answer objections to it. The devil’s advocate argument against putting people before productivity might look like this: A booming economy promotes charity.  A booming economy depends on efficiency. Ergo, efficiency promotes charity. Ergo, the rights of workers are secondary to the importance of productivity. Right?

Wrong. While it is true that a healthy productivity bears fruit in social benefits that effectively improve the standard of living for all, the answer to the world’s woes is not an unbridled economy. The truth of the Church’s teaching remains: Work is from man, for man, and subordinate to man. 

As we consider the role that work places in our life, and the influence we can have in our own workplaces, let’s consider how we can better live and protect the primacy of workers over efficiency, as well as the responsibility of workers to care for the common good.