Our work life focuses us very much on efficiency and productivity. This often makes us feel relative to our work instead of seeing work as relative to us and to the expansion of our human spirit. Even if we’re not in a factory, we can begin to feel like part of an assembly line instead of a person. Is there any room for Christian celebration in the workplace? If so, what could we celebrate?
Work to Live
People aren’t made to live to work, they are made to work to live! The Catholic Church has always affirmed the primacy of the person over productivity: We are fundamentally more important than our work.
In Caritas in Veritate, for instance, Benedict XVI affirmed the centrality of human life and dignity and spoke of how the economy and the workplace should be an organic setting for “gratuitousness” and “fraternity.” The Christian perspective is that the material world is a gift, and people are gifts, intentionally given to us out of the gratuitous benevolence of the Creator. We are defined by relation to others, and the workplace is a major area where this happens. This is a cause for joy, for Christian celebration!
A Response of Joy
The ability to discover joy in work, to truly celebrate, results from a clear vision of the order of things: “When we understand that God is God,” writes James Schall in The Unseriousness of Human Affairs, “our response is praise, thanks, delight, and joy.” This attitude isn’t something that only affects us at Church or times of prayer. No, it affects our whole life, and there are good and helpful ways it can overflow into work and the way we treat coworkers. Let’s turn to some of these ways.
Christian Celebration: Milestones
We need to celebrate victories, even halfway points or mile-markers on the journey to victory, at the workplace. Achievement is compatible with the Gospel; as business persons, if we make goods and services that are authentically helping people, we are bringing people closer to God by our work. This is something to be celebrated!
If we wait until we reach the finish line to celebrate, we may be waiting a long time, or burn out and never reach that line. Business writers Chip and Dan Heath make this point in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. They draw an analogy between long-term business goals and facing a lengthy drive. In both instances, our well-being demands that we need to find moments to take a break and a breather. “It’s a lot easier to think ‘75 miles to coffee’ than to think ‘8.5 more hours of sitting here until I’m at Grandma’s,’” the Heath brothers note. They continue, “You can’t count on these milestones to occur naturally. To motivate change, you’ve got to plan for them.”
Sometimes stopping at milestones to celebrate gives us renewed energy to speed ahead. Stopping also gives us the time and space to avoid being caught up in the pure adrenaline of expediency; instead, we have the time to reflect briefly on where we’ve come and where we’re headed.
For further reflection on how celebrating milestones prevents productivity from “displacing justice,” read this passage from the Vocation of the Business Leader:
Where businesses succeed, people’s lives can be significantly improved; but where they fail, great harm can result… Without guiding principles and virtuous leadership, businesses can be places in which expediency displaces justice; power corrupts wisdom; technical instruments are detached from human dignity; and self-interest marginalises the common good.
Christian Celebration: The Why
Besides celebrating the victories along the way, we can also celebrate the reason why we are working, taking time to place our work into its bigger, human context. We work because it is an essential part of our identity as co-creators.
The contrasting view says that work is purely evil, and to be avoided. This is aptly summed up in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, who has said “The goal of the future is full unemployment.” It may sound remarkable, but some, like Clarke, look optimistically at the prospect of unemployment and a universal basic income. But for Catholics, “full unemployment” will never be the goal. We know that work is not merely a challenge, not only a hardship, but also a source of dignity, meaning, and community.
This passage from The Vocation of the Business Leader provides further food for thought on the big-picture context of why we work:
The Christian business leader serves the common good by creating goods that are truly good and services that truly serve. The goods and services that businesses produce should meet authentic human needs, so they include not only things with clear social value—such as lifesaving medical devices, microfinance, education, social investment, fair trade products, health care or affordable housing—but also anything that genuinely contributes to human development and fulfilment, ranging from simple products, such as bolts, tables and fabrics, to complex systems such as waste removal, roads and transportation.
Christian Celebration: People
Thirdly, we should celebrate the people we are working with! The community of persons at our workplace allows for true collaboration. This includes joyfully making allowances for the specific vulnerabilities, even disabilities, of individuals. As Thomas Reynolds discusses in his compelling book Vulnerable Communion, wholeness is not about self-sufficiency, but it is the product of “the genuine inclusive community that results from sharing our humanity with one another in light of the grace of God.”
Those around us at work should feel respected and valued. In-N-Out Burger has excellent ratings for employee satisfaction, for instance, with employees citing fun company events, good pay, and flexibility as key ways they felt valued at the workplace. Maybe celebrating the people you work with already happens through an annual company picnic or a tradition of celebrating employees’ birthdays. But what are additional ways to celebrate collaboration on a day-to-day basis?
The Vocation of the Business Leader has this to say about the collaboration that is possible in the workplace:
When we consider a business organisation as a community of persons, it becomes clear that the bonds which hold us in common are not merely legal contracts or mutual self-interests, but commitments to real goods, shared with others to serve the world. It is dangerous and misinformed simply to consider business as a “society of shares,” where self-interests, contracts, utility and maximisation of financial profit exhaust its meaning. An inherent characteristic of work is that “it first and foremost unites people.”
Christian Celebration: The Way
Finally, we need to celebrate the way we are working. We can celebrate the way by making our workplaces environments of beauty and style. Aesthetics affect us as humans, and having a pleasant place for workers to spend their time is a way of expressing the dignity of workers, serving their bodies and spirits of those at work.
Of course, this doesn’t require all businesses to install sleep pods, fish tanks, and massage chairs like Google. The right aesthetics for each workplace will depend on its function and you may have little control over making significant aesthetic changes. But even if it is only your desk that you have the authority to change, what improvements can you make?
The Vocation of the Business Leader suggests that celebrating the way also has to do with making sure that there are effective policies in place for performance, rewards, etc.:
Good work must be sufficiently well-organised and managed to be productive so that the worker can indeed earn his or her living. Moreover, reward structures should make sure that those workers who do engage their labour in a sincere way also receive the necessary esteem and compensation from their companies.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis talks of the early followers of Christ who overflowed with rejoicing at the Gospel message. He asks, “Why should we not also enter into this great stream of joy?” This question applies to our whole life, including the time and energy we spend in the workplace.
Let’s keep brainstorming ways to implement Christian celebration in the workplace. What are some other ways we can cultivate a work environment that puts a premium on people first, not on productivity first?