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Rudd and the sin of overwork


Rudd burns midnight oil Many people thought Kevin Rudd rash when he demanded that public servants work day and night. But should the public servants obey him? There are good grounds for saying that overworking is morally unjustifiable. In old-fashioned Catholic terms it may be a sin.

It is certainly not an old-fashioned Catholic sin. Older Catholic moralists were more perturbed by sloth than excessive work. When they responded to the Industrial Revolution, they diagnosed the problem as exploitation, not overwork. Employers forced workers to spend long hours in hard manual work under harsh conditions.

Moralists also defined sin in terms of actions and not of habitual states. To stay away from work all day was an action that was easy to categorise as a sin. To stay up all night working was more slippery.

In fact the whole idea of overworking seems slippery. What one culture considers excessive, another considers normal.

Work, too, has changed. The harm suffered after spending long hours in front of a computer is of a different kind from that resulting from long shifts digging coal. Overwork differs for different cultures and individuals.

I'll leave aside the overwork of low-paid workers, which often involves exploitation under lax regulations, and try out a loose definition of overwork that fits white-collar workers. It is to invest disproportionate time and concentration on what you consider to be work.

This definition brings together two defining qualities of intellectual work — the time we spend on it and the quality of attention that it demands. The definition also recognises that what one person would see as work, another would conceive of as play.

What makes overwork morally unjustifiable is that the time and attention we give to it is disproportionate. Our way of working should be measured by the conditions we need in order to flourish as human beings.

If the way in which we work does not offer us space to nurture the significant relationships in our lives, to explore our other gifts, to contribute to our communities, and to reflect on the meaning and direction of our lives, we are likely to be overworking.

Of course some work, for example crafts and gardening, offers space to nurture some aspects of our humanity.

The metaphor of space brings together the time and the focus we need to bring to the variety of relationships and commitments that shape our humanity. Overwork crimps our space in a way that becomes habitual and self-destructive.

Overwork is morally unjustifiable because it makes instrumental goals central, and fails to respect deeper human values. The security, affluence, status, approval or reputation that we seek can be helpful means to develop relationships, allow us to continue learning and make a difference to others' lives. But in overworking we make these things goals, and so erode our humanity.

Of course to speak of overwork as morally unjustifiable can burden with guilt people who have no choice but to overwork. But the importance of moral reflection is to remind ourselves that we do have a choice. Certainly if we choose not to overwork we incur short-term losses for long-term and perhaps ethereal gains. That is the nature of moral choice.

When we renounce socially endorsed sins like overwork, the losses seem heavier. The culture of many workplaces encourages workers to internalise and idealise the neglect of their human dignity involved in overwork. They find it hard, a sign of failure, to leave the abusive environment.

So those who encourage an environment that makes overwork seem normal and demand that their employees fit in to it carry a heavier moral responsibility.

Since in popular myth the public service is often seen as a sheltered workshop for bludgers, Mr Rudd won some sympathy for demanding heroic work practices. The sympathy was misplaced. Overwork is particularly dangerous in the public service because public servants must consider the human dignity of those affected by the regulations they frame. They cannot reliably do this if they or their masters regard as expendable respect for their own human dignity. A culture of overwork is a public disservice.

If overwork is a sin, Mr Rudd has no business promoting it.

'Rudd to take razor gang to public service' (ABC News)

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.


Topic tags: andrew hamilton, overwork, human dignity, lazy, public service, public servants, kevin rudd



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Existing comments

It was disappointing not to see a greater backlash against this public comment by the Prime Minister. Thanks for highlighting the issues with our obsession with productivity Andrew - insightful as always.

Daniel Donahoo | 12 June 2008  

A crucial issue at the moment Andrew. It is as distressing to see people ground down by pressure of work for a reformist government as it was to see them broken in mills for private profit.

In the case of the Prime Minister's own department, people had already been subjected to excessive workloads getting such things as the Murray Darling scheme and the NT Intervention pushed through for Howard's electoral purposes, and they were exhausted before the new cruel regime of work was imposed on them.

I had reliable accounts of people of great goodwill but fragile personal circumstances being at breaking point very early in Rudd's term.

His aims are splendid, and he really does make his predecessors look lazy (though they weren't lazy when an issue involved political survival). But good people's genuine needs being disregarded, and, as you say, their being considered only as 'instruments' of an agenda has resulted in heartbreaking instances of what can only be termed exploitation.

It's not what his government is supposed to be about.

Joe Castley | 12 June 2008  

Very acute comment, Andrew - but a very similar problem arises for many Christians who are ordained or religious. For such the sense of personal identity is all tied up with their work, 'vocation' being the usual term applied - though in the scriptures this is a key description of living out of one's baptism rather than ordination.

Given that the metaphor 'servant' is in common between ministers of Christ and 'public servants', how does the sense of living out form one's identity relate to over-work?

More positively, Rudd/Rein seem to take seriously their participation in corporate worship on Sundays. This at least is one sign that living a sabbatical lifestyle is all of a piece with living from a vocational identity, in which (all being well!) toil, craft, creativity, rest, relationships and spirituality are integrated.

Charles Sherlock | 12 June 2008  

Overwork is work that is stressful and unnecessary and driven by external forces, not what you want to do.
Drudgery is forced work. Good work is work that is useful and satisfying, and may be hard or long.

Nobody dies of working hard; they die of stress. You can't force others to be stressed.

There are far more slothaholics than there are workaholics. Most things are achieved by working hard.

There is a time and a place for everything, including for leisure and for hard work.The Biblical story says God enjoyed working and then enjoyed resting.

A poor teacher tells the class,'If you are bad, I'll give you some hard work.' Good teachers tell them, 'If you are good, I will give you some hard work.'
These are critical times, and a time to enjoy working hard.

There is far too much effort wasted in our society on 'work' that is useless and wasteful of people and of resources.

val yule | 12 June 2008  

I welcome the thoughtful comments made by all above. Indeed I feel this is an important issue, however, I do feel it has been over-complicated.

We are all blessed with a variety of different talents and some of us will spend our lives searching for how our talents best fit into the complex world in which we live. It is widely accepted that, in the most part, people operate at their optimum when sufficiently rested and respected.

Surely it is God’s will that we allow our colleagues, subordinates or superiors, enough rest and respect to fulfill their God-given talents as best they can.

David Lukas | 12 June 2008  

The irony is, of course, that the party of "working families" is driving a wedge between partners, parents and children by promoting a culture of "heroic" overwork.

peter | 12 June 2008  

The issue of overwork has certainly not been out of the news here in Canberra.

James | 12 June 2008  

i find this issue of the priority placed on career/vocation a really pertinent and interesting one. i often ask myself if i'm being selfish in studying medicine, as i spend very little of my day focused on others. Moreover i see myself becoming a poor conversationalist particularly around exam time (i.e. now). ignorant of what's happening in the world the choice is between the weather and discussing IgG, MHC and the like :o

lizo | 12 June 2008  

I found this a useful analysis, and thought-provoking, but I am uncomfortable with the many apparent assumptions that seem to underlie the analysis and some of the comments to date.

Was the all-night worker "forced"/required to work the shift she admitted to doing? What concessions/compensations accrued to her as a result of this activity? Why did she have to work this long, while her superior went home? and so on....

The analysis of work has to take into account "prevailing culture" in the work environment in relation to the award conditions. Productivity is another factor that is important, and one that has been a subject of comment by the PM.

Office "culture" tends to be permissive: one can come a little late without penalty, one can make and take private calls, leave early by arrangement from time to time and take fairly "relaxed" times over tea breaks and lunch breaks, duck out for shopping or special events, have an extra "smoko" when "stressed" and so on - obviously within limits, but these vary with the philosophy of, and relationship with the supervisor.

Some people stress more easily than others: its hard to envision persons, in suitable employment, still stressed 8 months after working on a bill for the previous government!

Should white collar workers be treated more sensitively than well-paid workers on a production line? If so, why?

TED CLEARY | 12 June 2008  


I am told that it used to be considered a sin to be sad. Certainly overwork is a proven formula for ending up sad and sorry.

richard | 12 June 2008  

Andrew Hamilton is somewhat naive here.

Try being a teacher - 9am-3pm is up front preparation and marking after hours. Non teachers never believe the hours demanded of a teacher who is responsible. One who presents the lessons in the best way to meet the needs of each child in their class. Who prepares each pupil to the best of their ability and the student's for HSC.

Then if a Mum they go home, some having to collect their young one from the baby minder, shop, put on a happy face and mean it, when meeting with the older children. Prepare their afternoon tea, do the washing, prepare the evening meal, welcome their partner, hopefully the partner helps prepare the meal and cleans up.

Then do the marking and prep for tomorrow, makes sure the other family members' clothes are ready for tomorrow, including sport clothes. Andrew get into a woman & mother's skin for a day.

How about nurses and doctors? My daughter is a theatre nurse - lives in a country town, leaves home at 5.30am. Sometimes not home until 8.30pm, this is regular occurrence as component theatre nurses are in short supply. She too has a family.

What about the surgeons? Ask them their hours. What about working at top level for the 'big 'companies? Try 72 hours straight?

9 to 5 ers would be paid overtime. The people on contracts possibly not. What about the uni students and some HSC who work part time to cover their fees and text money - ask them the hours they work attend lectures and study and play if they can.

By the way, most of the people I know in the above categories are involved in their churches and communities. That's life!

BS | 13 June 2008  

Thanks for highlighting a growing problem. I believe overwork (and the expectation that we all should overwork) is a huge issue and is creating havoc with families.

Thanks for talking about the moral side - it is still a choice for a lot of people and yes it may mean a cut in our financial standard of living but I believe the gains in our family, spiritual and community lives far outweighs that in the overall picture.

I know there is huge pressure to work harder and longer. As a single mum whose children are now in primary school I am feeling that pressure to 'go and be productive' (as if nothing I do at home or as a volunteer in my church and community has any value).

There are some things in life that are worth making sacrifices (financial) for. Perhaps if we all stood our ground and said no to those demands to work longer hours we can start to regain some power in the fight for a society that is about more than the size of our houses.

Katrina Brown | 13 June 2008  

Having given over 41 plus years of my life to public service, I can say fairly that there are many many public servants who give of their all, irrespective of who is in power. Certainly some public servants are lazy and/or incompetent, but in my experience they are a small minority.

The Commonwealth government is bound by the provisions of the Commonwealth parliament's own occupational health and safety legislation which mandates safe working conditions. ComCare is the lead agency responsible for the implementation of this legislation.

If the PM wishes to follow the unbalanced lifestyle of a 'workaholic', so be it, but he should not and must not expect or require his employees to follow suit. Leaving aside the moral issue, for him to make such demands is not only contrary to the extant legislative requirements but is, I would have thought, totally at odds with the principles of the Labor (the workers') Party which he proudly leads.

From Workaholic public servant driven to depression - Feature letter from Graham Holmes

Graham Holmes | 13 June 2008  

Seriously, did anyone ever accuse John Howard of "sin" when he set about trying to reduce the Australian workforce to powerless serfs? Get a sense of proportion, please. And what about the corollary of the "sin" of overwork? Shouldn't we be accusing the Howard Government of the "sin" of sloth for doing absolutely nothing except bash workers for 11 years?

Susan Geason | 13 June 2008  

Excellent article, Rudd clearly finds it convenient to forget that Public Servants in their various roles all over the Nation also come from "working families" and deserve and need their regular working hours and time off.

Terri Marley | 13 June 2008