Time to recover the sabbath, says new report

(Photo: Unsplash/Joel Muniz)

Home working, zero hours contracts, the switch to home deliveries and online retailing, and an 'always on' culture - the world of work is changing fast and massively.

The Covid pandemic has accelerated changes and turbo-charged trends that make the old 'nine to five' office-based routines seem a far, distant memory.

Now UK faith-based think tank Theos has come up with key proposals aimed at helping modern-day workers survive and thrive despite both the current changes – and the major challenges coming down the track. One proposal suggests 'recovering the sabbath.'

In a new report, 'Just Work: humanising the labour market in a changing world', Theos identifies three 'great disruptions' facing the world of work. They highlight: the technological - Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and automation; the ecological - climate change and loss of biodiversity; and human vulnerability, as seen through the pandemic, migration and declining birth rates.

Theos explains, "Any of these would see many jobs eliminated, replaced, or changed. Together they create an unpredictable environment in which work could be dehumanised – or we could seize these disruptions as an opportunity to humanise work and working conditions.

"As the relationship between work, time and place changes, there is a need to rediscover patterns of rest for human beings and for ecosystems."

Even before the pandemic, writers such as John Mark Comer were encouraging Christians to rediscover a slower, simpler way of life. His bestselling 'The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry' advocates a return to spiritual practices such as Sabbath, Silence and Solitude, Simplicity and Slowing, and a rejection of the 'always on' culture promoted by 21st century working practices, social media and communications.

Organisations such as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity have long emphasised the importance of the world of work – often neglected by church leaders. LICC points out that most Christians spend the vast majority of their waking lives outside of church 'on the frontline' – in shops and schools, in homes and offices and gyms.

LICC is committed to "empowering Christians to make a difference for Christ in their Monday to Saturday lives, helping church leaders equip their church communities to do it, and fuelling a movement to reach and renew the nation."

During the pandemic, increasing numbers of people have shifted to working from home, from in-person shopping to ordering online, having take-aways delivered, and watching streaming services instead of going to the cinema. Multiple lockdowns have propelled many changes in the way society functions.

But people working from home or in the 'gig economy' delivering food or online orders, have discovered they are being watched - and watched closely. Software fitted to home computers or installed in vehicles is monitoring when and how people are working. The move to home working has meant an increased erosion of defined working hours, with 'the boss' able to make demands round-the-clock.

In response, Theos makes three key proposals:

1. First, a focus on a full work, rather than full employment economy. Paid employment is the main – but not the only – form of work, and unpaid labour, such as caring responsibilities and volunteer work, need greater esteem and focus from a policy perspective. Thinking around labour should also acknowledge, create space for, and properly support unpaid but essential forms of work, as well as recognising disparities in paid employment.

2. Recognition of the human person as central to any healthy understanding of work. Investors, and first and foremost church investors, have achieved tangible changes through activism in areas such as climate change and governance. They should add clear requirements on the fair handling of wages, benefits, agency work, outsourcing and employee surveillance to the social criteria they look at within environmental, social and governance investing.

3. Recovery of shared practices of rest to counter our culture of overwork. Dissolving boundaries between employment and leisure – exacerbated during the pandemic – have negatively affected many workers. Overwork is literally killing people. For many, a combination of technology and the pandemic have broken the link between work and particular places and times – leading to an expectation, even if it is only an expectation of ourselves, that we will always be available.

Theos also recommends that the UK should have more public holidays, that we look for ways to eliminate at least some of the vast quantity of unpaid overtime in the economy, and that the Living Hours movement of the Living Wage Foundation be supported by faith groups.

Paul Bickley, one of the report's authors, explains: "The issue is not work itself, but rather what happens when we make work, rather than the people who do it, our focus. We are disconnected from a healthy sense of work, and severing the needed boundaries between work and rest has set us adrift.

"The biblical idea of Sabbath is an ancient answer to modern anxieties. It's time to rediscover it.

"Work is changing rapidly. Churches have a somewhat forgotten heritage of addressing these questions, and a strong intellectual framework from which they can think through many of the emerging issues.

"The pandemic, horrendous crisis though it is, represents a rare opportunity for societies to think about what they value highly."

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK and the author of 'Responding to Post-truth'.