24/7: The case for a day of rest in a digital age
Editor's note: This article is part of "The Ten Today," a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the fourth commandment: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy."
Caitlin Rother had finally had enough. The 20-year veteran newspaper reporter got a call on election night in 2002 at 11:30 p.m. Her editor demanded she call a source, regardless of the late hour.
So Rother left the security of a full-time job and a paycheck to become a freelance writer working at her own pace and on her own time. It was then, she later recalled, that things got really hectic.
"I thought this would be less stressful. I was wrong. Now, I'm never off deadline," she said via phone from a San Diego-area coffee shop. "I have a book deadline. (I'm working on) two or three projects at a time. It's actually very difficult for me to take time off and relax because I have a million things I think I should be doing or could be doing. It's just a different treadmill than before. It's like playing poker with my life."
Rother's experience may be extreme, but it points to a trend. According to the Center for American Progress, the typical American middle-income family worked an average of 11 more hours per week in 2006 than in 1979. Such extended working hours can take their toll. And with the increasing ubiquity of devices such as smartphones and laptops, Americans may be connected to their jobs and work lives more than ever before; "tethered" is the word often used to describe the 24/7 circumstances in which we find ourselves.
For Rother, "playing poker" came up short, and her workaholic lifestyle as a freelancer took its toll on her health: "I gave myself what I call 'laptop whiplash,' the result of a marathon interview session with the heroine of my book, 'Twisted Triangle,' during which I typed for 18 hours over a couple of days while sitting on the couch in my living room. It didn't heal properly because I had a deadline to meet and had to keep working," she wrote in an email.
"I spent 18 months in pain and I had to go through all kinds of treatments to deal with that," she said. "I had to change my lifestyle, my attitude, my diet — when I came out of that, I learned it the hard way, you can't put pressure on yourself."
Now, Rother diligently strives to take one day off each week, creating for herself a "Sabbath," a day of rest to recharge and refresh. For her, it's not religiously based, nor is it perfectly observed, but the author, who specializes in true crime books, knows that if she doesn't take a break, it truly can be hazardous to her health.
'You need to rest'
"You need to rest," Rother said. "You can't be efficient and get things done if you don't take time to rest."
Sometimes, overwork makes global headlines, as it did in August 2013 when Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, collapsed and died after working for 72 hours straight. Although a coroner later ruled Erhardt's death was caused by an epileptic seizure, the investment firm — and others — have now revised work rules to give such workers enough time to rest.
The concept of a Sabbath, indeed of a seven-day weekly cycle itself, traces back to the second chapter of the Old Testament book of Genesis, which describes what God did after a week of creating the world. "And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made." (Genesis 2:1-2, King James Version)
While Christianity inherited a day of rest from Judaism, other major world religions do not have a similar Sabbath imperative. Friday is a day of worship in the Islamic world, but that does not require a cessation from worldly activity, but rather attendance at worship. In Hinduism and Buddhism, adherents are said to continually practice their religion, so no specific day of rest or worship is appointed.
Setting apart — which Merriam-Webster says is the definition of "sanctify," from the Latin sanctus, or sacred — a day of rest is a "connective tissue across the ages," argues Dr. Sigve K. Tonstad, a physician and theologian who teaches at Loma Linda University in California. A Seventh-day Adventist, Tonstad, whose medical specialty includes diabetes treatment, believes there's a strong link between rest and health.
Statistical evidence for such a claim tends to focus on the number of hours rather than days worked. One study published in 1999 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed "an increased risk of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus for those who worked more than 50 hours of overtime a month."
Dutch researcher Monique van der Hulst of the Department of Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Nijmegen noted the study, and in 2003 wrote that her canvass of 27 studies "showed that long work hours are associated with adverse health as measured by several indicators," including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, disability retirement, and self-reported physical health and fatigue.
A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology revealed that longer workweeks led to at least a temporary decline in mental skills: "Compared with working 40 hours per week at most, working more than 55 hours per week was associated with lower scores in the vocabulary test at both baseline and follow-up. Long working hours also predicted decline in performance on the reasoning test."
No rest for disadvantaged
"There are some people who have to work 24/7 because they belong to the economically underprivileged, and there is a significant correlation between economics and health," Tonstad said. "The unhealthiest in terms of diabetes are the poor. They are also to some extent the population that is least in control of their work hours."
Tonstad, whose 2009 book "The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day" won wide praise for its scholarship, looks at the Fourth Commandment of the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai as a radical example of social justice for its time. The Israelites had just emerged from centuries of Egyptian servitude, with no "weekend" as modern workers understand it. Recalling God's rest in Genesis, Tonstad views this new commandment as a weekly return to a near-Edenic state.
"From a biblical point of view, the Sabbath rest is in some ways defined for the people and even for non-human beings that have least control of their life situation," Tonstad said. "Now, God intervenes on behalf of slaves, and offers them the privilege of rest. There's no more Pharaoh; now God is intervening. Employers are under (a biblical) obligation to let workers rest."
And despite periodic efforts to redesign the calendar — such as France's post-revolutionary effort to introduce a 10-day "week" — Tonstad said societies return to a seven-day cycle, and the wise ones include a day of rest.
"The Romans could not understand the Jewish concept of resting on the seventh day," he noted. But having a day off is "enduring," he said, adding, "Many people are saying that society needs a cooling off period; the world needs a 'time out.' We're burning the candle at both ends in so many ways — maybe society benefits, too."
One societal benefit is in having a happier workplace, according to Joyce Dubensky, CEO of Tanenbaum, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to combating religious prejudice in the workplace.
"One of the key (concerns) among Christians was they were often required to work on (Sunday)," Dubensky said, reflecting on a workplace survey Tanenbaum conducted. "When you have a company that provides flexibility in work hours for religious observance you are far less likely to have employees looking for another job, and you increase job satisfaction. In this context, atheists may need days off. Flexible days off benefit everyone."
Families find benefit
Not only societies, but also families benefit from intentional rest, said MaryAnn McKibben Dana, the bivocational pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, Va., who is also a writer and speaker. Two years ago, Dana published "Sabbath in the Suburbs" about her pursuit of a weekly day off in which all family members participated.
The impetus to find a day of rest, Dana said, "came from both directions. There was a personal need, since I was working full time and raising two little kids, and having little time for rest and renewal. Also, at the time, I was serving a church as an associate pastor of a large congregation," where the demands were plentiful.
Because Dana and her colleagues wanted to offer as many spiritual growth activities as possible, the church calendar quickly filled. "There was fatigue on the part of (church) families, but also everyone — (our) lives were overwhelmed with activity," she recalled.
When Dana and her family read about the Fourth Commandment, she said, "the answer had been staring at us all along."
Dana said she and her husband, who works in information technology, decided to "take Sabbath seriously (and) set aside time to be present to one another, slow down, recharge." However, she added, "it's more than all of that; it's a spiritual practice."
A key to her Sabbath practice, Dana said, is to unplug from the Internet, even though Facebook can be a community-affirming tool that builds relationships.
"I think there's a real sense of fatigue people have, this sense of always being accessible, expectations that bosses and workplaces have, I think that, you know, cable news and the Internet they just call to us, and there's a certain irresistible nature to the constant flow of information and entertainment," she said.
Turning off that spigot, one theologian argues, would allow people the chance to reconnect with what is most important.
"The church has to recover a sense of what it means to be involved in repair, restoration, renewal, human flourishing — all of this comes together in the Sabbath," said Rodney L. Petersen, a Boston University theology professor who is also president of the Lord's Day Alliance, a Protestant group that promotes Sabbath-keeping.
"What is so central about the importance of Sunday for Christian community is that grounded in the resurrection of Christ, that newness of life should be brought into all relationships on a Sunday," Petersen said. "Martin Luther argued for the ending of all of the saints' days and for there simply to be one celebration every seven days, and that's Sunday."
Petersen echoed the thoughts of others when he said a weekly Sabbath observance is not just a coming trend in society, but it's also a way to rage against the machine-oriented culture.
"Intentional faith communities, whether Jewish or Christian or others, will increasingly be islands of countercultural practice in what I fear is an increasingly commercialized society," Petersen said. "There, they will experience more freedom."