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Sick of WorkSick of Work

Sick of Work

Father Raymond de Souza finds recent concerns about people working themselves into mental illness, on Parliament Hill and elsewhere, have an ancient, Gospel solution.

Raymond J. de Souza
4 minute read

This week’s Hill Times, the parish bulletin for those who work, lobby, or lounge about Parliament Hill, includes a nine-page special report on mental health. “Canada’s Politics and Government Newspaper,” as it styles itself, is reporting that many of those who work on the Hill are not altogether mentally healthy. 

I know. It’s an opening for hundred punchlines. But that is part of the point of the special report, to make mental health less of a joking matter, and to give it serious attention. 

There is a column by the Minister of Health, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, which opens with the acknowledgement that “at age 13, my brother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The stigma was powerful. Now, as health minister, I’m heartened to know that today my brother’s diagnosis would be seen very differently. Progress is possible.”

Indeed, at one point a minister of the Crown would have kept that part of her family history hidden, rather than a public motivation for action. Progress is possible.

I had not been in the Parliament buildings for perhaps a year, but along with my colleagues Peter Stockland and Ray Pennings, I attended the Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom this week, hosted for the seventh consecutive year by the indefatigable David Anderson, MP from Saskatchewan. 

Getting into the Parliament buildings is now such a security hassle that it may well be some time before I return again. It was 30 years ago that I first visited Parliament, and in those days it was a much more relaxed place. Ordinary citizens, with no more bother than asking a receptionist, could head off to visit their MP’s office. And in that more gentle age, it was quite possible that an MP might entertain an unexpected visitor. The place is not that gentle, the pace not that accommodating, anymore.

One of the Hill Times articles that caught my attention had implications far beyond Parliament Hill. It was written by Majid Jowhari, the MP for Richmond Hill. He turns out to be something of an authority, founding the Liberal Mental Health Caucus and, later, the Parliamentary Mental Health Caucus. For such initiatives he was designated as this year’s Parliamentary Mental Health Champion by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health.  

His column is choked with all the jargon of progressives in Parliament – historic “investments”, “diversity of perspectives” and “breaking the stigma.” Yet it was this striking phrase that caught my attention as he characterized a workplace “that fetishizes exhaustion and encourages staff to take pride in being overworked and under-appreciated.”

There is something to that. But is it a fetish? Or is it glamorisation of work in terms of sheer quantity: the more the better? 

I recall about a decade ago being at a dinner in a restaurant near Parliament Hill, about eight or 10 of us, several MPs and Hill staff. The young lady to my left hardly ate, and engaged in no conversation at all. She was on her Blackberry the whole time, devotedly tapping away at the expense of her dinner and her dining companions. 

There were plenty of interesting people at the table, so it was no loss to the rest of us, but I certainly felt bad for her. At the end of the dinner I asked what she did. She worked in the communications office for the Minister of Labour. I asked her what the crisis was – a pending strike of essential workers somewhere? 

I’ll never forget her response. There was no crisis. Why would I think there was? Her constant communication with the office was just a typical night, she informed me in a slightly patronizing tone, given that I evidently did not appreciate how in demand the communications officials for the Minister of Labour were. The poor young woman did not regret that she missed out on our dinner and conversation; she was proud of it, evidence of how important she was. 

I imagine with Twitter and Facebook communication, officials are even more important, more in demand, more on the job even when not at work. I suppose “fetish” is not altogether a bad term for those who celebrate such disproportionate hours. 

That’s not exclusive to Parliament Hill. Certain professions – law and medicine among them – pride themselves on working their initiates to the brink of exhaustion and beyond.

More than a fetish, we have something of a cult of work. It’s not unusual to hear people boast of the vacations they do not take; their employer, their business, their world could not possibly get on without them. Is it a mental health problem, or just a lack of proper priorities, an identification of one’s self-worth that unduly depends on the hours worked, as if not working means that nobody values you at that moment?

Excess in any area does often compromise health, so I am not surprised that there are bad mental health outcomes from the idolatry of work. Interestingly, though, “workaholic” remains an ambiguous term, sometimes even complimentary, in a way that “alcoholic” is not.

All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. We’ve known that for a long time. But does it also make Jack sick? Perhaps. It certainly makes Jack less than he should be, and less than he was created to be. Genesis teaches us that work is good for man, that it is suited to him. But work is made for man, not man for work, to paraphrase the words of Jesus about the Sabbath. Yes, the Sabbath, and other times set aside from work for God. It may be that this most recent of phenomena – fetishizing exhaustion – has an ancient solution.

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