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What is the right amount of time to spend at work?

I recently watched the documentary Happy, which explores the concept of happiness in different cultures. The filmmakers travel the world looking at different communities and how they think about happiness.

The film’s segment on Japan focuses in part on the Japanese notion of “karōshi.” Karōshi literally means “death from overwork.”

The first reported case of karōshi was in 1969. In the late 1980s it began to be more rigorously tracked. In 1988 the Japanese National Defense Council for Victims of Karoshi was organized to study the phenomenon. As the Japanese National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reported in a 2006 Country Report, there were 300 cases of reported karōshi between 2002 and 2005.

In Happy, a Japanese widow was interviewed whose husband died at a young age from work related stress. She described his long absences from home, his inability to get his mind off of work, and how his long hours affected his relationship with their daughter.

One day, when he seemed particularly tired as he left for work, she received a call that her husband had collapsed and could not be resuscitated. He had died of stress related heart failure before arriving at the hospital.

Stories like this are not unique to Japan. One article in the Japan Times says Japan is not the only Asian country to experience this phenomenon. China and South Korea each have names for workers who work themselves to death: guolaosi and gwarosa, respectively.

I am not an expert on East Asian cultures, so I do not feel qualified to make any proscriptions on what in the culture is the root cause. For Japan, the documentary blames the work ethic arising in the post-World War II construction period.

While that may or may not be, I do know that this is a gross distortion of the biblical meaning of work. It’s a temptation we all face, because it’s a common temptation to make an idol of our work. For too many of us, work becomes an end in itself, instead of a means by which we glorify God and transform culture.

To best serve Christ, it is important to be mindful of the ill effects our habits have on us, including our tendency to overwork ourselves. 

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says,

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

This verse speaks to where our devotions lie. Are we working to serve God, or to serve money? Are we working to serve God, or our idol of work?

In guarding against this idol, it is important to keep our eyes on Jesus, to cultivate a relationship with him and those in his church. Over at The High Calling, Tina Howard, recently wrote about how the character of Christ helps her decide how to spend her time: 

Throughout the day as I face decisions about how to spend my time, I try to ask myself how I can demonstrate a characteristic of Christ to those around me. Some days that means I choose to work a little longer than usual in order to complete a project for a client on time because Christ is faithful to keep his word. Other days I take time off to care for a sick friend or spend a special day with my daughter, as Christ valued and honored relationships in his life.

This is part of what it looks like to balance the multiple calls placed upon the Christian. As Hugh Whelchel explains in How Then Should We Work?, there are several calls the Christian seeks to answer. Our primary call is to Jesus Christ; from that flow the secondary callings to church, family, community, and work.

The primary call to Christ is what orders these secondary callings. A properly ordered life values the importance of work. Yet while we work hard, “as if for the Lord,” we know we cannot neglect our other secondary callings.

Karōshi is a tragic example of myopic focus on serving what may be a cultural idol of work. Praying for those victims’ families and healing for what is the root cause of that phenomenon is important.

As we go about our work, let us remember to keep Christ at the center and mindful of what it means to serve him in our whole lives.

How do you juggle work, family, church, and community? Leave your comments here.

Taylor Barkley

About Taylor Barkley

Taylor Barkley is an outreach associate at a non-profit public policy center in the Washington, DC area and is also a graduate student in the George Mason University School of Public Policy. Mr. Barkley graduated from Taylor University in 2009 with a double major in history and political science.

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  • Ruth

    I understand why and how people get caught up in the pressure of work. I have been there. But God knows how to make you sit down & pay attention. Psalm 127:2 tells us, “It is vain..” to work around the clock. That mentality is based on US needing to do that, that its all about what we accomplish for ourselves and failing to understand God’s divine provision and that He commands us to REST and trust in him and not ourselves.

    • Taylor Barkley

      Ruth – Thanks for sharing that great verse and some of your
      experience. I definitely agree with you. – Taylor

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