The pandemic has shown workers getting more attentive to their own priorities, which is reflected in the one in five Canadians who left their job for another over the past two years. Photo by Michael Swan

Work vs. life: Seeking meaning

By 
  • February 23, 2022

The “Great Resignation” does not come as a surprise to Catholic business consultant John Dalla Costa.

“In my view, the ‘Great Resignation’ is in many ways the workers’ delayed response to the last decades’ efforts by corporations to ‘re-engineer’ and ‘right-size’ and ‘outsource’ work,” Dalla Costa, founding director at the Centre for Ethical Orientation, told The Catholic Register in an email. “Having been made disposable, to use a word from Pope Francis, workers are assuming responsibility for themselves.”

Nearly one in five workers in Canada resigned over the pandemic, according to a September survey by the human resources and mental health consulting company Lifeworks. A Canadian Centre for Management Development survey last spring found 42 per cent of workers thinking of changing jobs. A December survey by Randstad Canada found 43 per cent claiming they were likely to look for a new job this year.

In certain sectors the big quit has hit harder. Statistics Canada reports that job vacancies in Canada’s health and social assistance sector increased by 78.8 per cent between the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2021. Hospital nurses are quitting in droves.

The Lifeworks survey found that 18 per cent of workers left their jobs because of stress. Thirty-five per cent of respondents between the ages of 40 and 69 told Lifeworks they were considering resignation because they are no longer appreciated on the job.

In the tradition of Catholic social teaching, St. Pope John John Paul II insisted work had to provide meaning in the life of workers. In his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, John Paul II wrote, “Through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes more a human being.’”

As Canada’s unemployment rate skyrocketed from 7.6 per cent in 1981 to 12 per cent in 1983, Joe and Stephanie Mancini were inspired by the pope’s encyclical on work to found the KW Working Centre in downtown Kitchener. In the 1980s, the Mancinis were just trying to blaze a trail into work for people left out of the job market. They were  confident that once people were working they would find meaning and community in their jobs. Forty years on, it’s not that simple, Joe Mancini said.

“A chasm has been established between the need for meaningful work and what the labour market actually offers,” Mancini said. “That chasm has always been there, but it has grown quite a bit over the pandemic. We feel it on the ground. We see it in the people coming in the door…. The idea of work as meaningful has really eroded. It’s been so undermined in society. There’s nothing that gives it dignity.”

Sault Ste. Marie Bishop Tom Dowd doesn’t believe the quest for meaning in work is necessarily a lost cause. He sees the problems in the gig economy of Uber drivers and freelancers, mainly the lack of stability and the threat to the idea of a living wage. But he also sees an opportunity for creativity and freedom. St. John Paul II’s Catholic conception of meaning in work sets it apart from both capitalist and communist models of work as toil, separated from the larger purposes of a Christian life, he said.

“It used to be that you worked hard so as to come home to feed your family. So your focus was on providing for others,” Dowd observed. “In theory, we work in order to give it away. That would be the Catholic perspective. You work so as to enrich and not just yourself, you enrich your community.”

Catholic thinking about work goes back much further than 20th-century popes. In the sixth century, St. Benedict of Nursia proposed that work should shape the day of his monks.

“When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the Apostles did, then they are really monks,” St. Benedict wrote in his rule.

Abbot Peter Novecosky thinks of work as part of the shared life of the monks at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, Sask. Just as they share the material goods of the monastery and share their spiritual lives of prayer, liturgy, reading and reflection, the Benedictines also share their work, from spiritual direction to washing the dishes.

“We share all things in common, just as presumably a family does,” Novecosky said. “The whole thing about career and striving to be the top guy is not really part of our spirituality. So we all try to contribute in whatever way we can.”

In his last testament, St. Francis recalls that in the original incarnation of the Franciscans the brothers worked.

“He seems to remember it as the good old days, when they were working,” Friar Joachim Ostermann of the Montreal Friars Minor said. Ostermann recently published Remembering Francis, Making Sense of Modern Life.

St. Francis’ idea of work is completely foreign to the modern labour market, Ostermann said.

“The idea of work just being a transaction for money — this is something that St. Francis really despised,” he said. “He was so anti-money. My theory is that it is the opposite of a relationship. So work as a relationship with ordinary people and ordinary lives, that’s I think what Francis wanted. Work for money? I think he would have been horrified by that.”

Going into bargaining when teacher contracts expire Aug. 31, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president Barb Dobrowolski wants to fight for meaning and hope in the work teachers do.

“The worst thing that happened (during the pandemic) was that we lost a great deal of work satisfaction that we normally would have had from our jobs,” said Dobrowolski. “Teachers believe very, very strongly in the transformative powers of education. We are proud to uphold professional standards and we really find that our fulfilment is from helping our students achieve.”

The meaning of work “in a large part rests on the social dimension — working together with others to realize outcomes beyond one’s personal reach and of benefit to the shared or common good,” said Dalla Costa. “Working in a company, being in company, is a relational, and in many ways sacramental, necessity.”

The pandemic has been an opportunity for people to shake things up, Dalla Costa said.

“COVID-19 not only forced people to work differently, but also to live differently,” he said. “The life-changing reality of a global pandemic allowed us to finally grasp some of the extreme imbalances in work that had become normalized. In the name of productivity and for career success we had accepted busyness to the point of exhaustion.”

Mancini pays particular attention to the bottom third of the labour market — 20 per cent of workers in part-time work, 15 per cent who are self-employed but only half of them making a living wage, and nearly seven per cent unemployed.

“You have a pretty wide swath of the labour market who are marginal to the labour market. They know they don’t count for much,” Mancini said. “The group above, though, they’re not so happy with work either.”

Ostermann believes working people are adjusting to new realities.

“What happened to people as they went through the pandemic was that they got more attentive to their priorities, to their relationships that are life-giving and meaningful,” he said.

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