On May 1 every year, Singapore honours Labour Day with a public holiday. It might not be intuitive to ask the meaning of this holiday but there is a rich history behind it.

It was instituted to remember labour movements, particularly in Europe and the United States, which struggled for a fair number of work hours per day. This occurred at a time when most workers had few rights and endured poor working conditions; governments back then did little, and business owners had far more freedom. Unsurprisingly, mistreatment of workers was so widespread that Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum on the conditions of workers. This began the modern tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Later on, Pope Pius XII also honoured workers by establishing the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, also on May 1.

We probably do not think much about Labour Day today because most workers have far more rights than they used to. Workers with a higher pay grade, like managers, often have better working conditions than small business owners. Does that mean Labour Day and the feast day of St Joseph the Worker no longer hold significance for many of us today? No. The spirit of the holiday remains relevant, although in a different context.

On the one hand, we must continue to honour the work of low-income workers, who often suffer poor working conditions, without whom the society cannot operate. We need to be kind and support initiatives that give them a more just compensation and working condition. On the other hand, more universally, we need Labour Day to remind us to reflect on a source of misery for so many workers of all pay grades: overwork. Even seemingly comfortable work-from-home arrangements due to Covid-19 ended up making most people work even more.

“Overwork violates both the dignity of the worker and the dignity of work.”

While work is about the activities done by the worker, CST informs us that work is also about the worker – Scripture tells us that God created humans in His image and the first human was put in the Garden of Eden to care for it. Thus, there is inherent dignity in the human person and in the work performed by the person, provided it is done well and ethically.

Work then is a way for a person to express their human dignity and develop their gifts. Moreover, work connects a person to other people and allows them to participate in the development of the society. Thus, overwork violates both the dignity of the worker, who should not be treated as merely a tool or a means to an economic end, and also the dignity of work, which is meant to help the human person realise their full potential. In other words, overwork is profoundly contrary to God’s plan.

What can we do then? We must ask ourselves if we have tried to manage our lives so that we are not overworked, lest work becomes our master. Scripture warns us that “no one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Since it is often difficult for us to control how much work we have, those of us who are employers or managers have a greater responsibility. Do we ensure those under charge are not overworked and get enough rest? Do we care only about results, or do we consider whether their work helps them to develop as God’s children?

In John 15:1-8, Jesus invited His disciples to glorify the Father by bearing much fruit. If we make the effort to change the way we understand work, our discipleship could become so much more fruitful at the workplace, where we spend much of our life.

First published in Catholic News. Reprinted with permission.