“If Work Won’t Kill You, Stress Will” : Jewish Communal Practice in an Age of Anxiety

By Steven Windmueller Ph.D., on behalf of the Wind Group,
Consulting for the Jewish Future

Various studies on business and nonprofit professionals report that “burn out” represents the single major factor leading to resignation and career change. The Conference Board, a nonprofit think tank in New York, focusing on management and the marketplace, found “‘the majority of Americans continue to be unhappy at work.’” This 2012 Study of more than 5000 households revealed the following:

  • 63% say they have high levels of stress at work, with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control.
  • 39% cite the workload as the top cause of stress.
  • 53% take frequent “stress breaks” at work to talk with others; 36% say they just work harder.
  • Almost half (46%) cite stress and personal relationship issues as the most common reason for absences, ahead of medical reasons or care-giving responsibilities.

It is therefore not surprising that business magazines and leadership publications regularly address the question of stress and burn out, including this month’s Kiplinger’s “Healthy Living” six-page special report dealing with work-related stress.[1]

The Huffington Post reported:

“… several recent studies indicate that only about a third of U.S. employees are truly engaged with their work. This minority may be high achievers or high potentials or just people who are just as passionate about their work with no desires to move up the corporate ladder. The challenge for business leaders is to determine what sets them apart from their co-workers and what can companies do to make more employees like them. What tools could they provide their managers and senior leaders to motivate and coach their employees that does not require overtime and “over-thought”? What motivators could be instituted that may not cost a dime but bring enrichment and enlightenment to those that are feeling burnt out, underappreciated, or just plain bored?”

How we understand the concept of “work” has changed over the past fifty years, in response to the impact of technology, globalization, and specialization. Even the legal elements associated with the work setting have been altered. Simultaneously, the relationship of the worker to his/her colleagues and the workplace environment has undergone a major transition.

Inside the Jewish Community:

How is this problem understood within Jewish communal practice and within the American rabbinate?

Indeed, there are various studies on Jewish professional “burn out.” Sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman noted that in her work on Jewish communal professionals that they were “expected to be fund raisers as well as educators, spiritual leaders or administrators.” Some professionals “described situations in which they struggle with overwhelming amounts of work, in which there are few recognized boundaries, in which they feel called upon to meet the needs for many and at all times and in which they simultaneously feel isolated and underappreciated.”

Similarly, Rabbi Leslie Freedman’s study on the American rabbinate would point to role-transitions taking place among pulpit rabbis, and what he refers to as the diminishing power of the rabbinate:

“As much as congregations respect rabbis, they consider them paid employees and as such don`t have the same kind of status. The rabbi often has to take on the role of day-to-day manager. Few rabbis are trained to be managers. The abuse on the part of boards of directors who are looking for someone they can control rather than someone who can influence them is really an intrinsic part of the problem.”

So what are the symptoms of stress and burnout? They include a number of elements: depression, sleeplessness, exhaustion, and tension, a feeling of lack of accomplishment, loss of patience, anger, fatigue, and anxiety.

Jewish Tradition Responds:

Judaism has creatively weighed-in on this issue. While there is much wisdom one can draw from within the tradition on this subject matter, here are but a few considerations. Proverbs provides some interesting insights, when we read:

“Anxiety in the heart of a person causes dejection, but a good word will turn it into joy.” Proverbs 12:25

In Ethics of Our Fathers our tradition offers the following: “Aseh lecha rav,” make for yourself a teacher, “uk’neh lecha chaver,” and get yourself a friend. Suggesting that we require people in our lives individuals who will be there for us when we need to refocus and deal with the anxieties associated with work-related stress.

“Judaism is a religion of the body. Judaism has long had within it a strong environmental and body consciousness. …Judaism holds that the soul is not distinct from the body. The body is not a place of sin or destruction; it is a site for holiness.”[2]

Going further into our tradition, we uncover Maimonides’ Regimen of Health where he argued that stress and anxiety should be treated by employing a combination of resources both physical and psychological. His holistic approach must be seen as transformational.

Creating a Response:

Over the years there have been a number of recommendations offered to improve the work environment from both generic sources to specific Jewish responses. One set of recommendations was offered recently offered by two former HUC (Zelikow) students. Indeed, over the past several years, there have been a number of articles addressing this phenomenon employing a Jewish lens.

Possibly no other subject area has evoked as many responses as has the issue of work-related stress. Literally, hundreds of websites, studies, articles and books can be found to address this question, some dealing with the psychological and physical (medical) implications, while others explore “solutions” to managing and resolving why this phenomenon is occurring and how as a society we might be responsive.

[1] Sandra Block, “De-Stress Your Life” Kiplinger’s, Volume 71, No. 2, pages 64-69
[2] Shmirat Haguf: Health and Wellness in Body and Mind

Dr. Steven Windmueller on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller served as the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.