Book Review – Under Pressure: How the Gospel Helps Us Handle the Pressures of Work

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce you to a new book by Andrew Laird titled Under Pressure: How the Gospel Helps Us Handle the Pressures of Work. This book makes an important contribution by discussing a very common issue for daily work: stress.

Andrew Laird joined the faculty at Ridley College in 2016. He also serves as Dean of the Ridley Marketplace Institute. Laird has a background in journalism, having worked as a radio newsreader and reporter. He studied at Sydney Missionary and Bible College where he completed an M.Div. and is currently undertaking research for an M.Th. in missional ethics. Laird lectures at Ridley in the Philosophy and Ethics department in subjects related to faith and work and works with the Melbourne City Bible Forum directing a program called Life@Work. He is passionate about seeing Christians connect their faith with all aspects of their daily labor. Read a previous TGR interview with him here.

The genesis for this book came when Laird attended his annual company occupational health and safety training. Workplace injuries are increasingly all too common and are not limited to blue collar workers. Recent data reveals that 27% of all office injuries are related to stress and pressure. Regardless of the environment in which you work, you likely don’t need much convincing about the realities of work stress.

‘Why do I feel so stressed about work?’ ‘Is life always going to feel this overwhelming and busy?’ ‘How can my faith help me cope with the demands of my workplace?’

If you’ve asked these kinds of questions before, you’re not alone. When it comes to our daily work, most of us are feeling the squeeze. We’re Under Pressure. -from the book’s promotional website

Laird unpacks the issue of workplace stress by outlining five common causes he has encountered:

  1. The wealth of choices we enjoy
  2. The changing way we work
  3. The people we work with
  4. The pressure to fit in
  5. The need to keep on top of everything

Suffice it to say, I needed to read what Laird had to say about all of these areas for my personal development. For the purposes of this review, however, I will highlight a few of them .

First, the wealth of choices we enjoy; in other words, the pressure to ‘have it all.’ We live in a culture where we not only enjoy great privilege, but an enormous number of choices. Laird reflected on the options available during a recent trip to the grocery store to pick up some yogurt for his kids on the way home. Our choices don’t stop with yogurt. Just look down the other aisles at the grocery store, not to mention choices for hotels on vacation, events to attend in your city, and apps to download on your cell phone.

The pressure to have it all is a real pressure. It pervades our culture. But oftentimes, as we’ve seen, it is primarily self-imposed. We can choose not to pursue ‘having it all’.

That won’t always be easy in a world that is telling us otherwise, and we will need to keep reminding ourselves of the all-satisfying, all-powerful, eternal God we know and can rest in. But when we do live that way it is wonderfully freeing. To be free from the pursuit of trying to have it all is truly liberating. It is to experience the kind of freedom from burdens that Jesus promises those who take on his easy yoke (Matthew 11:30).

But not all the pressure we experience is self-imposed. Not all of it is internally driven or our own fault. Rather, we’re part of a working world that imposes enormous pressure upon us.

Next, Laird discusses the pressure of ever-present work. The pervasive nature of our work is due in large part to changes in technology which have brought about changes in the how, when, and where of work.

For all the potential positives, however, the combination of endless work possibilities and no apparent escape from that work is placing most of us under enormous pressure. According to one recent survey, 46% of workers in Australia say technology makes them feel like they are ‘always on’. ‘When reflecting on the impacts of the changing workplace, respondents were largely in agreement that advances in technology have not, in the main, freed them from work, but made work a constant pressure in their lives.’

The pervasive “busy” that many workers now experience resulting in a system that can make the worker feel like a slave at times, Laird cites Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to a Culture of Now:

These gods of commoditization for the most part go unchallenged in our world. As a result, their exploitative systems go unchallenged and unnoticed. The abuse becomes normal. Restlessness is unexceptional. Anxiety is a given, and violence is unexamined as ‘the cost of doing business’. It is all a virtual reality in which we become narcotized into a system that seems to be a given rather than a construction.

So, what is the worker to do in this world of seemingly unavoidable work? Laird recommends a ‘better kind of slavery.’

‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28–30).

This section of the book in particular is well worth the price of admission. I don’t want to spoil it completely, but here are some suggestions Laird provides in the face of pervasive work:

  • Practice humility and gentleness
  • Say “no”
  • Turn off from work
  • Don’t always choose the most efficient way

He closes this chapter with a section describing what to do when there is no escape from work. This is certainly the case for some workers and I believe it can bring hope and encouragement to the reader.

Laird also discusses what I think is the “elephant in the room,” how we handle difficult workplace relationships. Laird opens the chapter with some interesting stats related to mobility. He notes that the average worker’s tenure is three years and four months. This figure drops to two years and eighty months for workers age 25 to 35. The average worker will have 17 different jobs during his or her lifetime and five different careers. These statistics underscore the importance of workplace relationships as well as the  importance of faith and work integration.

Of course, work colleagues can be some of the best people in our lives. They, more than anyone else, can understand the pressures, challenges and joys of our daily work environment because they’re in the thick of it with us. Our work colleagues appreciate the ups and downs of our particular jobs far better than some of our family members and closest friends. But when the people that we work with are difficult, it can make daily work miserable.

Laird presents a few different strategies for managing difficult workplace relationships. These strategies include moving away, moving toward and attacking, and loving your enemies. He actually ends up recommending a different way to interact with co-workers: lean in with love.

Jesus is not teaching that we walk away from the person who insults us. Neither does he teach that we should retaliate and insult them back. Both of these actions flow from a posture of self-protection, handling the situation with our own interests primarily in mind. Instead, Jesus gently instructs us to place the interests of others before our own. He tells us to lean in with love – to make ourselves vulnerable by leaning in with our cheek towards the other.

Laird closes the chapter with three principles to lean in with love in our workplace. Tend to relationships like plants – they require nurture for growth; give, rather than withhold, good things – Luke 6:29 sums up why this is important; pray for those who mistreat you; and be a radical witness.

I wonder if you have ever tried praying for that colleague who infuriates you? We spend so much time thinking about them, but how much time do we actually spend praying for them? If you have ever made a habit of praying for your difficult colleagues then you’ll know what happens – it becomes very difficult to remain infuriated with them!

Laird offers the reader a valuable gift throughout the book in the form of ‘Heart and Habit Change’ sections at the end of each chapter. Some of these offer reflection to help catalyze habit changes while others offer questions to help the reader understand their core problems with pressure. Laird acknowledges the issue of stress is complex and therefore does not view his book as a ‘one size fits all’ answer. He hopes this book makes a contribution to help us handle the matter better.

If you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover that the mantra ‘choose your own destiny’ is in fact a great myth. Countless studies have proven that, rather than being the great individuals we might think we are, we have a powerful propensity to conform to those around us. Michael Bond’s The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do is a compelling, at times disturbing, book that documents scientific trial after trial, detailing the extent to which we are shaped by those around us. Everything, from what we wear, to what we believe, to how we feel, is shaped by the community we find ourselves a part of and the people we rub shoulders with.

But there is one thing that we all need to help us handle pressure. And that is the Gospel. I’m convinced that God’s good news for us in Jesus addresses our problems with pressure and paves the way to the changed hearts and habits that will help us to handle it. There is hope for those under pressure.

I had the opportunity to connect with Laird by email. I was intrigued with the subtitle of this book making a connection between the Gospel and work pressures. I asked him to share some of his thoughts on this aspect of the book. He writes:

In the Christian circles that I move it is often said that “the gospel makes a difference in all of life”. I firmly believe that, but sometimes we make that statement and fail to explain “how”. In this book I wanted to explain the “how”, in particular for an issue that is very relevant to many of us – workplace pressure. So the subtitle refers to my attempt to explain how the good news of the Gospel makes a difference when it comes to handling workplace pressure. I’m convinced that the Gospel does indeed provide us with the resources to handle the specific 21st century pressures of work, and my book is an attempt to show that.

I want to offer my thanks to Andrew for his good work in writing this book and I pray it will be a source of encouragement and inspiration. Workers in all vocations experience stress. This book provides some practical tools to mitigate that stress so that workers and their organizations can flourish. I recommend this book for your reading as well as for sharing with those in your network. The book is ideal with small group study as each chapter has discussion questions included.

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