What the Anti-work Discourse Gets Wrong

Tech companies are offering spiritual care to make employees more productive, and it’s likely a sign of what’s to come in other industries.

Today’s tech firms realize the benefit of meeting the spiritual needs of their busy employees.
If the American theocracy of work is to be dismantled, it won’t happen by just changing jobs or attitudes. (Chaimae Studio)

Lately, we’ve seen a proliferation of discussions about the end of work as we know it. In this third year of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans are burned out, quitting their jobs in record numbers, and reconsidering the place of work in their lives. According to pundits, the “Great Resignation” signals a new era: the end of ambition, the rise of anti-work sentiment, and the possibility that we’re entering a time when a job might just be a job. But I’m doubtful that any of this will change Americans’ collective worship of work. What these conversations don’t take into account is the invisible religion of work that’s become an unassailable part of our culture. At a time when religious-affiliation rates are at the lowest they’ve been in the past 73 years, we worship work—meaning we sacrifice for and surrender to it—because it gives us identity, belonging, and meaning, not to mention that it puts food on our tables. If the American theocracy of work is to be dismantled, it won’t happen by just changing jobs or attitudes. It will require a fundamental transformation in the social system that dictates which institutions we derive fulfillment from.

Contrary to the new wisdom, work does love us back. That’s what I found while researching my new book, Work Pray Code, a study of work and spirituality in Silicon Valley tech firms, which are sometimes seen as models for American work culture. Despite professionals benefiting in several ways from our jobs, many of us talk about work as extractive: We say that we sell our souls at work; we describe it as draining. But in Silicon Valley, work is where many people find their souls. Over the course of five years, I interviewed more than 100 tech-industry professionals who echoed this sentiment. One young engineer, a former evangelical Christian who moved from Georgia to join a San Francisco start-up, told me that he had transferred his fervor for religion onto work. His company became his new faith community, providing him with the belonging, meaning, and mission that he’d once found in his church back home. In the fellowship of his start-up, he developed the faith that their enterprise social-networking app would “change the world.” The engineer was one of many people who described themselves as becoming more “whole,” “spiritual,” or “connected” because of work.

That’s not a coincidence. Professionals have devoted more of their time to work in the past few decades. At the same time, many of them have also withdrawn from their religious observation, civic organizations, and community groups, according to the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. Religious affiliation, in particular, is notably lower in knowledge-industry hubs such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston. Now many tech companies have taken up the task of spiritual care in order to make their workers more productive. Companies design the work experience so that their employees can “be that fulfilled person,” as one human-resources professional put it to me. Another HR professional told me that the job of a “great HR” is to “nourish peoples’ souls when they are working so hard.” That’s why places like Google and Salesforce, for example, bring in Buddhist teachers and have dedicated meditation rooms to give employees the time and space to connect with their authentic selves. They provide their senior leaders with executive coaches whom one manager described to me as “spiritual advisers.” All of these offerings help tech workers align the deepest parts of themselves with their work.

But these perks aren’t offered in order to better employees for their own sake, and many tech companies have been criticized for prizing productivity and profit over the well-being of their workers. Still, today’s firms realize the benefit of meeting the spiritual needs of their busy employees, and providing these services gives them a competitive advantage. For instance, it paid off when one start-up invested in one of their talented young engineers by paying for him to attend a mindfulness-meditation program and a spiritual retreat and to work with an executive coach. The young engineer, now bolstered with a sense of mission and purpose directed at work, quickly rose to be head engineer, the company’s CEO told me. Work became more fulfilling to him and the company profited from his growth.

To be sure, the tech workers in my study are an extreme example of work fulfillment in America. The jobs of many Americans, especially those without college degrees, have been offshored and automated. For them, along with so many of today’s gig workers, work comes with fewer benefits and has become less available, less secure, and less meaningful. And yet in their attitudes toward work, many Americans are not so different from tech workers. According to a recent McKinsey survey, 70 percent of professionals said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work. Most Americans say that they’ve made close friends on the job. And many professionals describe a good job with words such as calling, mission, and purpose—terms that were once reserved for religion. The majority of companies aren’t offering consultations with Buddhist monks, but even traditional corporations such as Aetna and General Mills have brought spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness into the office. Businesses are gradually positioning themselves as our new houses of worship, feeding people a gospel of divine purpose within the workplace. Silicon Valley is not an outlier but a harbinger for American professionals.

Even for those of us who have started looking elsewhere for fulfillment by starting a new hobby, taking a sabbatical, or securing a better, more meaningful job, all of these solutions leave the theocracy of work intact. These individual actions do nothing to change a system that concentrates all of its material, social, and spiritual rewards in the institution of work. The only way to reorient is by revitalizing and building shared “houses of worship” outside of work, changing the structures that organize our fulfillment. These houses of worship would have to claim our time, energy, and devotion like work does. We would have to sacrifice and submit to their demands, as we do for work. We would have to build communities of belonging, together seeking meaning and purpose outside of our productive labor. These houses of worship needn’t be only religious ones; they could also be our co-ops, neighborhoods, unions, reading groups, or political clubs—anything in the panoply of civic organizations that can help us visualize human flourishing that rises above a company’s bottom line.

David Foster Wallace wrote, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism … Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” As pandemic restrictions ease, we are returning to our offices, our schools, and our town halls. This moment invites us to choose anew what we will worship, to whom we will belong, and what we will fill with meaning. The question is a collective one: What will we make sacred? If we don’t ask, and if we don’t change, we will only continue marching down a well-worn path that will leave us with work as the last meaningful institution standing.