Over 20 million Americans chose to quit their jobs since September 2021. The forces behind “the Great Resignation” are complex, and the reasons why workers have called it quits vary widely. According to the Pew Research Center, the primary reasons are very practical in nature, such as too many (or too few) work hours and lack of flexible scheduling.
But the explanation of “burnout” has received special attention, perhaps because two years into a global pandemic, everybody appears to be utterly exhausted. Never mind the fact that many of the sources of our exhaustion–an endless series of Covid variants and surges, for example, and an inadequate system of childcare that has left working parents in the lurch–are so often beyond our individual control. The solutions offered by sympathetic friends, concerned co-workers, and journalists who write in the wellness section of the New York Times generally focus on being the best you, and they all sound the same after awhile. Download a meditation app on your smartphone! Do some yoga! Go for a walk in between Zoom calls and experience ten minutes of awe-inspiring nature!
It seems that they were all trained by the same coaches and wellness experts at the center of Carolyn Chen’s insightful new book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton University Press). A sociologist and ethnic studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Chen offers a nuanced ethnographic study of how tech companies draw on religion and spirituality to prevent burnout among their employees and–most important–ensure a high level of worker productivity that promises maximum profit to the company. Finding religion and spirituality in a corner of the country that many people assume to be thoroughly secular, Chen offers a provocative and richly detailed portrait of contemporary work culture and its instrumentalist approach to religion.
Chen’s argument, it must be noted, is in many ways specific to the particular working conditions of knowledge workers. In a knowledge economy, workers are a company’s greatest asset, and anything that diminishes knowledge workers’ ability to create, imagine, and solve problems is a danger to the company’s bottom line. For this reason, tech companies endeavor to ensure that their workers are well and not overworked. “When I asked people in human resources what the biggest industry problem might be, their answer was unanimous: ‘Burnout,'” writes Chen.
To prevent burnout, tech companies practice what Chen calls “corporate maternalism.” This corporate materialism involves attending to workers’ bodily needs as well as their spiritual needs. But for tech employers to care for workers is not an essentially altruistic move; it is a fundamentally a concern for the bottom line. “Companies provide spiritual care, but not because they are spiritual institutions like churches, synagogues, or temples, whose goal is the spiritual development of the member,” Chen writes. “Rather, they attend to the spirit for the reason they attend to body and mind: to ensure that the human worker can produce at his or her highest capacity. Corporate maternalism’s spirituality is instrumental–a means to an end, not an end in itself.”
The effort to attend to workers’ spiritual needs takes a variety of forms. For example, companies offer yoga classes and instruct employees in mindfulness and meditation. In addition, the “coaching community” aims to help workers “connect” to their “authentic selves,” which companies hope will allow workers to fully unleash greater possibilities of workplace contribution. The aim, Chen explains, is “not simply caring for the spirit but growing the value of the spirit.”
Tech employers minister to workers’ spiritual needs without necessarily calling these initiatives “religion” or even “spirituality.” However, many of the spiritual practices incorporated into the Silicon Valley workplace originate in Asian religions but are turned into secularized and Americanized “tools to optimize work performance.” For example, tech companies promote a form of meditation and mindfulness that Chen describes as “Whitened Buddhism” because it is stripped of its religious-ness and Asian-ness. (“Renouncing its Asian heritage is a precondition for Buddhism’s entry into the tech company” she explains.)
The ultimate purpose of these efforts, Chen writes, is to ensure that workers burnout less frequently and, most important, continue to be productive workers who give their whole selves to a company and who find meaning and purpose through their work at the company. Her description of one company’s walking labyrinth is particularly illustrative:
Walking a labyrinth is a practice that symbolizes a sacred pilgrimage, a spiritual journey of three parts: ‘Releasing’ attachments as you walk to the center of the labyrinth; ‘receiving’ from the divine at the center; and then ‘returning’ to the world as a transformed being. Who and what is at the center depends on the religious tradition. But the meaning of the center was unequivocal in this tech company. Etched in the stones at the center of the labyrinth was not a crescent moon, a cross, or a lotus. Rather, it was another religious symbol: the company logo. The walking labyrinth centered around the company logo perfectly represents the spiritual journey of so many in Silicon Valley: ‘releasing’ attachments that are distractions from work; ‘receiving’ the divinity that comes from work; and ‘returning’ by manifesting it into the world through technological innovation. The labyrinth proclaims Silicon Valley’s truth, one that is both prophetic and profitable: we become divine through work.
Chen’s description of the instrumental use of religion intrigues me. As she points out, religion is used instrumentally all the time. The military uses religion to keep soldiers strong and fit. Hospitals use religion to help people heal. As I argue in my own research, the U.S. government uses religion to expand its institutional capacity and pursue projects of humanitarian aid and social service provision at reduced cost and manpower.
But in the case of keeping knowledge workers happy, healthy, and abounding with productivity and potential, I wonder if the effort to cultivate religion and spirituality is actually the right solution to the problem. If workers are overworked and burned out, why not demand less, reduce the number of work hours, and adjust expectations? Chen wondered the same and asked these very questions, but did not receive particularly satisfying answers from the companies. “Of course, no one took my suggestions seriously,” she writes. “They insisted that the workload was reasonable, or they ignored the question altogether.”
It’s also not clear that burnout is the right diagnosis of the problem in the first place. According to Pew, the reason why most workers left their jobs during the Great Resignation was the desire for more pay and more opportunities for advancement. Neither of these problems are burnout, nor are they problems that meditation sessions, labyrinth walks, or yoga classes can change.
I happened to read Work Pray Code at a moment when I have been talking about burnout quite a bit. It’s a constant topic of conversation I have with a dear friend of mine, a surgeon who has to contend with an overbooked operating schedule and an understaffed hospital on top of the regular home responsibilities of parenting and putting the laundry away. Amid these already impossible workload expectations, this surgeon was also recently asked to lead the department’s wellness initiative. But unlike the Silicon Valley companies at the center of Chen’s book, the hospital has no resources set aside for individualized coaching to help surgeons connect with their authentic selves and do spiritual consultations with Buddhist monks. And even if there were resources for those things, the surgeon would prefer the hospital to expend those funds on hiring another nurse to assist in seeing patients. “Being expected to put up with working over 80 hours a week but being told to take a yoga class in order to feel well is insulting,” the surgeon said. (I did not ask if the situation would be different if, instead of a yoga class, the overworked surgeon were asked to head to the courtyard and walk a labyrinth with the hospital logo at the center.)
At the Silicon Valley companies at the center of Work Pray Code, employers use religion and spirituality to care for and cultivate workers’ souls, aims that ultimately align with the corporations’ primary purpose–making a profit. A more cynical interpretation is that tech companies use religion and spirituality to paper over real problems related to the unceasingly high expectations placed on almost all workers. The scenario seems untenable to me in the long run. And yet, unlike the aforementioned surgeon, the tech workers in Chen’s book do seem happy. In the end, between the meditating tech worker cared for Apple and the overworked surgeon uncared for by an overstretched hospital system, it’s not clear who is more enlightened.