The purpose of work: when productivity becomes a religion

Guest contributor: Carolyn Chen

Sociologist · Author · Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of California-Berkeley · Co-Director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion

Much has been written about the role of purpose in the realm of family business. But what happens when organizations take it too far? Prof. Carolyn Chen explores the dangers when tech organizations over-index on corporate purpose, blurring the lines between work and religion in the name of productivity.

An epicenter of technological innovation, Silicon Valley is renowned for its intense work culture. In places where 70-hour workweeks are the norm, many employees are fulfilling their needs for belonging, meaning and purpose in the workplace – needs formerly met outside the organization through religion, family and other social constructs.

As part of my research for Work Pray Code, I spent five years in Silicon Valley and conducted over 100 interviews, gaining insights from some of the brightest minds in technology.

A similar pattern emerged from these conversations, with people often using quasi-religious terms to define their company roles. More than a job, they described them as “callings” or “spiritual journeys” that brought them wholeness, belonging and transcendence.

This phenomenon is not coincidental in the United States, whose labor climate has changed dramatically over the last 40 years. As global capitalism and the knowledge economy have spread, places of worship, neighborhood associations and civic organizations – social institutions that once nurtured these basic human needs – have all seen their followings decline.

At the same time, the number of hours people dedicate to work has steadily increased, especially in knowledge-industry hubs like Silicon Valley. In these “faith communities for the highly skilled,” Buddhist-inspired spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation are commonly offered to help employees enhance their professional performance. Yet stripped of their ethical teachings, these bear little resemblance to their original purpose, morphing into a productivity practice to boost the bottom line.

This reshaping of spirituality has created a “Techtopia” in which work is deemed the highest form of fulfillment. And while my study primarily focused on the technology space, the trend is also visible in other industries and organizations, whose mission statements, corporate values, ethical codes, and talk of purpose and passion seem eerily akin to the precepts of religious organizations.

Living in a Techtopia exacts a steep price on both personal and collective levels. In one of my interviews, an entrepreneur spoke of the protracted existential crisis she suffered when the acquisition at her start-up fell through. Tethering her sense of self, purpose and social value to her job, she was completely unmoored when it came to an end.

The worship of work also has negative social ramifications. By monopolizing people’s time, money and energy, Techtopias undermine non-economic institutions and traditions that embrace more holistic pathways to fulfillment. It also engenders an inequality of spirit by conflating people’s value, productivity and ability to lead meaningful lives to their professional skill sets and job titles.

So how can we escape its perils? In contrast to work-life advocates, I believe the solution is beyond the scope of individual choices and chosen career paths, particularly in contexts like Silicon Valley where rewards, status and personal identity typically revolve around work.

In my view, the key to breaking free from the religion of work resides in creating, forging and protecting other foundations that are worthy of worship: our families, faith communities, neighborhoods and civic groups.

By deriving meaning from social systems apart from our labor, we will attain the work-life balance we all strive for.

Homepage image: Annie Spratt on