No Rest for the Working

Our Interview with Carolyn Chen

Mockingbird / 1.12.23

This interview was originally published in the Sleep issue of The Mockingbird magazine. 

Of all the things that keep us up at night (fear, family stress, a highlight reel of awkward social encounters), work surely has to rank pretty high on the list. Whether it’s because of deadlines, grating colleagues, or the prospect of earning a promotion, work has this knack for lingering in the mind long after you’ve left the office. Especially with the pandemic-prompted uptick in remote jobs, many of us find our occupations now occupying a sphere of life that we once, ideally, kept separate. It seems to be the opposite of what Congress feared in 1965, when they held a lengthy meeting to discuss the imminent twenty-hour work week; certainly, they assumed, with the rise of automation, people would work less. “Talk about an astonishing lack of insight!” says David Zahl in Seculosity (a composite of “secular religiosity”). “Technological advances have not increased downtime. Instead of condensing work, they have squeezed out rest.”

The sociologist Carolyn Chen has noticed a similar trend. “Over the past forty years,” she writes in her new book Work Pray Code, “work has extracted ever more of the time and energy of highly skilled Americans, crowding out other commitments, especially religion.” A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Chen conducted more than a hundred in-depth interviews from 2013-2019 to evaluate how workers in Silicon Valley now relate to their professions. But don’t let the Silicon Valley part fool you: though most of us don’t work in offices that provide sleep pods and meditation rooms, wealthy companies nevertheless reflect a broader trend that we are all enthrall to. “Subtly but unmistakably,” Chen writes, “work is replacing religion.”

Today our careers are not only supposed to pay the bills but are also expected to give our lives meaning, dignity, and purpose, the way God was supposed to in ages past. In the most wealthy companies, services of convenience — you could say “ministries” — are on offer to give our lives the illusion of peace and tranquility. One human resources director suggests that her job is to “nurture the souls” of her employees; many firms hire chaplains to help their workers “deal with spiritual issues.” But as Chen notes in our interview, there is a “teleology” underlying this — an end goal: turning an ever-greater profit. And often, as we discuss below, this comes at the expense of other less wealthy, soulful institutions. Chen observes that we live in “an America whose hollowed-out communities, institutions, and traditions are quickly eroding — everywhere, that is, except work.” Below, we discuss the pros and cons of a more “spiritual” workplace, the importance of belonging, and the difference between rest for productivity’s sake and rest for rest’s sake.


Mockingbird: Why did you become a sociologist who studies religion specifically?

Carolyn Chen: I come from a very religious background. My parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and I grew up in a sort of Protestant, ethno-religious immigrant community, which is common among immigrants to the United States. That community sustained my family, and the church sustained the larger community. In college, I became fascinated by the sociology of religion, because sociology gave me a lens to understand the dynamic systems and structures of power at play — and how they operate in religious spaces.

M: Is there a religious concern motiving your work with, for example, this book? Or is your interest purely academic?

CC: My interest in religion has always been motivated by my own personal religious experience. But this book was very much an empirical puzzle for me, asking the question: where do we see religious tendencies manifested in secular spaces? With so many people identifying as non-religious, I felt I had to move into non-traditional spaces to make my research relevant. I think that as someone who is religious, it concerns me when I see the marketplace co-opting — colonizing — religious traditions and practices.

Religion has become different things in different times. If we’re looking in the Middle Ages, religion had this hegemonic power, and today, in secular society, the market has that power. But I think that there are certain practices, communities, and traditions that kind of create sanctuaries in our lives where we don’t have to abide by strict market logic, where we live by different ethics and principles. These might be arts communities; these might be spiritual communities.

So initially my project was interested in how companies use spiritual practices to make their workers more productive, but I started to understand it as part of larger ecosystem, a larger structural system in which the dominant institution — the market — really subsumes these other institutions, and forms of logic and practice.

M: Did you encounter any resistance to your central claim? Did any emphatically non-religious readers feel insulted by your idea that the workplace actually was religious?

CC: I’m kind of surprised that I haven’t gotten that criticism yet. One of my greatest points of pride about this book is that executive coaches and people in the mindfulness industry have reached out to me and thanked me for helping them to see these trends. This makes me hopeful, because I tried to write with a sense of empathy and compassion, so that I was critical of the system but not the people. Whether you are a Dharma teacher, or a tech worker, a CEO, you have to adapt to the system.

Image by: Michael Dziedzic / Unsplash.

M: You do write with such an empathy for your subjects. I wonder what were the positives, if any, in the more religious workspaces you researched?

CC: Entering the space as a working mother who has a demanding career and family, I went into these tech spaces wishing to be treated the way their employees were. Companies say, “We know you have to walk your dog or clean your house, and you’re not going have time for that anymore, so we’re going to give you $5,000 a year for ‘me time.’” Many of these companies bring famous spiritual leaders to give inspirational talks and that’s just part of the company culture. Or for example, Salesforce has a meditation room on every floor. These companies are so rich, and they have an army of human resource professionals that are dedicated to anticipating your every need. They want you to be happy so that you don’t leave. It’s about retaining talent.

Given the demands of work and time that most modern people professionals face, wouldn’t it be great if we all had this? People feel they have spiritually fulfilled lives because of the company, not despite the company.

And when you ask if non-religious people criticized me because I call their workplaces religious, no; what happens instead is that religious people criticize me for not being harder on the tech companies. I wasn’t more critical of them because I see that we all live this modern American life where we take fifty-to-sixty-hour work weeks for granted. If we’re going to make that assumption, then something else has to give — our health, our relationships, our spirituality. The only way that you can consistently perform at that level is if you have a concierge service — what I call corporate maternalism — that helps make health, relationships, and spirituality convenient. And that’s what the folks in Silicon Valley have.

M: But then, also, unmistakably there is a dark side.

CC: Well, if all your needs get fulfilled within one institution, you never have to leave. These companies have become self-sustaining, sort of cult-like organizations that you never have to leave, yet they have a different teleology from many religious institutions. The teleology of a business is to make profit.

So tech workers begin to disengage from the public, because they don’t need the public anymore; they don’t need these other institutions. In the book I refer to it as “Techtopia.” Techtopias become these huge giant magnets that attract all the devotion, time, and energy of a community. And this is again a very different way of talking about work, because we are so used to talking about work as being extractive. It’s taking from us, right? But in Silicon Valley and other knowledge industry hubs, they’re making themselves attractive spaces where you can find identity, belonging, and meaning. So by attracting all of the time and energy from the community, proportionally other institutions — faith communities, families, neighborhood associations, even small businesses — grow weak in comparison.

This was really clear, for instance, when I interviewed a Zen priest. The members of his Zendō had no time to come to his temple anymore because they were all working — so he decided to bring meditation to the workplace. Well, then he had to abide by workplace rules and alter his liturgy to the liturgy of the workplace. His meetings had to become secular, scientific, to increase productivity, etc.

I interviewed church groups that would offer workplace ministries. But the problem with that is that Christian workers often had to make a choice: either they were involved in their church or their workplace ministry. Community outside of work now has this either-or proposition.

And then there’s the fact that these tech company fellowships start to mirror the caste system — salaried employees have the time to go to their groups, but your cafeteria worker, your janitor, and other hourly employees did not have that benefit. So there are lots of social costs that don’t really get factored in.

If you look at something like Harvard Business Review, you find this unexamined assumption that the holistic workplace is a good thing. But from my vantage point, there is a fine line between a holistic workplace and a workplace that’s invasive, colonizing, and monopolizing. With scarce time, all the things we celebrate came down to a sense of convenience.

Illustration by Hannah Lock.

M: Which brings us to our theme of rest.

CC: Right, so here’s the thing about rest: rest isn’t convenient. I would ask HR people, “You’re giving your employees yoga. You’re giving them meditation. You’re providing meals so they can live meaningful, healthy, whole lives and do a lot of work at the same time — but have you thought about giving them time off?” And the HR people would look at me like I was so naïve. In this ecosystem, rest is the most precious and scarce resource, but people don’t understand it as that. Everything is about convenience and optimization of the self.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Jewish practice of the Sabbath. One of the most radical interventions that faith traditions can offer in this ecosystem is the practice of sacred rest. And the only way that you can make it sacred is not by making it an individual practice but by enshrining it in an institution.

M: Right now, there’s a lot of conversation about burnout, and how ordinary people — like not Silicon Valley people — just feel exhausted all the time. People are weary. I wondered if you could comment on that.

CC: With remote work, levels of burnout have increased, because now you can be working all the time. HR folks in Silicon Valley tell me that the hardest part of managing labor is managing burnout. They would try to address burnout by offering meals and nap pods, but that is a remedy, not a way of addressing the cause.

I’m not sure if things are going to change unless, as a buffer, we build up other institutions and spaces that are life-giving. Even if I turn my computer off at 5:00 p.m. to rest, the larger society is going to reward the person who decides to work until 8:00 p.m.

So we need counter-institutions, narratives, and traditions that can give us meaning and belonging outside of work. We need to reimagine rest as being an end in itself, not as a means to more productivity. In this this day and age — it might seem pathetic to say — rest is radical and revolutionary.

M: In the book, there are some striking moments with your interviewees. A couple people mention experiencing paralysis after months of work-related exhaustion. Is there an interview that is most memorable to you? Or that just really surprised you?

CC: There was a guy from Georgia who used to be the president of a Christian fraternity, who then moved to Silicon Valley to join a tech start-up. In the process, he left religion. What I saw was that the tech startup replaced everything that the church used to provide, and essentially all of the functions of his life: social, practical, and spiritual. Now, we often think that when people leave religion, it’s because they have a crisis of faith. And often, we think of religion as something very intellectual, that it’s about believing certain things. But for this guy, it had nothing to do with belief — he still believed. It was about belonging. He had joined another organization that laid claim to his time, energy, and devotion. And it was really the sense of belonging that pulled him in. That was super eye-opening for me, because it helped make sense of this larger pattern I had been observing. I was like, oh, I get it now. I see what’s happening.



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