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Is work worship? Renegotiating work-life balance

You need to work to live, but 'work is worship' is bad advice. Certain equanimity is required to strike a balance.

by Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
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Concerned with the workplace’s seductive charm and the magnification of work to a point where it is acquiring the halo of religion, sociologist Carolyn Chen warns us against our compulsive addiction to work and the consequent risks to human wellbeing when we allow work to become meaning. 

In her recent book “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley,” Chen laments that high-skilled professionals increasingly are turning to work for “belonging, identity, meaning, purpose, and fulfillment” – the very things for which Americans once turned to religion. Chen fears that in hi-tech hubs such as Cambridge, Seattle, Portland, and Silicon Valley where religious affiliation is much lower than in other parts of the US, work is likely to replace religion. In such settings, she suggests, work is not just considered rewarding, but it is religion. 

The tension between the satisfaction that comes from work or from living life has been a central dilemma of human existence best expressed in pithy messages on plaques such as, “Work to live. Don’t live to work” and “You can’t do a good job, if job is all you are doing”.

There is no denying the significance and indispensability of work to human evolution and civilizational progress. Since the beginning of time, humans and animals have had to work in order to survive. Work has been the engine of human progress, at least of material progress. Economies at macro level thrive on honest hard work, and individual and household well-being likewise depends on shared burden of work among household members. Capitalist, Communist or Socialist, all polities rely on work as their lifeline. When workers stop being productive the engine of progress stalls and eventually dies.    

With modernity and the break-up of the original tribal and community structures of distribution of labor, nuclear families find themselves overloaded. Rapid acceleration in the pace of modern life and the unique stresses of the Tech age have turned the work-life balancing ropewalk into a major challenge. 

Fulfillment of our material aspirations and needs has always depended on how much we are willing or able to exert. But our desired pace and nature of work are controlled equally by the socio-economic structures that require us to work. Workplace rules prescribe how many days and hours we need to work and the performance norms and expectations we need to fulfill to claim our share in the fruits of labor. 

Such labor as we perform is always valued although clearly it is never equally or equitably rewarded. A coder and a janitor may sweat equally for eight hours, but the coder’s sweat commands infinitely greater monetary value and status. A Portuguese soccer player in the current World Cup is being offered $207 million per year to play for a Saudi team, while a professor from Oxford or Harvard can expect a carrot of merely a few hundred thousand dollars to jump ship. Working to earn the fruits of one’s labor has been lauded by faiths and upheld by societal norms. Religions and prophets throughout history have upheld the value of work. Protestant faith is known for its propagation of work ethic and its stringent expectation of humans to approach work with diligence and not as a burden. Sacred Hindu texts too, sanctify work by claiming that the devatas (gods) “desire him who offers worship and works hard. They do not like him who loves to sleep and is lazy. The hard working person gets great praise from them.” 

Karma (action) and purushartha (human exertion or labor) are intrinsic to Hinduism, which asserts that one path to God is through karma yoga. One is born to act, and in action lies one’s salvation is a core message of Bhagavad Gita. 

Equating work with worship, in the Gospel of Christ Paul the Apostle wrote in Col. 3:17 – “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” He further stated, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

Those beliefs – Christian and Hindu or any other – arm followers with the motivation to engage in work without feeling burdened by it. 

Equanimity towards fruits of action  

Significantly, while presenting that work is divine and work is worship, Western and Eastern faiths also exhort us to have a balanced approach to life and work, and further, to view the gains and losses accruing from work with equanimity. Achieving a balance between work and other equally important roles that life requires us to perform is a dilemma that has challenged religious and secular thinkers alike.

Human hunger for material advancement over spiritual contentment has been an eternal complaint of spiritualists. The message to slow down the work obsession accordingly is nothing new – just as the exhortation to work is as old as the birth of organized human life. 

To ease the stress we experience from having to play multiple roles, Hinduism, for instance, asks us to act with ‘sanyam’ or self-control, and to tackle life creatively and constructively. Each challenge and hurdle we face at work or in life is to be viewed as an opportunity to learn, serve, grow, refine, and mature and thereby to attain our highest physical, intellectual, and spiritual potential.  

Indispensable to the Protestant or Hindu work ethic is the commitment to never quit. Today’s ‘quiet’ or ‘silent’ quitters would not have much value for, or expect any enthusiastic endorsement from, our forefathers and sages. Their core message was and is that this life is the one chance we know we are gifted with, and we should not waste it or our potential to perfect it and make it and ourselves wholesome. 

On the need to have a positive approach to work, Oscar Wilde said it best: “The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without one”.

Meaningful work-life balance

Since Covid forced us out of offices into working from anywhere, new approaches to work are being advocated – mostly by those who see leisure as more valuable than disciplined work. In their new concept of normalcy, balancing life with work means degrading work and its requirements and restraints as immoral, while upholding the pursuit of leisure as ethical. 

Achieving work-life balance, however, means more than its mundane interpretation of one being able to spend time with family; having time to relax, to go on exciting holidays, and pursue one’s hobbies; or merely the freedom to sit at the computer to participate in digital meetings and classes, while dressed in one’s pajamas. 

Balance requires much more than having access to those superficial benefits. It requires equanimity and being in the Buddhist sense ‘tatastha’, which refers to one situated on the bank of a river who therefore belongs neither to the river nor to the bank. Equanimity signifies that sense of not being possessed or possessing. 

Even as life forces us into experiencing happiness and unhappiness, success and failure, kindness and cruelty, detachment enables us to accept these opposing experiences without reacting positively or negatively. A balanced life is possible when we stay rooted in that state of calm acceptance, which is not to be confused with passivity or inaction. We do not eschew karma but equally we do not forgo dharma.

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