Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Corporate Idolatry Is Not The Same As Business Ethics

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol, Part 12

As I wrote earlier in the book, idolatry carries a strong negative connotation because it is considered one of the worst sins. According to traditional Judaism, for example, idolatry is considered as bad as murder or incest.  I think some people recoil when I use the term corporate idolatry because they work for a good company, and see themselves as making ethical decisions at work.  So let me spend a moment on business ethics to explain how they do and do not correlate with idolatry.

According to the business ethics literature, an unethical behavior is one that violates widely accepted (societal) moral norms.  This usually covers behaviors like theft, fraud, and lying to customers. And from Chapter 2, what is the most widely held standard of right and wrong?  The Golden Rule, found in religions and philosophies from all over the world.  (For more, see The Search For Universal Values II: The Golden Rule.)

So based on all of this, I think its fair to say that if someone consistently makes unethical work decisions, they are following a value system that violates the Golden Rule and are therefore committing idolatry.

But there is a class of behavior that is not unethical that I still consider corporate idolatry – chronic overwork, particularly chronic overwork by choice.

What happens to people who are chronically overworked?  They more frequently make mistakes, have higher rates of injury, have higher rates of depression, and lower overall life satisfaction.[i]   In other words, chronic overwork is very unhealthy, and violates The Rule Of Self Preservation, which makes it another form of idolatry.

Statistics aside, if you talk to someone about a time when they were working too much, they describe a stressful, unhappy life.  I asked “Elaine” a former general manager of a high profile business division what her life was like when the business was struggling in the market. “It was like hell.  I don’t know any other way to put it.”

Hell, interesting choice of word.

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[i] Questions and Answers about OVERWORK: A Sloan Work and Family Research Network Fact Sheet. (Last Updated May 2009).


  1. […] in the chapter, I argued that corporate idolatry is not the same thing as unethical business behavior.   However, there is […]