Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry

Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry

Remember This Day by Tim Sachton via Flickr

In this season of Passover and Easter, I’ve been thinking about work.

The Last Supper was a Passover Seder, which is a ritual meal that tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  In many ways, Passover is like Thanksgiving, in that family gets together, and remembers a historical event.  What is particular about Passover is the detail in which the story is told, how Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.  Participants in the Seder are exhorted to make a personal connection to those freed from slavery.  There is a lot to connect to.  This year I connected to my own experience of going from a 90 to a 60 hour work week.

Passover is all about freedom

The Exodus from Egypt is a seminal event in the history of the world, remembered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims who together account for over half the world’s population*. The Exodus, although less salient for the worlds 1.3 billion Atheists, has been highly influential on the secular world as well.  Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railroad was nicknamed  Moses.  So imagine my surprise when I found that a sizable portion of the Israelites wanted to return to slavery in Egypt.  Why?  Why after generations of slavery, when finally offered the chance at freedom, would anyone want to return to slavery?

The voices to return to slavery were particularly acute at times of uncertainty, when the Hebrews were trapped against the shores of the

Edward G Robinson as Dathan

Red Sea, or when Moses was absent for forty days and the people began to doubt whether he would return.  There were two types of people who argued for a return to Egypt.  The first were self-serving people like Dathan, who collaborated with the Egyptians and betrayed Moses to Pharaoh for personal gain. When later exiled by Pharaoh with the rest of the Jews, Dathan continued to advocate for a return to Egypt, presumably so he could regain his wealth and privileges.  (Dathan was played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie The Ten Commandments.)

Most people who wanted to return to Egypt were not self-serving, but simply afraid of change and/or the uncertainty of the road ahead. The Dathans of the world prey on the fears and insecurities of other people.  Dathan argued that servitude in Egypt would be better than death in the desert.  I can’t help but notice the way that Dathan positioned slavery as mere servitude.  I am reminded of the way some of my former managers would spin things to encourage me to work over the weekend.

Freedom from chronic overwork

Over the course of one year, I went from working 90 hours per week to working 60 hours per week.  My job title never changed, but my boss did – seven times that year.  Not one of my seven managers said “Greg, you are working too hard.  Let me take this off your plate.”  I needed to liberate myself in the midst of a chaotic and highly political environment. The details of that year are a story for another day, but what was key was a revelation that my devotion to the company was a modern form of idolatry.  I realized that “doing what is best for the company” was an adoption of a company-first value system, and this Corporate Idolatry was at the expense of my family and my personal health.  By reconnecting with people-first values, I was able to drastically cut back my working hours.

Idolatry was very much a part of the story of Exodus.  Not only were the Hebrews enslaved, they worshipped the Egyptian gods.  The story of Passover makes it clear that the Hebrews were not freed from slavery until they cried out to the one God for freedom. On a metaphorical level, Passover is the story of people who chose an uncertain future that carried the promise of freedom over the known path of slavery.

I made as much money working 60 hours as I did working 90 hours. In a sense, I was working those extra forty hours for free.  I obsess about those 30 hours, in part because I think working for free is a form of slavery.  Why did I do it for so many years?  But that too is a post for another day.  Today, I am thankful that I am free.

*For more information on the number of people in different religions, check out The Big Religion Chart, which lists the world Jewish population at 14 million, Christians at 2 billion, Muslims at 1.3 billion and Atheists at 1.1 billion.

If you like “Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry” you may also like Discover How I Avoided Burnout, an excerpt from my book Busting Your Corporate Idol.

Four Questions To Ask Yourself. Inspired By MLK Day

Slaves needed to do whatever their master asked them to do, and they did not have the right to refuse work.  They also worked for free.

Dr. King pointed out in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that the legal abolition of slavery was not the same thing as freedom:  One hundred years after the Emancipatio Proclamation, “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

In the corporate world, we are not slaves, but how much freedom do we have?  Here are four questions to ask yourself.

1. Do you ever work for free?  During this economic downturn, I know several people who worked for no pay at a for-profit startup company, to “keep their skills up to date.” To be clear, they were not founders or owners, they did not get stock, or even minimum wage. They were not doing a favor for a friend.  I think they were crazy, and in the end they were frustrated and felt taken advantage of.  No duh, they were taken advantage of.  Working for free is akin to slavery.  

2. Do you have the freedom to say no to after-hours work?  If your boss calls you at 9:00 at night, do you have the freedom not to answer?  If you get an email at 10:00, do you have the freedom not to respond?  If you are asked to work the weekend, can say no?  Will you say no?  If the master asked a slave to do something, he or she had to obey.  A free person controls his or her own personal time.

3. Do you get paid for incremental work?  Of course not, unless you are a contractor or hourly employee.  A salaried employee is expected to work as much as it takes to get the job done.  Plus, the more senior positions carry a greater expectation that you will be on call all the time.  The more hours you put into these after-hours calls or other incremental work, the lower your effective hourly salary. Sometimes an incremental project brings a bonus if successfully executed, but sometimes it means overload, lower quality work, and negative career consequences.

In addition, “what it takes to get the job done” is rather arbitrary, and at the end of the day it depends to a large degree on the manager – even at the most senior levels.  One VP in marketing told me that the CEO would call him on weekends to complain about the color scheme in an ad campaign under development.  This was not a mission critical issue, but the VP did not feel he could refuse a call from the CEO.  Every after-hours phone call, no matter how trivial, is free to the company.

4. Do you really have to do it?  I’ve interviewed almost three dozen executives about these issues, and sometimes I get an interesting reaction that goes something like this.  “Don’t blame the company.  It’s not their fault.  I am choosing to do it.  I’m bringing it on myself.”  I know, I would think.  But why are you choosing to do it?  

On this MLK day, we are reminded that once in this country, African Americans could not choose when or how they worked.  We can.  Choose wisely.