Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Discover How I Avoided Burnout

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 1

As I rushed through my hectic life, I was caught up in the whirlwind of surviving from day to day.  Days and weeks blurred together.  I didn’t have time to stop, relax and think ahead.  Life felt out of control, a roller coaster that oscillated between screaming drops and anxiety ridden climbs.  Looking back, I was at the mercy of forces beyond my control – layoffs and reorganizations, and I was expected to do what my boss asked of me, whether it was reasonable or not. I was expected to do what is best for the company, even if it was not in the best interests of the customers, my coworkers, or myself.  I was told that the same problems exist in every company, which has an implicit message that I could change my address, but it won’t change my life.  When I was caught up in this vortex, it was hard to look ahead to a time when I wouldn’t be experiencing the same thing.  I am not alone.  An executive job coach who works in Silicon Valley told me the number one question he gets is “How do I get my life back?”

The answer for me came in an unexpected place and at an unexpected time.  I had gone twenty hours without food or water, and suddenly discovered that my life had been out to lunch.  It was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and I was nearing the end of the traditional sundown to sundown fast.  The more spiritual among us might say that God spoke to me in that moment.  It didn’t feel like that to me, but I do know that I took a moment to open my mind, and a new idea took root that has changed my life.

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My Corporate Idolatry: A Surprise On The Day Of Repentance

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 2

No one is more surprised than me that I am writing a book inspired by religious teachings. I was raised in a mostly secular Jewish household, where we attended services only twice a year for the major holidays.  I was a scientist for ten years, getting a Ph.D. from MIT in Molecular Biology, and doing my post-doctoral work at Stanford.[1]  For the next ten years I was in marketing.  My scientist friends teased me for going over to the dark side.  It was more true than they realized, but I loved it.  To this day, I cannot believe how much I enjoyed writing ad copy.  Life is full of surprises, and on Yom Kippur I got a surprise that changed my life.

I take Yom Kippur seriously every year.  It is the Day of Atonement, when Jews around the world take a day off of work, don’t eat or drink, go to services, and well, atone.  I look forward to the chance to reflect on my life, to think about what I’ve done wrong, and to make amends.  One of the most important principles is that while prayer is sufficient for “sins against God,” prayer is not sufficient for sins against other people.  We must apologize, make it right if we can, and resolve to behave differently in the future if a similar situation arises.

One year, I called a coworker somewhat sheepishly at three in the afternoon, to apologize for a practical joke that had gotten out of hand six months earlier.  I felt better afterwards.  Another year I realized that the Jews invented the day off.  Prior to Shabbat (aka the Sabbath), we were expected to work all the time.  (I later learned that the Greeks and Romans used to lampoon the Jews over Shabbat, calling it a waste of time.  The purpose of rest was to prepare for more work, while leisure was something reserved to the wealthy.)  To be honest, I was not then or now particularly good at taking a day off from work.

But this idea about the day off inspired me to pay greater attention to the words of the prayers the following year, and I made a discovery that truly changed my life.   I was sitting alone with my thoughts in the Flint Center, an old-school performing arts auditorium in Cupertino, California, big enough to fit my entire Reform Jewish congregation of 2,500 members.  It was late in the day, and I was feeling tired and a bit woozy.  It is my favorite time of the day, as my mind sometimes goes to new places.

That afternoon, I noticed how often the prayers made reference to one God, and I wondered about the sin of idolatry.  I started to dismiss idolatry as an archaic idea, no longer relevant in the modern world when I remembered a phrase I had heard many times from my bosses and colleagues:  “you need to do what is best for the company.”  I was suddenly uncomfortable.


[1] I get almost as annoyed at people who say that science disproves religion as I get with people who say that religion invalidates evolution.  Science explains the way the world works, but it is silent on the most important question, what we should do with that knowledge.

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Why A Company Is Like An Idol

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 3

When I remembered the phrase “you need to do what is best for the company” I was suddenly uncomfortable.  The moment lasted a long time.  Idolatry is the worship of a statue or a false god.  I don’t worship statues or…  I remembered my company’s brand logo. That symbol was displayed in practically every room of every building of the company, including in Europe, Asia and South America.  It was on every piece of paper.  It was on some of my favorite clothes.   Trying to reassure myself, I thought about the nature of a corporation.  It didn’t help.   A corporation is an artificial person as recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States.  It’s a formless and shapeless entity.  There are a lot of them, and they have different cultures and values.

I thought about the time I was scolded for an innocuous suggestion to embed the brand symbol in as one part of a cool graphic in a marketing piece.  It kind of puzzled me at the time.  What’s the big deal?  But it was a big deal, like an unwritten commandment.  THOU SHALL NOT MESS WITH THE BRAND SYMBOL.

It’s like an idol, I thought, and when we do “what is best for the company,” instead of “what is best,” we are worshipping, giving blind obedience.  I also realized that we only used that phrase to justify something unpleasant, like a canceled project, a layoff or shipping a product that wasn’t ready to go, knowing the customers were going to be mad.

All of this took less than a second.  I describe it sequentially, but it all arrived at the same time.  There was more.

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The Secret To Corporate Values Uncovered In Ancient Rome

Chapter 1 My Corporate Idolatry Part 4

I thought about the sacrifices I had made for the company, such as my fitness, my sleep, my time with family, and my focus.  In fact, the company gave out an award at the quarterly “all hands” employee meeting to the person who showed the most company spirit, which often came in the form of getting on a plane at a moments notice, or canceling a vacation.  Every quarter I was disappointed that I didn’t get it.

My corporation was my idol.  I knew it was true in the pit of my stomach, but the rational scientist in my head wanted more information.  A few days later I found a great article on the internet called “What is So Terrible About Idolatry” by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, editor of ‘Ask the Rabbi’ at Chabad.org. Rabbi Freeman described what is distinctive about idolatry in places like Babylon in the ancient world.  “If you don’t like what one god demands of you, you go find another god more to your taste. … After all, none of them is supreme, none is all-powerful.”  

This is just like the corporate world.  There are many different companies, each with its own culture and values.  And if you don’t like the values of your company, you can move to another.  For example, if you think your company is not honest enough with customers, you can find one that is more transparent.  But if you think transparency is bad for business, there is a company for you too.  There is no overriding set of values, beyond the need to be profitable.

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The Truth About Sacrifices For The Company

Chapter 1 My Corporate Idolatry Part 5

I had been a true believer in my company. I thought the company had a mission to change the world, and I needed to devote myself to help the company achieve these laudable goals.  I was getting paid a lot of money to change the world – what is not to like about that picture?  Nothing, if that is a true picture of what is going on.  In reality, the company’s first, second and third priorities were to make money.  Some very good things did come from the company, cutting edge tools for scientific research that led to thousands of papers in the top journals.  However, the price I paid in terms of my health and happiness was very high.  I was literally killing myself for the company.

At that time, the most important thing in my life was the company.  I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit it, but it was true.  I had always told myself that my wife and children were the top priority, but when I look at my actions, decisions and time spent, it was all about the company. I thought about work in the shower.  I talked on my cell phone as I drove in to work, and as I drove home at night.  I worked after dinner, and I had trouble falling asleep because I was going over the day in my head.  The next day I would get up at five AM, to work on email, and to call my colleagues in Europe.  I worked at least a little on most weekend days.  The more I sacrificed, the more important the company became to me, which in turn led to more sacrifices.

But it didn’t have to be that way, and in the next post I will start to outline what I did to change things.

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Change Your Values To Change Your Priorities

 

Values Drive Priorities Which In Turn Influence The Underlying Values

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 6

My insight on Yom Kippur set off a chain of dominos.  Once I recognized my Corporate Idolatry, I saw the world in this new way and there was no going back.

In the past, I had unsuccessfully tried to make changes in my priorities.  It didn’t last.  Over time I went back to the same behaviors.

This time, I went a step further, and changed my values.  My family and my health had to come before the company, and low and behold the priorities in my life changed.  It didn’t happen overnight, but over time it added up to some pretty big things.  Even when I was working close to one hundred hours a week, I ate breakfast and dinner with my family every day.  It was a line in the sand, a boundary I never crossed, and its nature as an absolute rule served as a model for the additional changes to come.

I made a conscious choice to work fewer hours.  Instead of thinking in a negative way, beating myself up to work less, I focused on the positive.

My health is important.  I need to stop working by 9:30, so I have time to wind down and get to sleep.

Then it became I need to stop working by 9, so my wife and I can spend some time together. 

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, choosing an action that reinforces a value is a virtuous cycle, because the action itself reinforces the value, making it easier to take a similar action the next time. I will discuss this at greater length latter in the book.

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The Year I Transitioned From Working 90 To 60 Hours Per Week

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 7

During the year I transitioned from working 90 to 60 hours per week, I started learning more about the teachings of Judaism.  My wife and I elected not to send our kids to Sunday school for religious education.  I hated Sunday school as a kid.  It was boring, irrelevant, and seemed like an onerous, guilt-driven obligation.  Instead, we enrolled in a family based education program, which had sessions of family learning time, followed by separate adult and age-appropriate kid learning.  And snack – adult snack was a nice spread every week that included wine, humus, and chocolate cookies.  It helped us get to know the other families.

My fascination with idolatry grew.  As I learned more about it, I found more connections to my corporate life, and surprising solutions in ancient texts.  For example, according to the twelfth century Rabbi Maimonides’ ‘Laws of Idolatry,’ it is forbidden to wear the clothes of idolators.  Maimonides reasoned that wearing the clothes of idolators was a way of giving tacit approval to the idolator’s value system, and made it more likely that the wearer would start to follow this value system.  On a lark, I stopped wearing company t-shirts on weekends, and found it helped me keep my mind off of work. (For a previous post on the subject, click here.)

I wrote a short essay on Corporate Idolatry, and handed it out in a one-hour discussion section the following year on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The turnout was high for one of these groups, about twenty people, and the debate was fierce.  My thesis was simple: when we do what is “best for the company,” instead of “what is best” we are adopting the company’s value system and are practicing a form of idolatry.  One man in his late 50s, wearing a classic navy blue jacket, objected in a soft-spoken, kindly way.  “I’ve been in the corporate world a long time.  Sometimes things go astray, but as long as you do what is best for the customer, you will be fine.” I wasn’t sure what to say when a woman piped up from across the room.

“But what about the workers?  My husband was told that if he didn’t push his group to work every weekend in order to make the timeline, he would be out of a job.  The customers will be fine, but the employees are being driven to exhaustion.  We aren’t twenty-something kids anymore.  His company is hardly a start up, but that is the type of time and commitment they expect from everyone.  Treating people that way goes against his values, but he needs the job and feels like he is between a rock and a hard place.”

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Is It Selfish To Become Less Devoted To The Company?

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 8

Change is often painful, and this was no exception.  Doing my part to help other people, and to help the group, is important to me.  I wondered if I were being selfish by pulling back from the company.  Messages at work about being a team player, reinforced this notion.  Doing less for the company meant doing less for the people on my team. Somehow, it didn’t seem right, until I came across the following, written by Rabbi Hillel ~2,000 years ago[1. Pirkei Avot 1:14]. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?”

This was like a lightning bolt – of course I have a right to take care of myself. And my life got better.  When I cut back on my devotion to the company, it gave me space to allow many positive things to happen.

And, I was mentally prepared when I was laid off a year later.  If I had still been caught up in the company, I would have been devastated.  But I was exhilarated and my wife was thrilled.  I packed up my stuff, said a few goodbyes and drove up the Central Expressway to the Peninsula Creamery, where I had a burger medium rare and a milkshake with coffee ice cream and hot fudge.

The next two months were great, a paid vacation.  I went to the gym every morning, came home for lunch, took a nap, watched Star Trek and cooked dinner.  Not only was my blood pressure down, but life was much less stressful for my wife and kids too.

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Footnotes:

The Secret To Work Life Balance Starts With Identity

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 9

When I started my next job (after my two month “paid vacation” described in the last post), I worked hard to avoid identifying myself with the company.  I was a professional.  My work was high quality but transactional, and no longer a mission.  I didn’t mind that I was no longer working on the most cutting-edge, high profile project, because I could see the price people on that team were paying.  Also, I consciously put some of my energy into building community outside of the workplace.

So in 2009, when I found myself unhappy at work, I was able to walk away.  I didn’t like the company, some of the people, or the product I was managing.  I needed to do something different, and that was never going to happen as long as I was in that job.

My wife and I talked about it for two months before I pulled the trigger.  It was crazy at home, with two of us in high-powered careers.  And my two-month paid vacation a few years earlier showed us how much easier life could be. We looked at the budget, and figured out how long we could go on just her salary.  We’ve gone much longer, because we don’t spend as much on stuff.  I think I bought stuff as a palliative for stress.

And I got to see things I would never have seen. One afternoon, I walked past the door of the living room, and stopped to watch my six year old daughter play with a friend.  They were sitting on the floor cross-legged, talking quietly to each other.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were so intense and serious.  I had seen them play before, but it was always rambunctious and wild.  If I hadn’t been home, I would have missed this ordinary but irreplaceable moment.

My life was better.  Much better.

I rediscovered the great joys of life that I hadn’t even noticed were missing.  I now enjoyed my meals instead of pounding them down or eating mechanically while my mind whirled around the work day that hadn’t ended.  I was well rested, and found that sex is even better when I wasn’t stressed.  And because I wasn’t stressed, I could be there, in the moment, for my wife and kids.  They became less stressed too.

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Inspired To Change, I Left The Corporate World

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 10 

A few months after I left the corporate world, two former colleagues independently told me that I looked ten years younger.  Frankly, I was shocked to hear that.  Being in my early forties didn’t bother me, but if I had recently looked like I was in my fifties, that was disturbing, dismaying, horrifying.  I never thought of myself as one of those people who was prematurely aged by the hardship of the job.  But I was.  Best not to dwell on it.  Be thankful it is behind you, and make sure you don’t end up there again. 

I heard something else from former colleagues, especially the men.  “I’m jealous.  I wish I could do what you did and spend more time with my kids.” A few people told me they were inspired to make a change.  And I was inspired by them to write a book.

***********

Thanks to everyone who has given me such wonderful (and sometimes frank) feedback these first two weeks as I have been blogging Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life.  You are part of something.  Traffic through the site has been through the roof.  If you missed any part of the chapter, or haven’t yet shared it with a spouse or friend, you can find the whole thing here.  This book sparks conversation and debate, and the format is very amenable to discussion.

Let me start to answer a common question: “Where is this book going?  What if I don’t want to leave the corporate world?”

If you want a book that will tell you how to be successful in business, how to do more with less, or to blame corporations for all the ills of the world, then this is not the book for you.  But if you want a book that will help you see the world in a different way and empower you to make changes in your life, then read on!  And YES, there are absolutely changes that you can make to have a more balanced life without leaving the corporate world.

Next week’s posts will wrap up Chapter 1 with a preview of the rest of the book.  If you are interested in a look ahead, you can see the Table Of Contents for Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life here.

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New Values Brought a New Identity

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 11

If I was a scientist in my first incarnation, and a marketer in my second, what do I call my third?  Writer, philosopher, father, and husband are all labels that fit my identity, but the one I like the best is storyteller.  Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life  is a book full of stories.  Each chapter begins with a story from my life.  And many chapters include stories from the thirty men and women I interviewed for the book.  Most were directors and vice presidents from mid-size to large corporations.  Each story provides a snapshot of the corporate life, which together craft a mosaic from a broad range of age, experience, and industries.  Stories were shared in confidence, and unless otherwise noted have been camouflaged and/or combined to communicate the humanity while maintaining confidentiality.

While the details of each story were unique, there were a number of broad themes that transcend industry and even level in the company.  So don’t be surprised if you “recognize” one of the stories they tell – it’s probably not the incident you are thinking of, but one just like it that happens all the time in the corporate world.

I recognized parts of my past life in the story of a successful vice president in Silicon Valley.  When the stress level was high, I found it very hard to depressurize and became more and more short tempered. Little things, like the kids being late for school, could ignite my explosion.  Another told me the following I kick myself for working myself to death, giving up my free time on weekends, [not] pursuing my hobbies, [not] spending time with my spouse.  And when a vice president from the Midwest told me about his recent stroke at the age of forty-seven, I saw my life as it could have been, had I not changed my priorities.

But don’t worry – you don’t need to leave the corporate world to rebalance your life.  My life was in balance for a few years before I decided to move on, and many of the stories I tell are from people who have already realigned their priorities to “bust their corporate idols,” people who are now living less stressed and happier lives.

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Regain Control of Your Life Through Stories About People

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 12

Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values & Regain Control Of Your Life is a book full of stories..  The longer a story has been told, the more likely it is to resonate with fundamental ideas about people.  I include stories from ancient sources like Aesop or the Bible, as well as modern stories, like the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller or the movie The Devil Wore Prada.  Across industries and level, in the Bible and in literature, I see the same story again and again. Excess devotion to things (like a company) comes at a high price, while focus on people (like family or community) brings greater happiness and internal peace.

The book is divided into three parts.  The first part of the book, “Corporate Idolatry Busted” tells the story of idols and corporations to help you see the world in a different way.  In today’s world, ‘idol’ generally refers to a secular object that is blindly or excessively admired. ‘Idolatry,’ however, refers not to feelings but actions. To give a trivial example, it is one thing to admire the winner of the TV show American Idol.  It is quite another to dye your hair and change your speech patterns to mimic the winner in daily life.

But idolatry is anything but trivial.  According to traditional Jewish teachings, you are allowed to commit any sin if it will save your own life, with the exception of murder, incest, or idolatry.  Idolatry as bad as murder???  Why should I take a bullet to avoid having to bow down to a statue?  The short answer is that the idol is not just a statue; it represents a value system and a way of life.  The First, and arguably the most important, Commandment says there is only one God, which as I show in Chapter 2, can be translated for unbelievers into “there is only one set of unchanging universal values.” In Pagan Idolatry, there are many gods, each with their own set of rules, meaning that individuals can, and did, pick which set of rules to follow, including some systems where murder was permissible.

Some people look at multiple religions and see nothing but conflict.  I see the commonalities, a single gold standard of values that transcend religion and do not even require belief in God.  In Chapter 2 we will become acquainted with the Golden Rule, the Rule of Self Preservation and the Rule of Universality that together constitute the Fundamental Universal Values (aka Fun-U-Val for the corporate junkies who can’t remember anything without the aid of an acronym.)  Idolatry, then, is the adoption of values that conflict with Fun-U-Val.  Chapter 3 strips away all the anthropomorphisms, demonization, and lionization that we attribute to corporations.  They are institutions created to make money, and are a very efficient way to create goods and services.  But corporations are no more capable of noticing people than an anthill is capable of noticing the ants digging the tunnels.

What stories have inspired you to make a change in your life?

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How To Identify When You Are Too Devoted To Work

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 13

The last post describes first part of the Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values & Regain Control Of Your Life, which introduces the concept of Corporate Idolatry, and reviews the nature of both idolatry and corporations.  The middle part of the book, “The Corporate Ladder Revisited” tells stories from life in the corporate world, and examines three factors that contribute to a life of Corporate Idolatry.  According to the business ethics literature, unethical behavior at work can be because of unethical people, challenging circumstances, or an unethical corporate culture.  The same three factors lead the adoption of a company-first value system. Proper understanding of the interplay among people, circumstances, and corporate culture is essential in order to identify the causes of Corporate Idolatry, and then to set appropriate boundaries around your life.

Chapter 4 introduces Scorpions, Foxes, and Wolves, three types of people you must be able to identify if you are to know who to trust in the workplace.  The animal names come from the Aesop’s fable The Scorpion and the Frog, and from the parable the Fox and the Wolf.

“The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…” from Aesopsfables.com.

And if you think everything at work depends on you, Chapter 5 will burst your bubble.  Psychologists call it “The Illusion of Control,” and it can manifest in the workplace as a special kind of idolatry.  Chapter 6 tackles company culture, which like all cultures uses things like rules, traditions, myths, and rituals to perpetuate itself.

Here is a story from a company that ships radiolabeled isotopes for medical tests.  “Something went wrong with the reactor and the people on the night shift had to run in to the reactor to get [the isotype in order to make the shipment deadline.] They got 10 times the dose they legally should have.  It wasn’t driven by commercial gain.  It was driven by “oh we’ve go to do a good job.”

What are the stories from your company?

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The Secret GPS For Work Life Balance

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Post 14

The third and final part of Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Regain Control Of Your Values & Regain Control Of Your Life is called “From Worship to Work.[i]” These final four chapters chart a path from excess devotion to a more balanced life.  Many people who have transitioned from worship to work remain employed in the corporate world, but with a better awareness of their true values, which empowers them to set different priorities and to make different choices.

Chapter 7 gives the first step, to secure an identity that puts people first, ahead of the company.  “Sue”, a director in the hardware industry has a serious identity issue.

It’s almost like [I am a] battered wife, where I take a lot of abuse by the way of hours and demands that I impose on myself.  It is hard for me to set limits.

But one person in isolation isn’t strong enough to resist the constant pull from the company for more time and attention.  It takes support from a community of like-minded people, and Chapter 8 teaches you how to build such a community.  In Chapter 9, you will learn the business case for good, a method to subvert the system of forecasting and power politics to guide the company and your management to make decisions in line with your core values.

Chapter 10 explores provocative questions and practical metrics to advance you down your new path.  You will see the world in a different way, and you will say no to additional work without regret or hesitation. One director told me how he became a different person when he started shutting off his devices on the weekend.  I didn’t realize it until Sunday night, when I started feeling the low level stress in my belly.  It was coming back.  Idolatry always tries to come back.  But when you understand the dynamics, you can prevent it from taking control.

Life is like an eleven-sided triangle.  You can look at it from a lot of different directions, and see many different triangles.  All of them are correct, but none of them are complete.  Busting Your Corporate Idol presents another lens with which to examine the world, a lens that helped me see why my life was out of control, and what needed to change to make it right.

Reconnecting with my values was like getting a GPS for my life –I could now drive to a better place, one street at a time.

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[i] The phrase from ‘worship to work’ comes from Being God’s Partner: Hot to Find the Hidden Lind Between Spirituality and Your Work by Jeffrey Salkin p. 158. FYI I like parts of this book, especially its message that values should be the same at work as they are at home.  However, I disagree with the fundamental premise that the solution to chronic overwork is to bring a sense of spirituality to the workplace.