Can spirituality help at work?

Can spirituality help at work?

In bookstores, spirituality is packaged as if it’s a pep pill for overworked managers.

Fall 2008


Editor’s note: This essay, by Stephanie Anagnoson, appeared in the Fall 2008 edition of UU World.

In one news week, employees for a cell phone call center were banned from using pens or pencils in the workplace for fear they would steal secrets, a meteorologist at a TV station revealed that a coworker had sabotaged her repeatedly on the air after she rebuffed his candy-laden sexual entendres, and a substitute teacher claimed he was fired for showing students a magic trick. Viewed as separate incidents, these stories all prompt further inquiries. Banned pens? Candy-laden sexual entendres? Fired for magic? What’s the whole story here? This is the world of work through the lens of the media. It seems like a very crazy place.

Few of us have the luxury of avoiding the workplace, so coping with its challenges—or fighting them, or thriving among them—seems to be our fate. A growing movement of writers, consultants, and employees has embraced the idea that “spirituality” can help.

But what is spirituality in the workplace? Joan Marques, Satinder Dhiman, and Richard King—two businesspeople and one business professor—offer these thoughts in Spirituality in the Workplace: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Make It Work for You:

Spirituality in the workplace is an experience of interconnectedness among those involved in a work process, initiated by authenticity, reciprocity, and personal goodwill; engendered by a deep sense of meaning that is inherent in the organization’s work; and resulting in greater motivation and organizational excellence.

This isn’t a particularly unusual definition of spirituality based around interconnectedness, but it does raise a number of questions regarding its application in the workplace: What about work done alone? Can’t that be spiritual? Is it possible for spirituality in the workplace to exist in the absence of authenticity, reciprocity, and personal goodwill (a.k.a. much of the modern workplace)? And what if work is downright meaningless? Does that mean spirituality is dead?

The authors contrast spirituality in the workplace with religion in the workplace: “[S]pirituality in the workplace has nothing to do with ethereal experiences or states, but everything to do with proper organizational behavior involving humane approaches toward one another.” The contrast between spirituality and religion seems problematic. Couldn’t a silent prayer or meditation in the workplace bring me to an ethereal or religious experience? Would that be so bad? And is spirituality in the workplace really just about organizational behavior? I end up all sorts of confused.

The authors identify a number of reasons for the upsurge in interest in spirituality in the workplace, including the downsizing and layoffs of the past decade, the fact that the workplace serves as a primary community for many of us, and aging Baby Boomers wondering about spirituality and death.

Still, if I were faced with any number of issues in the workplace—bans on pens, coworkers sabotaging me, or restrictions on magic tricks, for example—I’d be hard pressed to find practical advice in this book. Seeking answers to (or at least general reflections on) any of these issues, I reached page 113, and I’d just about given up entirely. Then I found suggestions about bringing in personal belongings, plants, taking breaks, keeping my dreams alive, and watching my attitude. Yes, attitude is important. But faced with a ridiculous ban on pens, a philodendron and pat on the back with a “Buck up, little camper!” is pretty frustrating advice.

Nancy Smith, a technical writer and an ordained Methodist deacon, presents a different paradigm in Workplace Spirituality: A Complete Guide for Business Leaders. She describes spirituality as “the inborn desire and ability of every person to seek, know, and respond to the Mystery that I call God but which others may call something else: Spirit, Universe Energy, Life, etc.”

Smith attributes the growing interest in spirituality to factors such as the instability of the worker/ company relationship, ethical breakdowns in corporations, demands on workers for more time, and mid-life introspection of the Baby Boomers—a very similar list to the one in Spirituality in the Workplace.

Rather than creating a false dichotomy between spirituality and religion, as the authors of Spirituality in the Workplace seem to do, Smith uses a more holistic definition: “Religion involves the system of thought and the practice through which many people express their spirituality.” Pointing out the systemic nature of religion makes sense, as does acknowledging that religion often involves spiritual aspects rather than being the opposite of it. She later points out that spirituality is part of what makes us a whole person, and that we all benefit when the whole person can come to work. This is also called noncompartmentalization, or “being ourselves” at work.

So what exactly does spirituality in the workplace look like in this model? Smith identifies qualities, which she labels spiritual: authenticity, integrity, humility, openness, hospitality, gratitude, and compassion. What strikes me about this list is how these are ideal qualities in all human beings all the time (at home or on the soccer field as well as at work), but that these qualities might get you eaten alive in the workplace.

My interest in spirituality in the workplace was born a decade ago when I attended Harvard Divinity School, intending to become a UU minister. At the same time, I worked as an editor for Houghton Mifflin. It was the combination of divinity school and corporate life that introduced spirituality in the workplace to me through my own daily questions: What can I say to a coworker who suddenly develops a brain tumor? How can I cope with the anxiety of constant threats of lay offs? How can grief be expressed after lay-offs? Is an office Christmas tree (or Christmas party) really appropriate? And what to make of the incessant boredom of trying to look busy when I’m done with my work, have asked for more, and really have nothing to do? (My grandmother would no doubt say that being bored is the sign of a boring person, but did my grandmother ever work in a cube? I don’t think so.)

I have found answers in the past to spirituality and the workplace questions in two older books: Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership by Douglas A. Hicks and Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job by Lewis Richmond. Each is helpful and thorough in ways that the books above were not for me.

Hicks doesn’t attempt to nail down a definition of spirituality in Religion and the Workplace. In Chapter 3, “Which Spirituality in the Workplace?” Hicks acknowledges that people use the term “spirituality” to mean all sorts of things, from certain values to certain community-based attitudes to certain practices. This seems like a far more fair assessment than trying to write a definition of spirituality that encompasses multiple meanings or tries to establish one meaning as dominant.

Hicks is also far more thorough than other authors in reviewing the influences on the spirituality-at-work movement. He includes the aging Baby Boomers and lengthening workweek, but also notes public Christian evangelicalism, immigration, and widening diversity as potential causes. Most interesting to me is Hicks’s contention that spirituality may be a “manifestation of the marketized society,” the latest concept to be made into a product and offered for sale at Whole Foods. And spirituality is indeed packaged, as the bookstore shelves attest. It is often offered as a solution for productivity and motivation problems, as if it’s a pep pill for overworked managers and employees with bad attitudes.

As part of recognizing the complexity of religion and spirituality in the workplace, Hicks acknowledges that bringing religion and spirituality to work (and, of course, they are already there) can introduce conflict. Unlike other authors who sweep conflict under the carpet (If only I focused on the interconnectedness of the work process . . . If I were more authentic in the workplace . . .), he reviews specific ways that religion and spirituality can introduce conflict: wearing religious symbols (Christian crosses, Muslim hijabs), displaying religious or spiritual symbols (flags, buttons, and posters), and religious invitations, proselytizing, and solicitation.

Finally, Hicks introduces a model, respectful pluralism, for addressing religion and spirituality in the workplace that includes dignity and equal respect, voluntariness, and the presumption of inclusion with limiting norms of non-degradation, non-coercion, and non-establishment of a particular religious tradition or version of spirituality.

It is worth noting that Hicks is a scholar and executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond: Religion in the Workplace is a dense, sophisticated book. I found it fascinating, but it is not light bedtime reading. It is a serious exploration of what exactly it means to be religious (and spiritual) in the workplace for many different people and offers a model for successfully addressing the problems that arise.

Lewis Richmond’s Work as a Spiritual Practice is the only book of the four that offers ways to connect what you do with your inner life to what you do for a paycheck (and how to make needed adjustments). Richmond is a Buddhist priest and teacher, as well as a former executive. And unlike the other books, Work as a Spiritual Practice gives many specific examples of people who have negotiated complex problems in the workplace, including a nurse stressed by caring for an increasing number of patients, managers told to unjustifiably fire employees or lay off a large number of employees and maintain the same productivity goals, an elementary school teacher who struggles with classroom management, and even his own experiences with a dirty office kitchenette. The book, unfortunately, is out of print, but is worth checking out of the library.

Richmond also suggests a process for dealing with a number of important recurring questions that make us worry at work:

  1. Raise the Question.
  2. Repeat the Question.
  3. Follow the Question.
  4. Settle the Question.

Richmond thinks worry can actually help us identify what is important to us. We begin by asking ourselves the question that flits through our mind throughout the day. “What if the layoffs go through?” is his example. His process involves repeating the question, and following where the question takes us with breath and thought until the answer arises in the last step. He also has techniques for dealing with commuting and (hallelujah!) boredom.

All four books fail in one area consistently, however: They address the needs of white-collar workers only, seeming to pretend that most of us work in cubicles or offices. This assumes that workers have a certain amount of autonomy as well as personal space of some sort (a cubicle, a locker, a cubby), which doesn’t seem to be a fair assumption in many workplaces. I am left wondering if, perhaps, given the emphasis on Baby Boomers as shaping the movement, the target demographic for spirituality and the workplace books is Baby Boomer managers.

There is no shortage of books on spirituality in the workplace in either the Spirituality/Religion section or the Business section of just about any bookstore. But if we are seeking help for our own predicaments as employees—if we are seeking ways to understand the modern workplace and develop techniques for coping with it—there are few books that truly help us cope with the specifics of daily work. However, Douglas Hicks’s Religion in the Workplace provides background for understanding the spirituality and religion in the workplace movement and offers a paradigm of respectful pluralism for our workplaces, and Lewis Richmond’s Work as a Spiritual Practice provides practical techniques for dealing with a chaotic and morally challenging workplace.

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Stephanie Anagnoson is a scientist and water resources manager.