Over 100 years ago a German polymath called Max Weber wrote a treatise that is debated to this day. He proposed that religious beliefs endorsed and fed the Spirit of Capitalism. The arguement was that salvation comes through work; all work is (or should be) for God’s glory. Further wealth, one consequence of hard work, is a sign of God’s grace. The rich are the chosen, the poor the damned.

The idea of the (Protestant) Work Ethic has been debated ever since. A wide variety of issues from a rise in delinquency and illiteracy, to a decrease in productivity and commitment, have been blamed on the demise of the fundamental tenets of the work ethic.

Some argue the work ethic has not gone away. Rather it has simply been transformed. Time management, Do-It-Yourself, and health-awareness asceticism are all part of the new work ethic. Further, sport has been Protestantised with all the emphasis on competition, commitment, and discipline. No pain, no gain….the very core of Puritan beliefs. You only succeed with those 10,000 hours of very serious practice.

And now  we see winds of a new fad; Workplace Spirituality. For some, this idea is about as oxymoronic as ‘business ethics’ or ‘military intelligence.’ But is this a rediscovery of the Weberian idea of the connection between religious beliefs and economic output? Conspiracy theorists are quick to see connections between manipulative managers and gullible labourers.

There are now papers, books, handbooks on Workplace Spirituality. Once you get a Handbook you know the field is beginning to mature. But is a 500-page scholarly handbook a milestone, a millstone or a tombstone?

Part of the idea of workplace spirituality originates in the ever popular, but evidence-free, world of multiple intelligence. One of these is supposedly Spiritual Intelligence which includes such things as the capacity for transcendence: an ability to invest everyday activities, events and relationships with a sense of the sacred and divine and an ability to “utilise spiritual resonance” (huh?) to solve problems in everyday living. So what is this new fad, supposedly associated with organisational productivity?

A cursory “surfing of the Web” indicated a proliferation of web sites, newsletters, and conferences all on the topic. However, it is very apparent that the concept has multiple meanings. These include: acting with honesty and integrity in all aspects of work; treating employees, suppliers, shareholders, and customers in a responsible, caring way; having social, environmental, and ecological responsibility by serving the “wider social community”; holding religious study groups and/or prayer/meditation meetings at work; and being able to discuss values without the dogmatism and overstructuring of organised religion.

Certainly there is a range of values that seems to fall under the umbrella of spirituality: accountability, caring, cooperativeness, honesty, integrity, justice, respect, service, and trustworthiness. Spirituality is a means, not an end. It supposedly encourages questions like: Are our business decisions based exclusively on profit? Are employees required to sacrifice private/family time to be successful? Are we self-centred and forgetting the principles of service to others in the wider community? But also, do employees get a sense of wonder at work? Do they have a sense of community?

Another theme rediscovered within the rubric of workplace spirituality is the concept of vocation: to work consciously and to celebrate all aspects of work’s purpose. Indeed the word vocation has always had both secular and spiritual significance: it can mean both a divine call to religious life and also the work in which a person is regularly employed. It implies that the fit is right between person and organisation, that they suit each other in terms of preferences, values, and lifestyles.

Skeptics and cynics of the workplace spirituality concept have such concerns as the imposition of religious concepts or ethics of a particular religious group on everyone. Others are concerned by the superficiality and trivialisation of religious and spiritual belief. Some are worried about cost, time wasting and the potential harassment of the “nonspiritual.” It has been suggested that the movement is in fact led by the baby-boomer generation who is now postmaterialist and much more aware of its mortality. But it does seem to have “struck a nerve.”

A focus on workplace spirituality makes the workplace somewhere to express and fulfil one’s deeper purpose. Work is an integral part of life and one does not disengage heart or brain at the factory door or office. There is no compensation in work life balance: both can (perhaps should) be deeply spiritual. People bring to work their attitudes, beliefs, and values about both material and spiritual affairs. Even within more formal religious beliefs historically there has not been a clear distinction between work and non-work. One does not suspend faith and values on entering the workplace. Personal ethics and values are relevant in nearly all aspects of work: from the very choice of vocation itself to the treatment of colleagues and customers.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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