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What Is Spirituality at Work?

Three principles to support a practice of spirituality at work.

Key points

  • Practicing spirituality at work requires finding intellectual meaning, emotional connection, and awe-inducing wonder.
  • Popular approaches linking work to spirituality include a religious calling, workism, and mindfulness.
  • To practice spirituality at work, workers must internalize that spirituality is more than inward bliss and work is more than falling in line.
Jonas Ferlin/Pexels
Source: Jonas Ferlin/Pexels

Famed neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl claimed spirituality as the very essence of our humanity. And given how technology has blurred the lines between when we are and are not finding ourselves to be working, a failure to fi­nd spirituality at work means losing an essential piece of what it means to be human.

In Connected Capitalism, I propose that transforming work into a spiritual experience requires our work lives to, at varying points, provide intellectual meaning, emotional connection, and awe-inducing wonder. We need to view creating value, initiating change, and encouraging large-scale cooperation as amongst the most important types of spiritual work. This can be the foundation for a framework to solve many of the socio-economic problems we face today, fully deploying our spiritual capabilities in the context of work.

Arthur Brognoli/Pexels
Source: Arthur Brognoli/Pexels

Religious Calling, Workism, and Mindfulness

There are several approaches that have successfully linked work to spiritual practice in Western capitalist societies. During the Industrial Revolution, for example, a work ethic was developed by adherents of the Protestant branch of Christianity that aimed to bring spiritual meaning to the workplace through the concept of a “calling,” a somewhat technical term with specifi­c application in the Christian faith. The believer is meant to contemplate what type of work they are being called to do and commit to it fully.

Sociologist Max Weber argues that this was a radical innovation, accelerating the introduction of modern capitalism. Now, the highest moral activity which a religious individual could undertake was to be devout in doing their everyday job. Work as a calling meant that God wanted every individual to engage in the unique activities that they alone were sent to do. It did not matter whether it was the physical work of a labourer employing their hands or the intellectual work of a teacher who draws on their mind.

Researchers who study the history of spirituality and religion in this context observed that this ethic emboldened those at the top of the hierarchical order to exercise autocratic rule and power. Spiritual purpose was used as a management tool designed to minimize employee conflict and resistance to work. In other words, those who took their calling seriously were susceptible to exploitation by the powerful, who wanted to keep them at work and in line.

Today, the most prosperous members of the workforce are logging the longest hours, while historically, those with the highest incomes took on the fewest working hours. Derek Thompson labels this as “workism,” a new and worrying type of spiritual view centred on “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production but also the essence of one’s identity and life’s purpose.” Indeed, a recent Pew survey found that 95 percent of teens reported that f­inding meaning at work is more important as an adult ambition than having a family or being kind.

To counter this negative trend in the search for workplace spiritual purpose, corporate giants like Google, Apple, McKinsey, and Nike, to name a few, have made great efforts to address the spiritual needs of their employees by making mindfulness part of their corporate culture. At its core, mindfulness in the workplace is about developing the ability to be present without judgment or reaction.

Brett Jordan/Pexels
Source: Brett Jordan/Pexels

Three Practical Principles

To practice spirituality at work in a healthy and productive way, whatever the spiritual paradigm, there are three principles to follow:

  1. Spirituality is more than inward bliss: Spiritual pursuits are efforts to attach oneself to an actualized purpose. This inspires actions that will lead to greater communal connections and creative outcomes. To suggest that turning on our spiritual faculties requires us to somehow detach ourselves from the challenges of the material world relegates spirituality to those who dwell in the temples or high on the mountains. Passive stances are ­necessary on occasion but cannot be the dominant frame for spirituality at work. When we seek meaning, connection, and wonder in contemporary work, we need to be encouraged to be assertive, reactive, and cooperative.
  2. Ethics is more than altruism: Actions that emerge from spiritual work will differ from what we generally regard as the sphere of the moral, like altruism and self-sacrifi­ce. Purposeful work will even demand qualities and character traits that do not, at fi­rst glance, have overtly moral significance. These traits can include an entrepreneurial tolerance for risk, an innovative spirit, or a mathematical mindset. Ethics is an urgent call to action in the fast-paced competitive landscape of modern business. Every work decision has ethical implications and bears enormous responsibility. Meeting this burden requires drawing on a wide variety of skill sets and abilities, but most importantly it involves recognizing that every moral action we take binds us to someone else.
  3. Work is more than falling in line: Spiritual work changes us, the environment in which we work, and all those who come in contact with us. It is a cooperative endeavour that serves both an ethical and spiritual purpose. As such, it is not about falling in line with higher powers, be they human or divine, but creating new value as co-creators and disrupting old power structures.

Spirituality at work starts with thinking about how we can tell the best possible story of what we do every day. We need to explain why it is a good-faith activity, rooted in meaning, fostering connection, and inspiring wonder. And if our work is not a good-faith activity, we need to make it become one.

References

Weitzner, D. (2021). Connected Capitalism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribner.

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