Spiriutality at Work

An Article by David Cornfield

You and I live in a secular society. By secular I mean a society where spiritual pursuits are intentionally kept separate from worldly pursuits. One of the places that our secularism can be seen most clearly is in the separation between spirituality and business. It makes sense. If you are going to separate the spiritual from the worldly, what could possibly be more worldly than the pursuit of business? So when people ask what I have been up to lately, and I proceed to talk about the various ways that my partner and I have been involved in bringing spirituality to the workplace, I often get puzzled looks. The message conveyed by those looks is clear: the word spirituality and the word work don’t belong in the same sentence. Spirituality at work is an oxymoron.  

In our secular society, people expect that when they show up for work, they have to check their spirituality at the door. While they may conduct themselves in accordance with spiritual principles, they think of spirituality as a personal concern. They do not assume that talking about spiritual issues is acceptable in a work context. They avoid using spiritual language at work even where they perceive spiritual issues to be at stake.  

For many people, the idea that their employer might take more than a passing interest in their spiritual well-being stretches the bounds of what they imagine to be possible. I have to reassure them that I am not kidding when I tell them there are corporations, some of them very large and well known, that are taking an interest in spirituality at work, to the point of sponsoring and attending international conferences on the topic as well as taking steps to institute programs that bring spirituality to the workplace.  

When my questioners realize that spirituality at work is gaining credibility in the corporate world, their puzzled looks are often followed by expressions of concern. The fear is that any attempt to bring spirituality into the workplace is going to involve pressuring people to pursue a particular brand of spirituality. This concern has a historical foundation. We are not a secular society for no reason. Secularism emerged out of the desire to protect religious freedom. Many of the first European immigrants to North America came here because the existence of a state-sanctioned religion in their country of origin encouraged religious intolerance. Secularism was an attempt to avoid that kind of intolerance by placing a wall between religion and the state. First adopted as public policy in the United States, but later taken up by many other countries around the world, secularism established each person’s legal right to choose his or her own religious beliefs without interference from government and then purported to guarantee that religious freedom by separating church and state. Separation between church and state quickly became the norm and, by implication, was extended into the world of business, forming the template for our secular society. 

The problem with secularism is that it protects religious freedom by disemboweling it. Spirituality loses its significance when it is treated as something separate and apart from the actions we take in the world. A compartmentalized spirituality that is acknowledged on weekends and holidays but not recognized in the day to day living out of our lives, is a spirituality that is empty and hypocritical. And a world cut off from spirituality becomes a wasteland where our daily lives feel devoid of meaning. 

The question then becomes: if we are going to reintegrate spirituality and daily life, and in particular if we are going to bring spirituality into the workplace, can we do so without infringing on religious freedom? To address that question, let’s look first at what we mean by spirituality. Victor Frankl, Carl Jung and many others have told us that one of the most basic of human needs, right up there on the list of priorities with the need for food and the need for love, is the need for meaning. Spirituality is about the search for meaning. As long as spirituality at work is simply about legitimizing the search for meaning in the context of work, then religious intolerance is not an issue. If spirituality is just about the search, then everyone is free to conduct their own search in their own way. The problem of religious intolerance arises when spirituality is not just about the search but extends to the answers found in that search. It is one thing to encourage the raising of spiritual questions in the context of work. It is quite another to impose a particular set of answers to those spiritual questions. The former increases religious freedom. The latter restricts it.  

Let’s unpack that a bit more. Search for meaning. What does that mean? Well, there is no meaning without context. To give something meaning is to see where it fits into some larger scheme. The cells in my body are given meaning by the context of my body. The functions performed by the cells in my liver have meaning because they are essential to support the viability of the body of which they form a part. In the same way, my existence as a human being becomes meaningful only if I can see myself as having a role to play in the unfolding of the larger context of which I form a part.  

Meaningfulness is not just about noticing that our lives are acted out on a larger stage. A life that amounts to no more than a random set of unrelated events, disconnected with whatever else is happening on the larger stage, is not a meaningful life. For there to be meaning, there has to be some sense of playing a role in the development of a story that has a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. Searching for the meaning of our lives involves an assumption that we are here on this earth for a reason. There is something we are meant to be doing, some package we are supposed to deliver. We are not here to do what we want to do when we want to do it. We are here to do what our lives are asking us to do because our lives need us to do it. In other words, we each have a role to play, it makes a difference whether or not we carry out that task, and we feel our lives to be meaningful when we are doing what we are meant to be doing. 

Since each of us is unique, it follows that the role we are each being asked to play in the larger scheme of things is also unique. My role is different from your role, and my role shifts in response to changing circumstances as time passes. This implies that the search for meaning is necessarily a quest that is both ongoing and personal. There is no single all-purpose one-size-fits-all meaning that applies to everyone at all times. When we attempt to answer the question “what is the meaning of life?”, we have to begin by asking “whose life?” and “at what stage in that life?”. We each have to discover our own evolving purpose as our lives play out from moment to moment. 

When spirituality is seen as an ongoing quest for a meaning unique to each individual, religious intolerance becomes irrelevant. If we are each called to our own unique purpose, my answer about what will give my life meaning is not going to work for you, and it makes no sense at all for me to attempt to impose my answers on you. On the other hand, given that we spend so much of our lives doing what we do to earn a living, and given that our work is most often the place where we make a contribution to the world, what does make sense is that we be encouraged to bring these considerations to the workplace.  

The next question comes from employers. They want to know what effect bringing spirituality to the workplace is going to have on their bottom line. My answer is that it can only have a positive effect. Employees, like every other human being, have a longing for meaning. They want to feel that their work makes a positive contribution. They want to take pride in what they do. When employers ignore these needs, employees lose interest in their work. It is not enough to have a good salary, a benefit package and a safe and congenial workplace. Employees who spend their day in a workplace where their longing for meaning goes unfulfilled feel empty. Rather than drown in that emptiness, they deny their longing for meaning by shutting down. They end up in a state of chronic low-level depression, unable to find their enthusiasm, resenting their tasks, doing the minimum they need to do to get by without being fired, and cut off from feeling their own needs to the point where they do not even know what they need to help themselves feel better. The result is a society where 80 to 90% of the workforce hates their work.  

Ultimately every organization is in the business of delivering service. You cannot deliver first class service if the people in your organization are depressed and hate their work. Contrariwise, when people are doing work that feels meaningful to them, they are energetic, enthusiastic, even passionate about their work. And the difference is palpable. Customers notice. Above all, they go away feeling that the people who deal with them care about serving their needs. Customers who feel cared about come back, and they refer their friends. The results cannot help but be reflected in the bottom line.   

At some point in the discussion, the word ‘flakey’ generally rears its ugly head. It is here that we begin to see the damage inflicted by secularism. The split between spirituality and work generates two camps, both of which have some measure of disdain for the other. On the one hand you have the realists who put down spiritual types as impractical, head in the clouds, non-contenders - all neatly summed up in the word ‘flakes’. And on the other hand you have the spiritual types who are just as contemptuous, taking the moral high ground relative to realists who they deride as money grubbing, lacking in principles, lacking in soul. Neither wants anything to do with the other.

While both sides demonstrate their own brand of arrogance, the criticisms they level at each other are not without merit. When spirituality is divorced from the real world, both spirituality and the real world suffer. It is as if the head and the body each had a separate existence, with the body ridiculing the head as idealistic because it has no arms and legs to put its ideals into practice, and the head accusing the body of blindness because it has no eyes to see where it is going. Both are right. A head without a body is no better than a body without a head. Body and head need each other to be complete. A spirituality not manifested in the real world is indeed impractical. At the same time, a real world without spirituality is a world without vision. Spirituality needs the real world as the place to enact its vision; the real world needs spirituality for a vision of what to enact and why.

Now the questions begin coming thick and fast. How do you get head and body to work together as a team when each is disdainful of the other? How do you get skeptical business types to open up to the idea that spirituality may have something to offer them when their first reaction is to write spirituality off as flakey? How do you get self-righteous spiritual types to come down off the mountain and get their hands dirty in the real world of business? How do you deal with the fear that bringing spirituality to the workplace means that someone else’s religion is going to be shoved down your throat? And how do you get people who are feeling the lack of spirituality in their work to come out of the closet and make their needs known when they are afraid that they are going to lose respect if they do so? 

Truth to tell, there are no pat answers to these questions. The whole field of spirituality at work is in its infancy. Anyone who takes on the issues at this stage of the game has to have the courage to break new ground, going where no one has gone before, trusting their own resourcefulness to come up with innovative solutions as the need emerges. This is true whether you are an individual making your spiritual needs known in the workplace, a manager taking on the issue of spirituality in the workplace on behalf of your organization, or a consultant putting yourself forward as willing and able to facilitate whatever process is needed to bring spirit to work. We are improvising the answers as we go along. There is no road until we make a path.

This is not to say that nothing is happening. A lot is happening. More and more people are waking up to the spiritual bankruptcy of the secular society. A lot of those people are reading books like Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore and Taking Your Soul to Work by Tanis Halliwell, and deciding, as a personal initiative, to bring their spiritual issues to work. Without fanfare, without waiting for approval, they are beautifying their work space to make it more soulful, taking the risk of speaking out about their spiritual needs in spiritual terms, and creating private rituals that serve to help them remember what is meaningful about what they do.

There is, of course, a limit to what the individual employee can do to influence the corporate culture. Significant change in this area will only come about when the corporation itself embraces the idea that integrating spirituality into work serves their stakeholders. And corporations are sitting up and taking notice. People in the business world are beginning to suspect that spirituality at work might be the next cutting edge in organizational development and they are keen to know more about it.

 At this point, a lot of the groundwork in this field is being done at conferences organized specifically to talk about spirituality at work. Attended by business people, consultants in organizational development and human resources, counsellors, psychotherapists, clergy, aboriginal peoples and just plain folks, conferences are bringing together people who have explored the spiritual side with people who are coming out of a business environment so that they can network, cross-pollinate, and brainstorm new ways to bring the spiritual into the practical and the practical into the spiritual.

 Interestingly enough, the centre of this activity is right here in Canada. Canada has more conferences on spirituality at work per capita than any other country. People from all over the world are coming to conferences held in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Pugwash and Nelson just to find out how Canada became such a place of ferment for the movement to bring spirituality to work.

Secularism is an experiment that failed. Designed to prevent religious intolerance, it produced a society lacking in heart and soul. The movement towards bringing spirituality into work signals the death of secularism, and the creation of a world where spirituality is integrated into daily life, where each individual is supported in his or her search for meaning in every context, including work, and where as a consequence we care more about what we do to earn a living. Spirituality at work: an idea whose time has come.

David Cornfield

Spirituality at Work was first published as the cover story for the September, 1999 issue of Eye for the Future.

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