Organizations are seeking to provide an environment for their employees to sense fulfillment and realize they are coming to work to do a meaningful job; workplace spiritualty may just be the answer to aide in this effort. Empirical research has shown workplace spirituality results in a variety of positive workplace outcomes. This article will provide a brief overview of the concept along with research specifics and application techniques.
Workplace spirituality is still an emerging field of study, and one of the original debates revolves around the separation of religion and spirituality. Giacalone, Jurkiewicz, and Fry (2005) wrestled with the concept of religion and spirituality and noted, “Spirituality is necessary for religion, but religion is not necessary for spirituality” (p. 517). It is important to discuss this right up front as many business professionals prefer to keep their church or religious life and their business life separate. When introducing this topic, Dean (2017) asked questions such as (a) what activities have you been involved with that have caused a spiritual experience and (b) what does it feel like to be spiritual? In answering the first question, responses such as attending a concert, meditating, reading a book, or walking in nature were spoken. The second question had replies of feeling balanced, energized, a feeling like one is aware, or peaceful. In short, one does not need to be religious to be spiritual.
While workplace spirituality is a phrase many may not be familiar with, it is a movement that has been underway in corporations since the 1950’s. A 1953 article in Fortune Magazine titled, Businessmen on their Knees is possibly the first mention of the concept scholars now term workplace spirituality. In the article, Norton-Taylor (1953) described benefits of secular organizations such as U.S. Steele that held a prayer meeting in the corner of one department in an effort to reduce strikes. Another example was a routine luncheon with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton graduates that studied the Bible and spirituality. Other examples included a Navy Admiral, Borg-Warner, and Russell Stover Candy Company. This article set the stage for workplace spirituality as more executives turned their attention to something spiritual in order to help them run their business.
In 2001, another article was published in Fortune Magazine titled, God in Business. Gunther (2001) wrote that “bringing spirituality into the workplace… is breaching the last taboo in corporate America.” He stated that many still believe in “separation of church and boardroom” and explained that the business world had found ways to talk about “race, gender equality, sexuality, disability, and even mental illness”, but not religion. Gunther penned about Warren Buffett and a planned franchise of R.C. Wiley furniture store. Wiley believed in closing his stores on Sunday so employees could go to church and it seemed to work just fine in Utah. In order to move forward with the franchise Wiley needed to prove to Buffet that closing Las Vegas stores would work by setting up a test store in Idaho. The concept worked and Buffett moved forward with the franchise. There are now four R.C. Wiley furniture stores in Las Vegas. The author also wrote about lunch meetings at LaSalle Bank in Chicago that included sandwiches and spiritual sustenance calling for employees to work less, slow down, and stop multi-tasking (Gunther).
In what is considered the first empirical study on workplace spirituality, Mitroff and Denton (1999) explained that the word interconnectedness is a single word that describes the meaning of spirituality (p. 83). Their groundbreaking research found that spiritual employees were hungry to “bring more of their ‘complete selves’ to work” (p. 83). The scholars explained “unless organizations learn how to harness the whole person and the immense spiritual energy that is at the core of everyone, they will not be able to produce world class products and services” (p. 84). Since the pioneering efforts of Mitroff and Denton, numerous studies have assessed the relationship of workplace spirituality on organizational outcomes such as employee health and stress (Daniel, 2015; Kumar & Kumar, 2014), job involvement (Van der Walt & Swanepoel, 2015; Kolodinsky, Giacalone, & Jurkiewicz, 2008), job satisfaction (Milliman, Czaplewski, & Ferguson, 2003; Ghazzawi et al., 2016), organizational commitment (Milliman et al., 2003; Rego & Pina e Cunha, 2008), organizational frustration (Kolodinsky et al., 2008), organizational identification (Kolodinsky et al., 2008), work rewards satisfaction (Kolodinsky et al., 2008), and work unit performance (Duchon & Ashmos-Plowman, 2005).
Dean believes that workplace spirituality is becoming more important than ever because human beings are moving up into higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Figure 1 displays each layer of Maslow’s hierarchy. It is important to note that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was presented in a 1934 paper on the theory of human motivation. Over the past eight decades, many scholars have expanded the hierarchy to include more needs. Dean (2017) expanded the list of needs into Figure 1. As you look at the hierarchy, you may notice that many people have their basic needs met. The basic needs of food, water, safety, and shelter for many human beings is met and they have progressed into the next layer of the hierarchy where relationships become important. In years past, many would work for the simple purpose of providing basic needs for the family. Now, a paycheck may not be the only thing people are coming to work for. They need relationships and feelings of prestige. As each human being progresses through the hierarchy, their needs will change. Empirical research is showing that workplace spirituality provides many of the needs in the upper layers of the hierarchy.
Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Giacalone, Jurkiewicz, and Fry (2005) stated “workplace spirituality is one of the fastest growing areas of new research and inquiry by scholars and practitioners alike” (p.515). Dean (2017) compiled a list of variables from two spiritual leadership scales that help her coach and mentor leaders and followers in the workplace. The list is available in Table 1. The Spiritual Leadership Scale developed by Fry, Vitucci, et al. (2005) measures Fry’s three dimensions of spiritual leadership including altruistic love, hope/faith, and vision. The Ashmos and Duchon’s (2000) Spirituality at Work Scale measures inner life, meaningful work, and sense of community.
|Spiritual Leadership Scale||Spirituality at Work Scale|
· Altruistic Love
· Inner Life
· Organizational Commitment
· Satisfaction with Life
· Conditions for Community
· Inner Life
· Meaning at Work
· Positive Work Unit Values
· Work Unit Community
Table 1: List of surveys and variables
Once Dean surveys participants using either of the above two surveys, she is able to design coaching and mentoring to fit the needs of the department or organization. In one endeavor, Dean worked with a group of 30 employees to educate them on the topic of workplace spirituality and assess their culture and climate. She found that altruistic love was the main predictor variable of job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Sense of community and meaningful work also significantly predicted job satisfaction.
When coaching a team to act with altruistic love, develop a sense of community, and discover meaningful work, Dean starts with the basics. Coaching leaders to care about their followers is not always easy, but it is necessary to developing a culture of workplace spirituality. Leaders can do this by cultivating relationships. If necessary, schedule time each day to walk around and talk with the team. Asking about their family and hobbies are great ways to start the conversation to show you care. While developing a sense of community, teams can also care for one another as life events happen. Life events may include occasions such as graduation, marriage, birth, divorce, death, and promotion. Celebrating with one another and sharing burdens with one another are great ways to develop community and show care. When discovering the meaning of work, Dean suggests asking higher levels of management how the daily work relates to the bigger picture or mission of the company. It is important for every employee to know why the wake up and go to work each day. If finding the meaning of work is not readily available, it may be necessary to get creative.
Dean has used the following story to describe the concept of meaningful work to a large group of corporate professionals. As an example, let’s say a high school girl or boy applies for a job as a lifeguard. Their purpose for getting the job is to spend their summer outside and get a tan. After the first week on the job the lifeguard witnessed a small child fall into the pool and struggle to swim. The lifeguard jumped from their chair, dove into the pool, and pulled the lifeless child to the side. They preceded to resuscitate the child successfully. After that day, the lifeguard discovered that their work had much more meaning than simply spending the summer outside and getting a tan. With their new perspective on their job, they were eager to get work and maintain vigilance. They had found meaning in their work.
As another example, Marques, Dhiman, and King (2009) wrote in their book about Johnny the Bagger (p. 102 – 103). Johnny the Bagger was working at a grocery store. Johnny had Down syndrome and wanted to provide a positive message each day at work. In the evenings, Johnny would find a thought of the day, make copies, cut out each slip of paper, and sign his name. He would then put a slip of paper in a grocery bag for each customer. As a result, Johnny’s line got longer as more customers preferred to wait for him. Johnny had found his purpose at work. He was not only bagging groceries, but providing each customer with a positive message.
Also in the Marques, Dhiman, and King book was the story of Sue the Bus Driver (Ferguson, 2009. p. 29 – 30). Sue had a job where she was responsible for driving a bus. Her job could have been mundane as she drove the same route each day, but for Sue she found meaning in her work by using her skills as an outgoing and friendly person to talk to everyone as they got on the bus. Sue showed interest in her passengers and genuinely cared for her customers. Over time, riders would time their day so they could ride Sue’s bus instead of taking a more convenient bus because they liked how they felt when they were greeted by Sue and how she cared for them. In the story, Sue explained, that she felt connected to her passengers and driving a bus was her way of doing church; it was her ministry. She could care for others while she drove them from one place to another.
In closing, it is important to note that workplace spirituality is still considered a relatively new concept. Scholars are busy with research on this topic and many meet at least annually to discuss progress made and next steps. Meanwhile, practitioners can help transform a culture of spirituality so that organizations provide an environment for their employees to sense fulfillment and realize they are coming to work to do a meaningful job.
Dr. Debra Dean
Ashmos, D., & Duchon, D. (2000). Spirituality at Work. Journal of Management Inquiry, 9(2), 134.
Daniel, J. (2015). Workplace spirituality and stress: evidence from Mexico and US. Management Research Review, 38(1), 29. doi:10.1108/MRR-07-2013-0169
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