What Is Workplace Spirituality and How To Cultivate It

Throughout the 20th century, life in the West became compartmentalized. People started thinking about work, personal and spiritual life as separate “modules” of how they spend their time.

We started losing sight of how all those modules penetrate one another.

Workplace spirituality is one manifestation of integrating all aspects of life back into the whole. As we grow as a society, more and more people look for the spiritual dimension of their jobs. Many organizations stop looking at work as something we just get done and forget about. They recognize that what we work on — and how — shapes us in more ways than we’re aware of.

Humans are spiritual beings, but we often confuse spirituality for a religion or belief system. That’s a misunderstanding. Spirituality is a shared human quality that manifests as the yearning we all have to experience life deeply, be present, and feel that we’re a part something bigger than ourselves.

Work can be a great opportunity to satisfy that yearning. That’s why workplace spirituality has become increasingly popular in the past few decades.

In the rest of this article, we’ll explain how spirituality at work looks like and how you can cultivate it — regardless of your role in the organization.

Workplace Spirituality: What Is It And Why Is It So Important Today?

Spiritual experience is something most people just know. But that knowing often slips away when we try to turn it into a mental understanding.

Over the years, there have been many attempts at defining human spirituality. Benner (1989) described it as “our response to a deep and mysterious human yearning for self-transcendence and surrender, a yearning to find our place.” Vaughn (1979) spoke of “a subjective experience of the sacred” and Mauritzen (1988) of “the human dimension that transcends the biological, psychological, and social aspects of living.”

These are just a few examples of countless definitions of spirituality as a universal human trait.

But although definitions differ, one element seems to come up more often than others. This element is the transcendence of self. Workplace spirituality is a framework or a part of organizational culture that enables exactly that. It creates conditions in which employees and leaders can feel themselves to be a part of something bigger — and, something that matters.

Robert Giacalone and Carole Jurkiewicz, two researchers of workplace spirituality, provide this definition in their 2003 paper:

“[Workplace spirituality is] a framework of organizational values evidenced in the culture that promotes employees’ experience of transcendence through the work process, facilitating their sense of being connected to others in a way that provides feelings of completeness and joy.”

The most straightforward way to this experience of transcendence is through the overall mission of an organization. But, there are also other ways. One of them is through the relationships and interactions that happen in the workplace.

When team members regularly get “in the zone” together, or collectively solve problems that seemed impossible on their own, they get a sense of meaning and belonging. This adds to the experience of spirituality. Usually, it also enhances collective and individual well-being.

On the other hand, workplace spirituality can also manifest through the responsible behaviors of the employees, such as:

  • Active listening
  • Assertively stating one’s opinions
  • Drawing healthy boundaries
  • Showing respect for others
  • Responding to conflict and challenges with empathy and compassion.

At the core, workplace spirituality is about a major shift in the organizational culture and values. After decades of shaping organizations around competition, hierarchy, sales targets and profits, many companies are realizing that these aren’t always the best way forward.

It’s often more beneficial for organizations today to embrace values revolving around collaboration, creativity and compassion. This is sometimes described as shaping the workplace from the “inside out.” The primary focus of spiritual leadership is on the wellbeing of employees and teams. The management trusts that, with such an approach, the health and efficiency of the organization will naturally follow.

Spirituality in the workplace requires a holistic approach to work and other areas of life. It recognizes that what happens outside of work influences the state of the organization — and vice versa. Such a perspective brings many benefits to the employees and the workplace as a whole.

The Benefits of Spirituality at Work

Cultivating spirituality in the workplace benefits everyone involved. It’s a win-win-win situation. The employees, leaders and the organization become enhanced as the values in the workplace shift toward more collaborative and holistic ones.

Although workplace spirituality is a relatively new phenomenon, there are already multiple studies exploring its impact on different aspects of work. Giacalone and Jurkiewicz, the leading experts on the topic, recognize the impact spirituality has on work engagement, satisfaction and productivity:

“[E]mployees who view their work as a means to advance spiritually are likely to exert greater effort than those who see it merely as a means to a paycheck. Research suggests that employees empowered through policies associated with workplace spirituality are more productive (Reich 1981), with the greatest productivity gains seen at the level of unskilled labor (Freeman 1994). At the other end of the hierarchy, Himmelfarb (1994) suggests that leaders who view their work as a means to advance spiritually, at the individual or group level, lead the organization to higher levels of performance.”

Apart from those measurable benefits, adding a spiritual dimension to our work has other positive consequences. These are directly felt by individual employees and leaders. Ultimately, they also add to the efficiency and health of whole organizations.

  • Increased job satisfaction. A 2016 study found workplace spirituality to be positively correlated with job satisfaction and trust among employees. It’s easy to see how this creates a ripple effect and benefits everyone. When any given person finds sense and meaning in their job, all the collective tasks become more effortless and on-track.
  • Individual growth and fulfilment. In spiritual workplaces, there’s usually more room for individual expression and diversity of viewpoints. Thanks to that, people know their opinion is valued and become empowered to live and work better. In the long-term, this makes them more committed to their organizations and prevents burnout.
  • Psychological safety. In a culture where competition is prioritized, people often feel pressured to prove their worth through work-related achievements. This keeps employees on constant edge, never able to relax completely. Conversely, spirituality at work brings out the values of collaboration and understanding, allowing people to feel at ease inside their teams.
  • Enhanced creativity. Creativity is a natural consequence of psychological safety at work. To be creative means to look for solutions and ideas that weren’t tested before and therefore carry a risk of failure. To explore them, people need to feel that they can afford to make a mistake. As Teresa Amabile wrote in How to Kill Creativity, “[t]o enhance creativity, there should always be a safety net below the people who make suggestions.”

Spirituality in the workplace can bring many benefits that organizations around the world crave.

The trick is, these can rarely be imposed from the outside. You can’t force your employees to feel safe or satisfied with their work. These are results of a certain organizational culture — one that’s driven by spiritual values of collaboration, trust and understanding.

The question is: how can you cultivate such a culture in your organization?

The first hint is: The change needs to come from within.

How To Invite Spirituality Into Your Workplace

“The spiritual life is, at root, a matter of seeing — it is all of life seen from a certain perspective.” — John Shea

While there are so many benefits of workplace spirituality, the question of how to encourage it is a tough one. Ultimately, this is about a change in culture. How can one person take on such a massive task?

This is where the above quote from John Shea is helpful. Shea reminds us that spirituality isn’t the matter of doing something specific. Rather, it’s the question of being and perceiving life in a certain way.

Spiritual life — at work or elsewhere — isn’t determined by what you manage to accomplish. Rather, it’s fostered by your internal attitudes and interpretations of the events that are already happening around you.

This means you can introduce spirituality into your organization, no matter whether you’re in a leadership or junior position. You can do so by bringing certain qualities into how you show up when talking to your colleagues at the water cooler, handling meetings, or even replying to emails.

In their paper, Donde Ashmos and Dennis Duchon point to three main components of spirituality at work. These are:

  • Recognition that each individual has an inner life (thoughts, feelings, attitudes, etc.)
  • Opportunity for all employees to do meaningful work
  • Doing that work in the context of community.

As you cultivate workplace spirituality, you can keep those three components in mind as a simple framework. This way, when a situation arises that you don’t know how to respond to, you can always ask yourself:

What can I do right now to encourage one or more of those components?

Here are some ideas for how you may implement this in practice.

1. To recognize that everyone has their inner life:

  • Practice self-awareness. This is the fundamental part to understand others. Being more conscious of your inner life is where you start to appreciate how much is happening in the human mind, body and soul at any given moment.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you don’t understand why a team member makes certain decisions or acts the way they do, first assume their innocence. Then ask yourself: What are the possible reasons behind their actions?
  • Acknowledge conflict instead of running away from it. Conflict, if approached right, can be an opportunity to deepen bonds within the team. Don’t treat it as a threat, but a temporary disturbance. Conflict allows you to get to know others ever more deeply.

2. To create opportunities for meaningful work:

  • Share opportunities for personal and professional growth. If you’re a leader, this may mean organizing helpful workshops for your employees. If you’re a junior, you can share learning experiences from outside of work with your colleagues to inspire them.
  • Don’t be afraid to do things differently. When people get stuck in their work patterns, this kills their creativity and sense of fulfilment. Sometimes all it takes to revive enthusiasm towards work is to do an old task in a new way.
  • Take breaks and encourage others to do the same. Intentional, well-paced breaks are opportunities to consolidate knowledge and find meaning. They also help you stay more relaxed, even during a hectic day at work.

3. To reinforce the community context in everything you do:

  • Ask for help when you need it. Your seniors and colleagues will feel that you trust them and value their opinions. Additionally, you’ll create the experience of solving problems together, which always strengthens the community.
  • Give spontaneous positive feedback to others. All too often, we only give negative feedback and take good work for granted. Acknowledging it out loud will give your team a boost.
  • Create a context for sharing. This isn’t necessarily about official meetings, but making space for others to express themselves. You can do that in a coffee break or organize a Zoom call just to check how everyone is doing. Don’t expect particular outcomes out of this — the point is for everyone to share their experience freely.

Workplace Spirituality Starts With You

Let’s recap.

Workplace spirituality is a new paradigm in global work culture. As our collective needs and values shift, spirituality at work becomes more and more important. It provides an alternative to the somewhat outdated corporate values, such as competition, hierarchy and organizing work solely around profit.

Workplace spirituality proposes a different set of values. Some of the most important ones are collaboration, compassion and creativity. Those are the factors that, if cultivated, transform our relationship with work in the long run.

The benefits of workplace spirituality extend beyond the individual well-being of the employees. Ultimately, spiritual workplaces provide better conditions for the whole organization to grow and thrive.

For those who want to introduce spirituality into their workplace, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the extent of this task. A change in organizational culture isn’t something that happens overnight. It helps to remember that to cultivate spirituality, you don’t need to change the entire organization.

The best way to do it is to start changing your own mindset and perception.

As John Shea reminds us, spirituality is at the core “a matter of seeing.” It’s how you approach everyday encounters with your employees and colleagues that matters. In that sense, you don’t need to do anything special or “spiritual.”

All it takes is to show up in your work with the right intention. As you do it every day for weeks, months and years, you’ll inevitably see the seeds of spirituality sprouting. In due time, they’ll transform you — and your workplace.

At Big Self School, we believe that outer impact starts with inner growth. To start living from the inside out, download our free checklist 7 Soul Needs You Must Meet To Avoid Burnout.

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