Does Spirituality Belong in the Workplace?

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October 1, 2005
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Arthur Gross-Schaefer

Bringing spirituality into the workplace is not an easy discussion because of, among other things, fear, imprecision, practicability, and goals.

There is a valid fear that giving permission to bring spirituality into the working environment may allow for the introduction of a particular religious view. The potential results may range from discomfort to outright oppression towards those employees who are of a different religion or have no religion at all. This is clearly a valid concern due to reports of workplace-mandated prayer sessions, encouraged evangelical activities, and hiring and promotion decisions based on religious affiliation. One could easily say that these risks are too great and that the model of “separation of work and religion” should be maintained to help guarantee a safe and fair office environment. Moreover, it could be argued that allowing spirituality into the working environment would be contrary to a major thrust of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that attempted to strip categories, such as religion, from workplace consciousness in order to reduce bias, prejudice, and oppression.

The term ‘spirituality’ suffers from imprecision as it often acts as an empty container that each person fills differently. For me, the spirituality that I seek in the workplace is not focused on seeing the godhead or an attempt to change reality; rather it directs me to view my work as my personal contribution to the repair of the world and to create more meaningful relationships with my co-workers, clients, customers, and suppliers based on honesty, integrity, and wonder. It points me to the importance of what I do in this reality — what I say and how I act has significance beyond the accomplishment of a given task. It helps me to look at events, setbacks, and achievement as critical opportunities for personal growth and not use words such as good or bad to judge a particular action. And it may involve seeing the face of God in my co-workers and the sparks of holiness in my workplace activities. Workplace spirituality is a bridge between how I want to connect to my deeper self and how I want to contribute to this reality, seeking unity between my work life and my personal journal.

Perhaps an even bigger challenge is the practicability of workplace spirituality. If one wants to avoid the potential for religious oppression, how does one bring in spirituality that is meaningful and appropriate for the business world? In my executive MBA classes, we’ve explored a wide range of tools such as meditations that center, relax, and help individuals deal with difficult situations and people. Students write eulogies and from that experience draft personal mission statements with corresponding core values. They draw mandalas and learn time management techniques to help understand the need to prioritize, balance, and take control of time. They are taught to see each individual as a potential teacher, an angel holding a piece of their life puzzle, thus enriching the workplace experience through self-exploration.

There remains one last issue dealing with the goals for bringing spirituality into the work environment. While basic management stresses the need to ensure efficient employees working in the most productive activity, there is also a priority given to employee satisfaction. Employee satisfaction is often tied up with seeing work as meaningful. I have found that when spirituality is introduced, an employee can appreciate the connectedness of their work and of their co-workers to their individual mission and values. Spiritual tools can help us better deal with work-related and personal issues because we have an increased sense of purpose and mission.

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Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer is Professor of business law, ethics, and spirituality at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and rabbi of the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara.

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