Spirituality and Religion at Work

August 24, 2009


The next intentional activity from The How of Happiness is practicing spirituality and religion.  Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness.  The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude, the second was deliberate optimism, the third was to stop overthinking and comparing ourselves to others, the fourth was practicing acts of kindness, the fifth was social support, the sixth was coping with stress, the seventh was learning to forgive, the eight was increasing flow, the ninth was savoring the positive, and the tenth was committing to your goals

Spirituality is defined as a “search for the sacred”- that is, a search for meaning in life through something that is larger than the individual self (self-transcendence is a good label). Spiritual individuals refer to God or to related concepts like divine power or ultimate truth. Religion also involves a spiritual search, but this search usually takes place in a formal, institutional context. However, because the majority of spiritual people define themselves as also religious, the benefits of spirituality are essentially identical to the benefits of religion. Spiritual people are relatively happier than non-spiritual people, have superior mental images, cope better with stressors, have more satisfying marriages, use drugs and alcohol less often, are physically healthier, and live longer lives. People who perceive the divine being as loving and responsive are happier than those that don’t.  (Lyumbomirsky, p. 232).

 Dr. Lyumbomirsky offers two suggestions for practicing spirituality.  Here is how I see her suggestions applied at work:

 1.  Seek meaning and purpose: Even if you don’t consider yourself a spiritual person, meaningfulness and purpose are contemporary concepts in organizational psychology.  Hackman and Oldham’s classic job characteristics model of motivation identifies meaningful work as one of the critical components leading to valued work outcomes.  In my own research I found meaningfulness to be one of the best indicators of eustress, the positive response to stress.  Here meaningfulness was “the extent to which one feels that work makes sense emotionally, that problems and demands are worth investing energy in, are worthy of commitment and engagement, are challenges that are welcome.” (Simmons, 2000). 

And I believe purpose, why we do the work we do, is more powerful that either mission or vision, because purpose lives in the hearts and minds of those that serve and are served by them.  I have discussed purpose in my recent articles “Savoring the Positive” and “Flow”. 

2.  Prayer: I see no reason why a spiritual person could not pray continually while at work.  Regardless of how your specific spiritual beliefs define prayer, at work it boils down to being congruent with your authentic self, and seeking the wisdom, strength, and courage to behave consistent with your espoused beliefs.  Prayer can be as simple as the spiritual person seeking the answer to the question “what should I do in this situation?” and allowing personal spiritual beliefs the opportunity to influence choices and behavior. 

Work is a responsibility, and a huge part of our daily lives.  I can’t imagine any spiritual belief system that condones the abdication of personal responsibility.  Let me be clear that I would never encourage anyone to proselytize folks at work; however, I don’t think anyone should try to build a wall between their work and their spirituality. 

Be professionally authentic to your whole self and positively respectful of anyone with a different perspective than yours.

About the Author:

Comments (14)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Thanks for another excellent post. There is a great article by Ian Mitroff in the Sloan Review in 1999 on corporate profits and spirituality. I used it for several research projects in my MBA. Greenleaf also uses the theme in Servant Leadership. I especially like your assessment regarding prayer and the workplace. How does an organization take something that is personal, often private and weave it into a culture without marginalizing those who disagree with the premise and wrongly associate spirituality in the work place with forced religious practices? Unfortunately, I don’t foresee many board meetings beginning with a moment of silent reflection, which a great opportunity to reflect on the purpose of the organization and who it serves.

    Spirituality should be a cornerstone of personal leadership practices, but how does that translate to organizational practices? Should an organization consciously decide to adopt spirituality as a “strategy”? Is this something that must be part of an organization culture from the beginning in order to be successful?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Jim. I need to get my hands on that Mitroff article you talk about. He is one of the folks blazing the research trail in this area. There is also a fully recognized interest group within the Academy of Management devoted to Spirituality and Religion.

    I’m not sure you will see many adopt spirituality as a strategy. I’ve read of some obscure consulting/training programs some companies have put their folks through, but those will continue to be rare.

    The best at this point would be for organizations to recognize that spirituality might have advantages in their workforce. You certainly would not want to discourage it. And let’s not forget, Ken Lay of Enron was known to be religious.

    Thanks for the comment! Bret

  2. Wally Bock says:

    Thanks for raising one of the important hidden topics. As a person of faith, I don’t know of any way to leave that faith at the door when I go to work. But as a person who works with bosses, I think you have to be careful about how you express that faith and about how it affects your judgment of others.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Wally, I agree. A dear friend of mine once told his boss that he was going to hell. That did not go over too well 🙂

    Can you tell me more about what you mean by being careful about how faith might affect your judgment of others? I find it odd that we would never counsel someone of no faith to be careful about how that might affect others.

    This is a sensitive topic, so I do appreciate you sharing your opinion. Thanks!! Bret

  3. Wally Bock says:

    Thanks for the question, Bret. I think there’s a tendency to be less critical and more supportive of people who are “like us” in a variety of ways including faith. That can cut both ways. I worked with a coaching client some years ago who was an atheist. He was also a supervisor and was routinely harder on the church-going members of his team than on others.

    The reason I mention it is that for many people of faith, our faith is both an important component of our value system and often operates at the unconscious level.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Wally, thanks for following up. You are exactly right about how we treat folks like us. I also think the bar for personal conduct might be higher once you identify yourself as someone of faith, and that just comes with the territory. It is what it is, and nothing I see to complain about. The key comes back to authenticity. People have little patience with folks that talk a good game but don’t back it up with congruent behavior. When your mind, heart, and behavior are in alignment, there is little need for rhetoric. Thanks Wally!! Bret

  4. Santosh says:

    Turned to your article from twitter as My area of interest is “Spirituality at work” .

    I wonder – so if someone is not praying – is he not spiritual ?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Hi Santosh, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts. I think it is important to remember that the advice the post contained about happiness was for both spiritual and religious folks. As you know, you can be both, but you can also be one and not the other. If someone prays, it would be a good indicator that they might be either spiritual or religious. If someone does not pray, it might be a good indicator that they are neither spiritual nor religious, but I don’t think that is an absolute. I’m not an expert on spirituality, it just happened to be one of the strategies for happiness. What do you think? Thanks!! Bret

  5. Loren Loiseau says:

    Purpose is an interesting topic. Most religions, including various forms of athiesm, allow for one to be at least partially self-determined. How does one choose purpose? Those who ignore this question or don’t define their purpose are probably going waste a lot of time on things they don’t think are important.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Loren, thanks for sharing your comment. I can tell you from my personal experience purpose it was more a matter of discovering how to articulate my purpose rather than choosing it. As I looked in my rear view mirror, there cleary was a reason why I was doing the things I was doing professionally, but it did take me a while to be able to develop clarity to how I stated that reason why. Thanks!! Bret

  6. Ajo says:

    This is a topic that interests me very much. Do values change positively once someone becomes spiritual or religious? Not all religions or spiritual teachings are the same. Yet, do they all lead to a positive change? What if someone becomes a radical islamic fundamentalist and now sees coworkers as unworthy infidels or a christian who takes Christ’s teachings the wrong ways and pre-judges everyone else as evil sinners? You can argue that they just became religious or spiritual but will their organizational behavior benefit from it? Such aberrations put all other beneficial forms of religion/spirituality in a bad light.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Ajo, thanks for reading this article and taking the time to share your thoughts. I think you raise some very interesting questions and make a valid point at the end. As I said in my post, I think people should be authentic but they also have to be mindful and respectful. We are all responsible for the choices we make at work. Thanks!! Bret

  7. Harris says:

    Dear Bret,
    This is a good post and would be useful for my phd research. Im trying to understand the advantages organisations have in developing a spiritual culture at work.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Harris. Glad you found it helpful. Bret