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Four Pointers to the Spiritual Dimension of Work

by Michael Pearn

I have a problem with the concept of spirituality, especially in the context of work. It sounds grand, unattainable, difficult to grasp and many would question its relevance. It is a theoretically complex state (or construct) of great interest to theologians, philosophers and those who pertain to be religious. I do not fall into any of those categories, yet I believe in the importance of the spiritual dimension of work.

The word spiritual is more accessible and friendly sounding than spirituality. Spiritual is an adjective and not a noun. It is easier to think about. It seems less elevated than spirituality, and possibly more relevant to the world of work.

For many people the spiritual relates to their sense of the divine. They believe there is some form of higher being that provides meaning and purpose and moral guidance. For others, the spiritual refers to experiences and thoughts that in some way transcend ordinary experience and take them out of themselves by connecting them to a higher realm of reality. Still others see the spiritual as an elevated, and at the same time deep, awareness of the inter-connectedness of everything, living and nonliving. The word spiritual clearly can refer to a very wide range of human experiences.

It has been said that we are living in the beginning of a new age where the traditional spheres and demarcations of the physical, the biological, and the digital are becoming blurred, resulting in a fusion of new technologies. The proponents of the Technological Singularity predict (though they don't say when) a dramatic and sudden shift into a new realm of artificial intelligence resulting in new experience that is unfathomable using today's thinking and knowledge. Will the quest for the spiritual go away? Probably not, but it might get redefined.

Thinking and writing about the spiritual dimension of work is unlikely to lead to clear-cut answers. It is just too complex. Maybe, instead, it is more helpful to focus on pointers which may lead to indicative rather than prescriptive responses. There are four indicative Pointers to the spiritual dimension of work.

The First Pointer is that context is everything. What is spiritual for an underpaid hourly worker working extremely long hours with minimal security and benefits, and yet scarcely able to make ends meet is very different than for well-educated, well-paid tech workers who do not even have to pay for their bus-fares, and get free food at work. The underpaid and insecure worker may find spiritual benefit in the conscious sense of duty and the sacrifices being made in to order to benefit family and children in the longer term. The rapid growth of interest in mindfulness and meditation especially among tech workers may reflect a growing felt need to find more meaning and purpose as well as a calmer state of mind. The importance and manifestation of the spiritual dimension of work varies from one situation to another but it will always be present.

The Second Pointer is that we have a fundamental need to find meaning and purpose in our lives. Without it our lives can feel empty and feelings of alienation can develop. Dependency on, and addiction to, drugs, alcohol and other routes to distracting and intense stimulation, including obsessively long working hours are all ways of escaping feelings of emptiness. People can find meaning even in relatively simple work such as the hospital janitor who takes great pride in actively contributing to the well-being of patients, in contrast to those CEOs who see their work solely as a means to personal profit, power and status. The janitor who has a sense of meaning and purpose can have higher wellbeing and happiness than CEOs who earn many many times their basic salaries. Those employers who genuinely focus on People and the Planet as well as Profits create meaning and purpose for their employees and contribute to the spiritual dimension of work.

The Third Pointer is that discussion of the spiritual reminds us that there is a moral dimension to everything we do. People have high wellbeing when they truly believe in what they do and are striving for, especially when the goals and the means adopted for achieving them are morally desirable. There is a world of difference between doing no evil and actively doing good. Those companies that can find a way to create returns on investment while addressing societal and global issues such as global warming, universal access to fresh water or basic education across the world, reducing toxic waste or eradicating poverty will also be helping to meet the spiritual needs of their workers. It has been argued that organizations have the capacity and the obligation to address these issues. It is also good business.

The Fourth Pointer is that discussions of the spiritual reminds us that we are all humans on this planet with a vested interest in its future. By realizing, remembering and feeling our common humanity we as leaders, or members, of organizations should be less tolerant of and even be ready to oppose negative or harmful impact on people and communities. We are more likely to embrace actively those changes that promote the health and wellbeing of others, whether fellow workers or people across the globe. In effect, this becomes an operationalization of compassion. The disengagement of increasingly popular mindfulness meditation from its original religious/spiritual roots has been criticized by purists, but if one of the benefits, as scientific research shows, is an increase in compassion, then mindfulness is playing an important role in contributing to the spiritual dimension.

In conclusion, the spiritual dimension of work is manifested in the need for a greater sense of meaning and purpose, and reminds us of the interconnectedness of all things and all humans, and that we have deep psychological needs that the work environment can harness so that we flourish and prosper and benefit others rather than struggle with disengagement, anxiety, stress and depression.

Michael Pearn, PhD is an organizational psychologist and President of Pearn Consulting LLC in San Francisco. He is a Consulting Expert to The Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at UC Berkeley.

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