Can work be soulful?

Spirituality at work is a joke, right? Not entirely, writes Stephen Overell,
who is looking forward to next month’s Organisational Spirituality conference,
the first of its kind to be held in the UK

There was a time when the sign of a mid-life crisis was to buy a big, fast
car and have affairs with people half your age. Today, it is to become a
spiritual consultant.

At the UK’s first-ever conference on ‘Organisational Spirituality’ later
this summer1 they will gather in their hundreds to conjure sorcerous paradigms
and amazing theories of enlightenment. Workshops include ‘Celebrating the
Creative Child in the Workplace’, ‘Everyday Rituals, Exercises and Meditations
to Evoke the Living Spirit at Work’ and ‘Spiritual Intelligence – how to get
it’.

It’s easy to scoff, of course – and sometimes it is a duty. The spirituality
at work movement, which has seeped out of the US during the last 15 years, has
been responsible for some of the sickliest pronouncements ever to infect
workplace affairs. According to Ian Mitroff, a professor of business policy at
the Marshall School of Business, Los Angeles, and author of A Spiritual Audit
of Corporate America, a spiritual focus could be the ultimate competitive advantage.2

Meanwhile, Ericsson, Sterling Bank, Mitsubishi and many others teach their
executives about ‘love-based values’ and models of ‘organisational
consciousness’. Liberating the Corporate Soul, the beatific blockbuster by a
former manager at the World Bank, continues to enchant a large and strange
public.3

Enjoyable as scoffing always is, however, it doesn’t get to the bottom of
the issue, or why it has arisen. Besides, Britain gave birth to the Quakers,
the sect that originally fused spiritual commitment and commercial success.
Sadly, we must probe a little deeper.

For deep background on spirituality at work, let us start with good old
Christianity. In Britain, the various churches are losing 760 worshippers every
Sunday.4 When the BBC undertook an investigation into faith at the millennium,5
it found a steep decline in the belief in a transcendent God with only 27 per
cent of people prepared to describe themselves as ‘a religious person’.

Yet growing numbers of people claim to experience the divine, or the
spiritual, from within life, with 31 per cent saying they were a spiritual
person. Only 8 per cent were atheists. Spirituality, which traditionally has
had definitively religious connotations, is now being touted as something
secular, to do with individual and social wellbeing.

Employers are beginning to feel the edge of this agenda. How to integrate
work and life is one of the major themes of the past decade, an issue propelled
by disillusionment and cynicism about how organisations are run and whether the
result of hard work really is greater happiness. Professional people seem to
want more and more from their jobs – far beyond a wage and basic fulfilment.

According to the annual temperature-check of managerial attitudes conducted
by the Roffey Park Institute, the search for more meaningful work is under way.
More than a third of managers hope to leave their employers over the next year,
while a fifth are moved to do so on ethical grounds. Instead, they apparently
crave values, purpose and identity in organisations that are not solely
motivated by profit.

Instilling those values is the preoccupation of spirituality at work. It is
an aim not that far removed from the human relations school of management, with
all its emphasis on people being subject to ‘a hierarchy of needs’ at the top
of which lies ‘self-actualisation’.7

Nor is it unrelated to the growing interest in culture in organisations. In
James Heskett and John Kotter’s exhaustive survey of corporate culture, for
example, they found the only way to explain the long-term success of certain
companies was through culture and values (the best enjoy 901 per cent share
price growth, the worst 74 per cent) which unite employees in collective aims.8

Yet there is also a touch of The End of History9 involved in the
spirituality vogue, too. Francis Fukuyama has his critics, but there is no
denying he put his finger on an important observation: the enterprise of making
history, of dreaming up new and superior versions of how civilisation should be
run, is widely held to be finished. Liberal capitalism is it. People now
restrict their aspirations to small-scale ameliorations to the status quo.
Making the workplace conducive to human values is a project very much in tune
with the sense of cultural terminus.

So what is spirituality at work? A hotchpotch of New Age gaucheness to be
sure. But it would be quite wrong to see it as just that. Father Dermot
Tredget, a Benedictine monk who runs weekend retreats for executives at Douai
Abbey in Berkshire, takes the generous line, arguing most definitions of
spirituality can apply both to religious contexts and to humanistic
philosophies of life. The word spirituality derives from the Latin verb
‘spirare’, to breathe, and the noun ‘spiritus’, a breath, so it involves ideas
of energy or a force behind life.

‘When you read the world’s literature on spirituality, there are some common
themes that emerge,’ he says. ‘That spirituality involves growth – about
becoming a person in the fullest sense. It involves relationships, perhaps a
kind of spiritual hospitality towards others. It embraces a person’s intellect,
emotions and soul, and it animates a person’s attitudes, beliefs, behaviour and
practices.’

Tredget says that some of the material generated by the votaries of spirituality
in work is quite flaky.

Nevertheless, he believes the task of developing a more ‘soul-friendly’
workplace, where profitability, efficiency and techn- ology do not override
values of self-respect, respect for others and for the environment, has a practical
bearing on the grey-carpeted reality of life at work. ‘In many ways, it is
about reconnecting who people are to what they do,’ he says.

Many of the world’s great religions have long preached a partnership between
work and sacred duty; St Benedict instructed his followers: orare et laborare –
pray and work. But what are we to make of secular spirituality? Personally, I
can’t understand it. Spirituality exists in an explicitly religious context.
Outside it, the word is vapid – a magnet for cranks. A better term might be
‘meaning at work’. But then being a ‘meaning consultant’ doesn’t exactly sound
trustworthy, either, does it?

1 Living Spirit: New Dimensions in Work and Learning, held at the University
of Surrey, 22-24 July; www.HPRG.org

2 A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America, by Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth
Denton, Jossey-Bass, 1999

3 Liberating the Corporate Soul, by Richard Barrett, Butterworth-Heinemann,
1998

4 From Christian Research, Statistics, 2000-2002

5 State of Faith at the Millennium, Opinion Research Business, 2000

6 The Management Agenda, Roffey Park Institute, 2002

7 Specifically the work of Abraham Maslow.

8 Corporate Culture and Performance, by James Heskett and John Kotter, Free
Press, 1992

9 The End of History and The Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama, New York, 1992

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