Spirit at Work

by Sue Howard

Spirituality and religion

Clearly, there are theological connotations to spiritual language, which in many respects can cause problems in secular contexts.

Consequently, there are many in the spirit at work field who are quick to point out that spirituality and religion are not the same. Individuals at work come from a variety of faith or non-faith perspectives, so personal approaches to spirituality amongst employees will differ. Some will inevitably be deeply religious and others not so.

How do spirituality and religion differ? Religion offers more discrete or identifiable sets of beliefs and values, and is associated with particular institutions or denominations. Religious belief often involves assenting to concepts or propositions set forth in doctrines or creeds (or even dogma). Spirituality, in contrast, is seen as a personal journey which is broader and more inclusive than religion, perhaps based on a wide variety of traditions. Similar to faith, it is a quality expressed by the individual, not the system; this orientation of the whole person gives purpose to individual hopes and strivings.

The charity Modem did some research with managers into what gave them ‘hope’ (Hope of the Managers, 2002). They recorded that people differentiated between human spirit (with a little ‘s’) and Holy Spirit (with a capital ‘S’). No-one denied that their lives included a spiritual dimension (body, mind, emotions, spirit) but there was a split between ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ when it came to notions of Spirit being an additional aspect of life which stems from God.

Differences in beliefs mean that it is not easy to separate spirituality and religion, and for some it is impossible to dissect the two areas, since spirituality is often founded on religious beliefs. Since much of spirituality expresses concepts about humanity’s relationship with the ‘divine’ and how we should best treat one another, it is fair to say that, at the very least, the areas overlap. Yet most agree that spirituality within the workplace is not about proselytising or advocating others to adopt any given religious beliefs, but about the ability to live with integrity and authenticity as far as possible. In religious terms – it’s not about ‘making converts’, but more to do with ‘being a light’; in other words, being an example of the positive attitudes and qualities that religious paths offer.

The proponents of the religions themselves have differing views of what constitutes spiritual growth, but these nearly always boil down to seeing it as a personal journey of discovery, which is undertaken as part of a community.

Approaches to spirituality

As Cindy Wigglesworth (see topic on Spiritual Intelligence) describes, people tend to explore spirituality from three different frames of reference:

  1. Traditional – religious or faith orientation
  2. Modernist – secular or humanistic
  3. Pluralist – inclusive of new age, inter-faith perspectives

What is of central importance is that workers foster an awareness of their own spiritual and/or religious values and be mindful of how they are integrating these into their practice. In fact, this is one key to unlocking the different ways in which spirituality may be brought to work in practice.

It must be emphasised that spirit at work is not about the replication of any particular religious or denominational perspective within organisational culture. But it might be helpful to recognise that those within religions would argue that spirituality is a core output of their teachings, and that religious paths have much to offer when it comes to understanding these deeper aspects of life and learning how to live a more fully aligned life.

The organisers of the International Faith and Spirit at Work Award offer the following distinctions in their application process:


The innate human attribute is spirituality. All people bring this as an integral part of themselves to the workplace. Spirituality is a state or experience that can provide individuals with direction or meaning, or provide feelings of understanding, support, inner wholeness or connectedness. Connectedness can be to themselves, other people, nature, the universe, a god, or some other supernatural power.

The ‘vertical’ component in spirituality – a desire to transcend the individual ego or personality self (Wilber 2001). The name you put on the vertical component might be God, Spirit, Universe, Higher Power or something else. There are a great many names for this vertical dimension. This dimension is experienced as a conscious sense of profound connection to the Universe/God/Spirit. This might be experienced internally as moments of awe or peak experiences. A strong, sustained vertical component reflects in outer behaviours as a person (or group) who is centred and able to tap into deep inner strength and wisdom. Generally quiet time, time in nature, or other reflective activities or practices are required to access the ‘vertical’ component of our spirituality. Examples of the vertical component of spirituality might be meditation rooms, time for shared reflection, silence before meetings, ecumenical prayer, and support for employees to take time off for spiritual development.

The ‘horizontal’ component in spirituality – a desire to be of service to other humans and the planet. In the horizontal we seek to make a difference through our actions. This dimension is manifested externally. A person with a strong ‘vertical connection’ who is also able to demonstrate the ‘horizontal dimension’ has a clear grasp on his/her mission, ethics, values. A strong ‘horizontal’ component is demonstrated by a service orientation, compassion, and well-aligned vision/mission and values that are carried out in productive effective services and products.

Religion: A set of beliefs and practices adhered to by the members of a community, involving symbols, rituals and shared values regarded with a sense of awe or wonder, together with ritual practices in which members of the community engage (Modified from Giddens 2006).

Faith in the workplace encourages the essence of one’s faith experience to be expressed in an inclusive manner focusing solely on what is shared versus what is exclusive. Faith, rather than belief or religion, is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to that which is transcendent. Faith is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognisably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief.

Faith is so fundamental that none can live for very long without it, so universal that it is recognisably the same phenomenon in Christians, Marxists, Hindus and Dinka, yet it is so infinitely varied that each person’s faith is unique (Fowler 1981, page xiii). Faith is not always religious in its content or context. Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing himself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose. (Modified from Fowler 1981, page 4).

Whatever people might choose to acknowledge about it, spirit is part of being human and spiritual awareness is an important aspect of human development. Spirit at work acknowledges that spirit is already present at work, but that people are often reluctant to express this spiritual dimension because they judge the work environment to be less than welcoming or safe. The emergence of spirit at work now represents a turning point in our long history of denial.

Spirit at work in practice

Spirit at work is about taking forward some of the shared principles and values that stem from a spiritual perspective, such as love, humility, forgiveness, patience and concern for others. Let’s use an example to help clarify the practical application of spiritual principles:

Case study

The Police Force

In his formative years, Adrian Lee, the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire police, trained to be a Catholic priest before obtaining a law degree and then joining the police force. He has a strong sense of right and wrong that in large part stem from his early spiritual development. He sees a career in the police force as vocational – a way to serve the public and make a difference practically in society.

While he does not proselytise at work, his leadership role has enabled him to influence the organisation with his strong values base. His personal values, which he shares publicly, include fairness, equality, the dignity of each person, integrity, caring for people, community, encouraging others, willingness to learn and professional competence. He also includes religious beliefs and diversity in this list.

Many of these values appear in a statement of values for Staffordshire Police, the force within which he worked as Temporary Chief Constable prior to his current role:

  • Fairness, equality and integrity
  • Caring, encouraging and respect for others
  • Respecting the dignity of each person we deal with
  • Professional competence and willingness to learn
  • Recognising and celebrating success
  • Effective use of our resources.

While the religious component is not explicit and it may be possible to create this list without reference to any religious guidance, it is clear that the personal spiritual orientation of Adrian has contributed to shaping the organisational frames of reference.

The case study above demonstrates one person’s story and helps us identify how ‘spirituality’ is lived out in practice and how it is different to concepts of ‘religion’, which communicate particular doctrinal beliefs, practices and traditions.