Spirit at Work

by Sue Howard

Definitions of spirituality

Whenever spirituality in the workplace comes up, it is almost immediately followed by the question – what do you mean by spirituality?

Unfortunately, this question doesn’t have a simple answer. In spite of many attempts to define spirituality a ‘one size fits all’ definition has not been agreed upon. This is due to the complexity of the topic, in that spirituality has so many dimensions and is difficult to pin down to any one particular concept.


How you choose to describe spirituality will very much depend on your conceptual frames of reference, your belief system, your social and environmental background and the context in which you find yourself operating (in other words, the type of organisational culture you are in).

Before going further, jot down your own definition of spirituality.

When people try to describe spirituality, they come up with things like

  • The application of deeply-held beliefs
  • Living a life that has meaning and purpose
  • Using my gifts and creativity
  • Valuing human life
  • Expanding my awareness of my relationships with others
  • Embracing the uniqueness of everyone
  • Sensing God’s presence in my life
  • Being in nature and looking after the planet.

Definitions seem to centre around three areas:

  1. The basic feeling of being self-aware and in relationship with others, nature and God (or faith)
  2. Underlying principles, such as values, morals, ethics, virtues, emotions, wisdom and intuition
  3. The relationship between inner experience and outer manifestations, as seen in practices and behaviours – a journey of personal development and growth.

Most people, when asked, use positive words and descriptions to define spirituality. They also find that the process of examining the word surfaces questions about how to live well. These are high-quality conversations that lead to deep exchanges of meaning.

There are wide ranging definitions which include:

Spirituality is associated with mystery, is about an internal experience of life and the grasping of a larger unity.

Spirituality is the process of living out a set of deeply held personal values, of honouring a presence greater than ourselves. It expresses our desire to find meaning in, and to treat as an offering, what we do.

The spiritual life is, at root, a matter of seeing – it is all of life seen from a certain perspective.

Alan Briskin, The stirring of soul in the workplace, 1998Peter Block, Stewardship: choosing service over self-interest, 1993J Turner, Spirituality in the workplace, 1999

However it is defined, spirituality is seen as being of central importance within the search for meaning and purpose in one’s life. For many, spirituality helps to make sense of what life is about. It involves how we understand our identity, our Self, how we relate to Others, the way we treat and live with Nature and the source of our spiritual inspiration and rejuvenation – referred to in various ways which Cindy Wigglesworth describes as the Transcendent, God, the Divine or Source (see Spiritual Intelligence).

Spiritual values can include love, compassion, forgiveness, honesty, truth, justice, generosity, trust, hope, oneness, surrender, openness, joy, peace, faith and creativity.

In the context of work, spirituality has been defined as ‘a framework of organisational values evidenced in the culture that promotes employees’ experience of transcendence through the work process, facilitating their sense of being connected to others in a way that provides feelings of completeness and joy’.

Giacalone and Jurkiewicz, 2003

Smith, writing in 2007, provides a review of contemporary definitions in which he highlights an enormous breadth and diversity of views. These show how difficult it is to speak of the spiritual dimension as a unified whole. However, there are a number of factors that he sees as being important to spirituality:

  • Spirituality is difficult to define without making it too superficial or too narrowly focused; it has to be accepted that spirituality is beyond human experience, and any definition can only provide a guide to the territory under consideration
  • In specifying a definition of spirituality applicable in an organisational context, it is important to be as inclusive as possible and consider as many of the large number of different forms of spirituality as possible
  • There are many different forms of spirituality and it is unlikely that all forms will be acceptable in an organisation; the forms of spirituality that will be acceptable needs to be clarified
  • A suitable definition in an organisational context has to portray a middle ground that sets the rights of individuals in a deeper spiritual context that does not deny these rights, but grounds them
  • Spirituality is seen as something that provides human beings with at least one of the following things – direction, meaning, understanding, support and inner wholeness
  • It may have a transcendent dimension to it or a component which is beyond the rational explanation of humankind
  • Religion can be defined in a narrow or broad way and, depending on this, religion and spirituality can be seen as the same or different (many people today use a narrower interpretation of religion and see spirituality and religion as different).

What is most helpful for practitioners is to adopt a broadly agreed interpretation and focus on how to encourage a climate that supports the general principle that spirituality is something worth nurturing. A useful definition is given below:

Spirituality in the workplace is about individuals and organisations seeing work as a spiritual path, as an opportunity to grow and to contribute to society in a meaningful way. It is about care, compassion and support of others, about integrity and people being true to themselves and others. It means individuals and organisations attempting to live their values more fully in the work they do.

Smith and Rayment

Spirit at work is not first and foremost about achieving goals, making more money, becoming better managers, finding ways to get others to do what we want, or even about becoming happier, although any and all of these may and do happen when it is taken seriously. What it is about is abundant life: living fully in each moment; paying attention to what’s happening within us and around us, and understanding what our lives are about and how we’re meant to make a difference within the larger communities of which we are a part.