Seeking Spirituality ... At Work
BOSTON — Every Thursday at noon, in a concrete-and-glass office building in downtown Harrisburg, Pa., a handful of workers gathers to bridge two realms long separated by a great divide - religion and business.
In a top-floor conference room, where the usual talk is of pie charts and the bottom line, this clutch of believers ponders the Bible. The topic last week: the book of John.
"It gives us an opportunity to recharge our batteries without leaving the workplace," says participant John Forney, an employee at Penn National Insurance. "And it reminds us there's a moral background to the way you should treat other people."
As Bible study and prayer groups like this one multiply (some estimates say they've doubled to 10,000 in the past 10 years), spirituality in the American workplace is slowly taking on greater significance.
The movement, which spans from Bible groups to New Age chant sessions, serves a broad range of interests. Some employee groups focus on attaining personal fulfillment on the job. Others concentrate on corporate values, working to reconcile the Golden Rule with that entrenched business maxim, "nice guys finish last."
The trend has its skeptics, but many observers say it will continue because of two powerful forces. For one, many Americans - especially baby boomers - have attained a measure of affluence through their work and are now seeking more meaning in their lives, including at the place where they spend most of their waking hours.
"They've gotten all the toys, and now there's that yearning to satisfy themselves spiritually," says Janice Gamache, a Washington-based consultant with the Institute for Reflective Leadership.
For another, workers were rocked by the onset of corporate downsizing in the early 1990s, especially at once-rock-solid companies such as IBM. The new uncertainty and vulnerability have spurred many employees to ask probing questions about the value of their work - and to seek solace or strength in spirituality.
"In the old days, employees were cared for like children," says Fay Kennedy, a career counselor who does contract work for IBM. "Loyalty and competence were enough to get you through."
Signs of the times
The fledgling movement is evident in many ways. One is the growing number of conferences on business and spirituality, such as the First International Symposium on Spirituality and Business in Boston last week.
Another is personal observance of religious customs - Jews wearing yarmulkes to work or Seventh-day Adventists choosing not to labor on their Sabbath, which runs from Friday evening until Saturday evening.
One measure of the prevalence of such practices is the number of religious-discrimination claims filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They have jumped 43 percent in the past five years.
Indeed, Congress is moving to protect such religious expression with the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. It would require companies to accommodate religious practices - by shuffling schedules for a Seventh-day Adventist, for example - unless doing so would pose "significant difficulty or expense."
But the trend extends beyond individuals who choose specific forms of religious expression. Hundreds of companies, too, are defining or clarifying their organizational values - typically universal ideas such as respect, honest, and integrity.
Harley Davidson, for instance, recently finished a "values audit," in which employees and executives collaborated to define the company's ethical standards. The final list included "tell the truth" and "be fair."
Some elements of this new workplace spirituality also include the mystical or New Age.
Tanis Helliwell, a consultant based in Vancouver, Canada, who friends describe as "leprechaun-like," has worked with banks, hospitals, and government agencies on both sides of the border. One exercise she uses with clients is "guided visualization" - a meditative experience in which she asks participants to close their eyes and picture themselves in their ideal work environment.
While many are excited by all efforts to inject spirituality into the workplace, some observers warn against the potential for superficiality.
"There's still an implied feeling [among people involved in the movement] that 'I want it all,' " says Vincent Bilotta, a consultant based in Whitinsville, Mass. "Sometimes they're just adding spirituality to a grocery list of wants."
This is a far cry, he says, from the approach of mainstream religious traditions, which "demands the discipline and the giving up of arrogance that are so crucial to bringing a divine presence into our lives."
Commandments at work
Indeed, discipline and diligence may be what ultimately determine whether the movement toward spirituality in the workplace will ever have a real impact on the nature of the business world itself.
Rabbi Samuel Chiel, for instance, is helping to lead a group of Brooks Brothers-clad lawyers and accountants in a closer examination of the Ten Commandments. He helps to lead weekly lunch-time Bible-study sessions at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in downtown Boston.
"We hope people will enjoy the study," he says, "but that they won't leave it here - that they will ask themselves how it impacts them and whether there's something they can to do implement these spiritual laws."