Workers starting to come out of the spiritual closet

Published September 1, 1998

PEOPLE YEARNING to express the spiritual side of their nature at work were invited “out of the closet” at a recent workplace conference.

“Many of us have been preparing for a lifetime for this conference,” said Michael Stephen, chairman of Aetna International Inc., during the Spirituality in the Workplace conference. “For some today, this may be a coming out of the closet.”

A tremendous growth in interest in spirituality is taking place, acknowledging that this is an important part of peoples’ lives, said Mr. Stephen, one of 80 speakers and panelists at the three-day meeting held in Toronto in May. More than 98 per cent of an interview sample said they believed in a creator, he said. “I am an insurance man. I know risk and 98 per cent is a good risk.”

Mr. Stephen went on to link spirituality, work, the market place and globalization. But it was his comment about “coming out” that captured the importance of the meeting, which more than 250 people of all faiths attended, and which reflected the subsequent experience of its organizer Sherry Connolly.

In the following four weeks, Ms Connolly, a senior manager with the Royal Bank of Canada, attended a meeting to plan the June 1999 conference and a workshop to discuss a centre for spirituality in the workplace. She also answered more than 150 letters and calls from people all over North America who had heard about the May meeting.

One man even wrote from Bombay, India after reading about Ms. Connolly and the conference in a newspaper. “There is such a hunger out there,” Ms. Connolly said, echoing the words of Martin Rutte, a keynote speaker at the conference.

“Spirituality is busting out all over,” said Mr. Rutte, a business consultant and co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work.

Baby boomers are going through their mid-life crises and looking at issues of the spirit – which is typical for that age group. The difference is, this is a big group.

In the past few years, there has been an explosion in books on spirituality and religion. What books people buy indicates what they are thinking about and there seems to be a deep hunger for the spiritual, Mr. Rutte said.

Another sign of the longing is the proliferation of journals, newsletters, web sites (including Mr. Rutte’s) and live and cyber-based conferences on spirituality and work. There are all kinds of things happening out there, he said. “It is still peripheral but it is coming.”

Industry is waking up to the benefits of creating a more spiritual atmosphere at work, he said, which can increase creativity and foster ethical and moral behaviour. “That’s good for the company.”

Mr. Stephen agreed, adding that asking employees to leave their souls at home while they go off to work is not a recipe for success in the 21st century. To survive in the global market, a company needs a competitive advantage. That is locked in the heads and hearts of the employees who feel challenged and fully engaged because they see their lives enriched by the work they do.

Despite the title of the conference, neither man talked at length about the meaning of spirituality. Mr. Stephen said there is little agreement about its meaning.

Mr. Rutte said his experience suggests people are uncomfortable with the word, afraid that he will shove a definition of spirituality or a dogma about spirituality down their throats. Instead, he said he uses spirituality as a question and not an answer. “That lets people come into the arena if they choose.”

In an interview after the conference, Ms. Connolly said the lack of definition was probably intentional. Spirituality means different things to different people, depending on what stage of the journey they are on and what is happening at work, at home and other places in their lives, she said. For some people, spirituality means bringing their gifts to the workplace, for others it has to do with ethics and values.

Rev. Richard Tanner, a panelist at the conference and author of Jesus, Nine to Five, said later that in some respects spirituality can mean what anyone wants it to mean.

“For me, the words I use to describe it are wholeness and integration – physical, mental, emotional and social integration. When the Holy Spirit is in our lives, it’s not a blue tinge, it gives a wholeness to them … When God touches us or impinges on our lives, that’s spiritual.”

Unity is the word which comes to Ian Percy, a business consultant and author of the book, Going Deep. When he thinks about spirituality, Mr. Percy pictures a funnel. At the top are ethics and values and at the bottom is unity. The symbol of God is unity. Here a spiritual decision is not a decision at all. There is no separation between what a person decides and who that person is. His work as a consultant, said Mr. Percy, “is to help people move deeper into the funnel.”

Meanwhile, the spirituality conference was only the beginning. Besides next year’s conference June 2 to 4 at the University of Toronto, also in the works are a conference for senior executives in mid-December in Aurora, Ont., and a conference for executives of charities either later this year or early next year.

There is also a two-day workshop in October to discuss a centre for spirituality in the workplace. For more information about the centre or the conference, call (416) 482-9175 or e-mail [email protected].

Susan Edwards is a Toronto freelance writer.


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