Workplace Spirituality and Mental Health


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According to my Ojibwe ancestors, in order for someone to be whole and for total well-being we need to honour and seek balance for our mind, body, emotion and spirit. If one of these is missing or not being looked after it causes an imbalance and causes us to be unwell. 

This leads me to a question for you: how many times do you hear spirituality talked about or embraced in a work environment? If you are anything like the participants of my research, it is probably not often.

 I am a researcher. More specifically, I am a Metis qualitative researcher who is asking the question “how might workplace spirituality impact well-being”? After several focus groups and analyzing survey results, some interesting trends have emerged. 

Definition of Workplace Spirituality 

Before I dive into the results it might help if I share what the working definition of workplace spirituality is. As an aside, a few friends of mine took me out for a physically distant dinner to celebrate completing my masters degree. In talking to them about my research, one of my friends joked that my slogan should be “workplace spirituality – not a cult”. With that said, workplace spirituality is definitely not cultish. In fact, it is completely separate from religion. The working definition of workplace spirituality based on my data is:

Employees bringing their holistic selves to work: mind, body, emotion and spirit. And by bringing our whole selves it allows us to form authentic connections with ourselves, other people, nature and/or a higher power. It is in these connections that paves the way for people to find meaning, purpose and fulfillment in their work. 

I wanted to research this topic because as adults we spend the majority of our lives at work – yet for too many it does not give them any sort of fulfillment or purpose, or worse, it is the source of chronic stress, anxiety or other mental health ailments. In fact, the stats on mental health is sobering. 

Mental Health Pandemic 

In a study done by Hampton, Sessions, & Her (2011) they found that our close social circles have decreased by one third, and that social isolation is on the rise – this inevitably impacts our well-being. For example, Great West Life Insurance company says that 30% of their work claims are due to mental health. Also, one large organization I worked for had 2,000 cases of short-term disability in one year (mostly related to mental health). Further, comparing 2000 to 2017 the suicide rate in Canada increased by 14%.  This issue isn’t unique to North America either. In Japan they created a new word in 1978 – karoshi – which means death from over working.  They created this term to describe the amount of people who were suffering from premature heart attacks and strokes due to work stress. It seems like any semblance of balance between our mind, body, emotion and spirit is slowing eroding from our lives. 

The Beautiful Path  

However, there is hope. Robin Wall Kimmerer says that “Native scholar Greg Cajete has written that in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit. I came to understand quite sharply when I began my training as a scientist that science privileges only one, possibly two, of those ways of knowing: mind and body….But it is a whole human being who finds the beautiful path.” Business, just like science, currently favours two ways of knowing: mind and body. But what if we changed this? What if we reinvented the Western patriarchy way of doing business? Perhaps as Kimmerer says, we can all find our beautiful path.

Research Findings 

According to the data on workplace spirituality, the beautiful path is within reach. There were three core principles associated to workplace spirituality that emerged repeatedly from the focus groups and survey:

  1. Authenticity – participants said that when they feel they can bring their whole embodied selves to work they feel the most authentic and true to themselves. My participants also indicated that fake professional veneers are an impediment to true and genuine connections at work.
  2. Inclusivity – workplace spirituality is about being inclusive of multiple beliefs and world views. Unlike religion which is very exclusive as you need to believe a certain thing in order to belong, my participants mentioned that spirituality means different things to different people and these differences are to be respected. Workplace spirituality is also inclusive of world views that have been historically marginalized in our society (e.g. Indigenous ways of knowing) and brings them to the forefront.
  3. Compassion – although spirituality is a private and insular thing, my participants mentioned that treating others with compassion, empathy and integrity is foundational to workplace spirituality. 

The data also indicated that in terms of well-being, people believe that it would decrease stress; increase feelings of belonging, fulfilment and purpose; strengthen workplace relationships; and develop a deeper sense of self-awareness and mindfulness. 

You might be thinking, “ok great, but how do we implement it?” GREAT question! Here are some easy and practical rituals to incorporate: 

  • Co-create a definition in your organization/department on what workplace spirituality is so everyone has the same understanding 
  • Ensure your work values are up to date, if it’s time to revise, consider incorporating some spiritual based principles and ensure its infused throughout the culture 
  • Start and end every meeting with a check-in and check-out such as “share two words how you’re feeling right now” – this allows people to connect on a more human and personal level than simply jumping straight into business 
  • Start to include spiritual well-being aspects in your existing wellness programs
  • Go for team walks! Host team meetings outside. 
  • Create conditions for reflection and/or silence. Provide journals with writing prompts to your team. Encourage people blocking out time in their calendar for reflection. 

It is my hope that this has encouraged you to think how workplace spirituality might be beneficial to you or your organization and challenge dominant ways of doing business. Let’s ensure business is done in a good way for our collective well-being. 

Vanessa Lesperance

Vanessa Lesperance

One Response

  1. So much value in this article for employers, as well as employees to build their confidence in demanding a healthier environment for them to work within. Well done!

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