God Wants You to Work Harder, and to Stop Complaining

Ever prayed at work? Been asked to cry with co-workers to mourn a loss? Asked your manager for spiritual counsel?

We might think of the workplace as an indisputably secular space, but over the last two decades, interest in what’s become known as “workplace spirituality” has grown from a fragmented smattering of unorthodox entrepreneurs and management gurus into a full-fledged movement.

Bringing spirituality into the culture of business, advocates believe, will not only enhance the quality of individual working lives, but also drastically alter the broader conduct of business across the planet.

Aiming at nothing less than a wholesale change in human consciousness, workplace spirituality has the trappings of a full-fledged religious movement—but whose religion? And what’s behind it?

It turns out that underneath these aspirations to transform the world is a powerfully conservative ideology, and a boatload of conservative money. Which should invite all of us to ask: what is at stake when we bring God to work?

“The Universe Wants Me to Be Here”

In 2009, the Sam Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas hired Judith Neal, longtime advocate for workplace spirituality, as director of the newly inaugurated Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace (yes, that Tyson—more on which later). Their mission: “to support leaders in expanding the purpose of business to include individual, community, and global transformation through the integration of faith and spirituality in the workplace.” Last month, the Tyson Center convened its first International Faith and Spirit at Work Conference, to which I was invited as a presenter.

This was not a typical academic conference. Each day began with a general assembly where the participants mingled over coffee and a daily “inspiration.” On the first evening, Interfaith minister David Wetton led the first of these inspirations, reading a poem entitled “Blessing for a Leader,” written by Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue. Likewise, once the day’s scheduled sessions and events were complete, participants would again meet to hear final thoughts from one of the conference organizers, followed by another closing inspiration.

Such practices bestowed a structure on the conference, and transported the proceedings outside standard space and time and into the realm of the sacred, toward holy significance. The participants subsequently mirrored and reproduced this aura of sacrality, as when one young lady stumbled into the wrong panel session, confiding in me “I thought I was attending a different panel, but I apparently the universe wants me to be here. So I’ll stay.”

Corporate Mystics

Over the course of three days, an amalgam of figures from the business world, leaders of faith traditions (“faith” consistently replaced “religion” throughout the conference) offered up a mixture of rich ideas and reflections about the nature of spirituality in the workplace. Keynote speakers, such as Lynne Sedgemore, a self-proclaimed “corporate mystic,” spoke about the necessity for leaders to maintain a connection with “the transcendent,” urged businesses to promote an “interconnective perspective” and “planetary awareness,” and guaranteed that such practices would foster “organizational interventions that manifest spiritual awareness.”

I learned about the role of workplace chaplains and heard from caretakers like Diya LeDuc, Director of Clinical Services at Arkansas’ Circle of Life Hospice, whose innovative policies had enriched and transformed the lives of both clients and customers. In addition to providing space for clients and loved ones to enjoy their faith, Circle of Life encourages its staff participate in a to take part in a variety of spiritual practices, most notable of which is the “crying share,” where employees are given the chance to grieve a loss with their co-workers.

Financial planner Rodger Spiller presented his extensive research on the benefits of “spiritual direction of businesspeople.” According to Spiller, spiritual direction, “the process of accompanying business people on a spiritual journey of individual and organizational transformation to increase well-being and make a greater difference and contribution for business and society,” would help to introduce “more consciousness of spirit in the workplace and of one’s self as a manifestation of that spirit.” Researchers Ed and Jean Stead even went so far as to explain sustainability as an utterly spiritual project. Sustainability as a part of a firm’s long-term strategy, they state, “is an upwardly spiraling coevolutionary process that leads organizations to a higher level of existence based on the sacredness of humankind and nature.”

These advocates for workplace spirituality aim their sights at nothing less than a total revolution in human society. Although they espouse a broad and decentralized cluster of positions, these thinkers agree that business has too long ignored the spiritual dimensions and needs of individuals and society alike. Managers, entrepreneurs, and others in positions of leadership require a radical transformation in their consciousness of moral and spiritual quality, generating greater empathy for fellow human beings and concern for the welfare of the biosphere.

Don’t Fight the Power

In times like these, where occupiers cry for greater income equality but are often muted by the trumpets of austerity, it might seem refreshing to hear voices from the business community taking seriously the moral bankruptcy of global capital.

Yet, these post-industrial theologies rest on assumptions about the world that reify the socioeconomic structures behind the current economic crisis. Workplace spirituality imagines a future where businesses benevolently guide us toward peace, prosperity, and spiritual vitality; managers become therapeutic purveyors of spiritual wisdom and for-profit firms act as the ultimate arbiters of the social order.

Still, when the former COO of Wal-Mart, Don Soderquist, states in his keynote address at the Conference, “Wal-Mart believes that it has a responsibility to God to take care of the planet,” behind this view lies a commitment to the free and globalized marketplace in which such a world could take shape. Workplace spirituality’s logic dictates that consumer choice will select those organizations most devoted to the good of the planet, relegating the greedy and self-absorbed Gordon Gekkos of the old paradigm to their rightful place at the bottom of the heap.

Thus, the proponents of workplace spirituality seek only individual moral transformation, leaving untouched the structural integrity of the global economy and its attendant policies.

Moreover, workplace spirituality teaches people that the anxieties associated with global capital are inevitable, even part of the natural order of things. Under the highly deregulated conditions that prevail in the twenty-first century, individuals struggle against constant job insecurity. Additionally, workers can expect to change careers frequently, sometimes moving to where the jobs are. In this socioeconomic stew, workplace spirituality offers the individual a stable community where ultimate meaning and purpose become anchored to his or her place of employment. Workers feel more fulfilled and empowered on the job, and, therefore, will freely work harder and more productively, the theory goes, while ignoring more material concerns such as declining wages and diminishing benefits.

Workplace spirituality neatly legitimates globalization while muffling its psychological effects.

Conservative Chicken

Because the movement reifies entrenched neo-conservative views, workplace spirituality is actually more ideologically committed than it appears on its surface, a truth revealed plainly at the Conference.

On one hand, the attendees represented an eclectic group of religiously liberal spiritual seekers, devoted to the equality and goodness of all forms of faith. On the other hand, Christian organizations comprised the majority of conference sponsors, including Catholic-based Ascension Health and Hallmark Card’s Christian division, Dayspring. Among the more conspicuous sponsors was the conservative Christian John Brown University, whose controversial policies against dancing and the 2006 expulsion of an openly gay student have garnered national attention.

This incongruity between the conference’s participants and its sponsors begs the question: who agenda is being promoted here? At this point, we can follow the money. The biggest sponsor of the conference, Tyson Foods, is also the benefactor of the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace, where the event was held.

According to the company’s chairman, John Tyson, “the Center is an extension of Tyson Foods.” An interfaith Christian, Tyson stated in an address to the conference that he views “Tyson as a mission field.” In response to one student’s question about how to live out one’s faith in a secular work environment, Tyson explained his practice of “an embodied witnessing” rather than openly proselytizing. “Show your faith through your actions,” and “never give the impression it’s from the top down; establish an exploratory culture,” where people are encouraged to seek spirituality. It is here, perhaps, that we can discern something crucial about workplace spirituality: the movement is not strictly an emergent phenomenon but is equally a carefully articulated strategy of some business elites, whose ideological positions are often at odds with the movement’s precepts of inclusiveness and compassion.

The keynote addresses of two such business elites reveal these differences most clearly. Bill Pollard, former CEO of ServiceMaster Corporation, expressed dismay at the world’s current economic woes, stating, “they are the result of ineffective government involvement in the crisis.” He indicated that “an era of profound irresponsibility” caused the collapse. After all, Pollard continues, “people cause markets to work or fail; it is people are evil or good… ethical behavior cannot depend on a set of rules; governments cannot develop character. We need a transformation in business leadership” to get us out of this crisis.

Pollard insists that these problems are moral rather than structural, which calls for the solution to be the moral reform of leaders, and excludes the possibility of legal changes to economic governance. In other words, global capital would work just fine if we only had better leaders. Democratic governance of the economy only makes matters worse by Pollard’s logic. Instead, he asks us to put our trust into the benevolent leadership of the spiritually driven executive.

“I Don’t Know About this Inequity Deal”

Likewise, when a conference participant asked Soderquist about Wal-Mart’s role in reducing income inequality, he responded, in parabolic fashion, that Wal-Mart’s relationship with society is like a father’s care of his children. A father must provide only the same opportunity for each child, not the same financial assistance. “I don’t know about this inequity deal,” he remarked. “I only know that it is not right to take from some and give to people who don’t want to work. There’s too much welfare already.” A perplexing comment from the former COO of a firm whose low wages often require workers to apply for government assistance.

The message is clear: businesses, freed from the constraints of government regulation, would be positioned to guide us all towards greater levels of prosperity, both material and spiritual. These organizations look after us as fathers care for their children, and when the father is led by spirit, so goes the rest of the family. Preposterous-sounding, perhaps, but maybe this is simply a picture of the world in which we already live.

After all, corporations are the most powerful organizations of our day; the last three decades have witnessed drastic deregulation of business practices; and further, financial markets do seem to wield more power than our collective democracy over the quality of our lives.

Historically, religion, faith, and spirituality in the United States have created opportunities to resist undemocratic trends. The nineteenth century struggles against, first, slavery and, later, the robber-barons all found strength from faith, as did the Civil Rights Movement. But if workers begin to look to their employers for spiritual direction and rewards, can they resist increasing demands of employers any longer? Or will they willingly submit to God’s will (albeit the god of your understanding) to put more hours in at the office?