Getting grounded about spirituality at work

In these times of uncertainty and fragility, columnist Kate Kearins believes there is more need than ever to come together and spirituality, in all its diverse cultural, religious, and non-religious dimensions, can help foster this unity.

Gathering at AUT’s Ngā Wai o Horotiu marae to remember those who have died, as part of this year’s Matariki commemorations, reminded me about the importance of having opportunities for open expression of spirituality in the workplace.

Some 20 years ago, a colleague in a previous institution I worked at, offered a Management and Spirituality course to undergraduate business students. Though I was a tad sceptical about what a session on “humming and drumming” could offer as part of the syllabus, students were more convinced – attendance was high throughout the course. Turns out, my colleague was way ahead of me in understanding how spiritual practices can lower anxiety, improve self-esteem, and help people cope at work and in the world.

Since that time, there have been numerous opportunities to acknowledge, as organisations and individuals, the role of spirituality in the workplace. In the aftermath of the horrifying Christchurch terror attacks, for example, we found ways organisationally to show support for Muslim colleagues through remembrance ceremonies and exhibitions around faith-based beliefs, and by acknowledging Ramadan and seeking to accommodate fasting rituals.

“We learned more about colleagues’ different ways of working through bereavement, an experience that often intertwines cultural practices, spiritual and religious beliefs…”

So, too, have we learned more about colleagues’ different ways of working through bereavement, an experience that often intertwines cultural practices, spiritual and religious beliefs. The Covid-19 pandemic made it okay to invite colleagues to share what fear and loss meant, particularly for those whose friends and families faced illness and death at a scale we here in Aotearoa New Zealand did not.

Some of us recall being emotionally shaken having learned what colleagues were (and continue to be) dealing with; we also gained valuable insights into how they coped, what their “rock” of support looked like, and how we might contribute in a small way to that foundation of support.

Hopefully, we have learned to lean in a little more to listening, and to not assuming everyone’s cultural, spiritual, and/or faith-based beliefs align with our own.

I’ve had colleagues research and write about spirituality (and religion) on the job. Their work has inspired me to come out of the religious closet and hang my embroidered cross – a treasured gift – in my office. It can be a conversation starter, taking us in unexpected directions.

I’ve attended blessings of new and older buildings and offices.

Before my colleagues and I eat together, I now often share a blessing that I hope is inclusive, sufficiently secular, and helps us settle and acknowledge our place in the wider ecosystem and world. It also, I hope, signals a wider commitment to be more appreciative of those who prepare our food and to be less wasteful with that food.

As a wise Māori Advisory Board colleague explained, offering a blessing is a way to really signal our coming together to eat kai gathered from the earth, the sea and sky; literally to ground us and connect us.

By embracing spirituality in the places we work – physically and online – it seems we can help our colleagues gain a greater sense of connectedness and find more meaning in and through their work. While our work ethic can sometimes (not always) be an anchor in times of trouble, so can our other, often more-closely held values and beliefs. Feeling that we are not permitted to give voice or visibility to these core parts of our identity can be destabilising, especially at times of profound turmoil and upset.

In these times of ever-growing uncertainty and fragility, I believe there is more need than ever to come together. Spirituality, in all its diverse cultural, religious, and non-religious dimensions, can help foster this unity. When shared with respect, trust and (dare I say it) good faith, spirituality can also build a collective sense of understanding and goodwill, beyond and within the workplace.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

 

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