Workplace spirituality has developed as a movement in the last decade or two to encompass the religious accommodation required by legislation (i.e., the employer is required to make reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious practice or observance), the diversity management spawned as workforces become more diverse, and a philosophy that tending to human values (such as love, creativity, and respect) and self-actualization within the workplace can enhance worker productivity and organizational effectiveness.
Although we are not framing our project as a study of workplace spirituality, there is no doubt that “prayer at work” is an important theme – both in the sense that prayer is happening in a workplace and in relation to the efficacy or outcomes of prayer.
We could not have predicted the ways and places that prayer has showed up in our research sites; indeed, our participants themselves voice surprise at the situations in which prayer shows up. Consider this narrative:
I was walking past a group of residents and staff who were gathered for an activity when I was called over by one of the residents. This resident had noticed an injury I was dealing with and because she deals with chronic pain herself it triggered concern and distress for her. She called me over to express her concern, but it was immediately evident that she might not be able to continue with the activity if she became too distracted by the injury.
She began to repetitively ask about the injury and list her own struggles. Others in the group became frustrated because of her loud voice which was only getting louder. I attempted to reassure her that I was going to be fine, to let her know that I did know of her long years of suffering with illness and injury, to refocus her attention to the activity, but nothing seemed to be working.
Finally, as she repeated in a shrill voice, “What are we going to do?! What are we going to do?!” I spoke loudly to be heard over her volume and said, “We can pray.”
I had prayed with this resident in the past, but it felt risky in this moment because of the large group who were watching and because one never knew how this resident might respond to any type of intervention, but it seemed to be my last resort.
She heard me and asked, “We can pray?! We can pray?!”
“Yes,” I said, “That’s something we can do that will help us.”
“I can pray for you?”
This was not what I expected, but she was focused and I decided to go with it.
“Yes, you can pray for me.”
Immediately she threw her hands in the air and prayed in her high loud voice, “Oh Heavenly Father, in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ…….” I took a quick look around the room to see how the others present were dealing with this situation since they couldn’t miss or ignore it if they tried. There were some amused smiles, but the majority of people there bowed their own heads in prayer. They all knew the resident and had seen far worse.
As she said Amen to close her prayer she lifted her head to look at me and said,
“Did it work?”
Once again stunned, but moved almost to tears at the same time, I responded, “It definitely worked. Your prayer touched my heart.”
“Oh it worked? That’s good! That’s good!
And everyone returned to their game.
I have reflected on this moment several times since. The public nature of it did cause me some concern – no one had planned to be part of this prayer time when they joined the group. But I was reminded of how receptive this particular community is to religious and spiritual matters. The group gathered as witnesses to this particular moment were respectful at the very least, but mostly receptive, accepting that prayer is part of what happens here.
I was also concerned about the use of prayer as an intervention for this particular situation. I had previously discussed this with her doctor and we agreed that prayer appeared to be beneficial for her (as opposed to others where religion itself may become an obsession or distressing focus). Prayer helps her to refocus and remember what her faith tells her about Who is always caring for her.
Allowing the resident to pray for me instead of the other way around has also made me think. I am usually in the position of offering prayer at work, not receiving it. But in this case the receiving of prayer was a gift to both the resident and to me. She had the opportunity to offer care from a place of deep meaning for her. It was good to allow her the opportunity and see how encouraged she was. I was truly blessed by her sincere prayer and value that moment as particularly touching.
Prayer at work. This story shows how prayer can transgress the “rules” of engagement or social norms in a workplace that is also a care home. The chaplain wonders about the public nature of prayer in this case, whether it might be impositional on others. She is surprised by being the “pray-ee” rather than the “pray-er”, a flip of patient-provider roles.
And there is an immediate question from the resident about whether prayer worked, followed by the chaplain’s reflection about prayer as an intervention.
The case thus extends the typical organizational lens of the workplace spirituality literature that focuses on the management of organizational resources and processes to promote employee well-being and productivity. Instead, the case portrays unexpected expressions of religion and spirituality in the workplace and how these are worked out in the everyday.