The meaning of work in the 21st century: a spiritual perspective

By 11/08/2013Blog

A paper delivered by Rabbi Naftali Brawer PhD at the annual ISPSO (The International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations ) conference at Oxford University 12th July 2013

It is not work per se that is a curse but rather meaningless work. Work itself is the greatest blessing.

A cursory reading of the early chapters of the bible leaves the reader with the distinct impression that work is a curse. Yet a closer inspection yields an entirely different picture. It is not work per se that is a curse but rather meaningless work. Work itself is the greatest blessing. In this session we will explore the definition of meaningful and meaningless work through the prism of the bible and early rabbinic writings. It will also draw on contemporary thinkers and thought leaders in the fields of religion, philosophy and logo-therapy as well as the rapidly expanding field of ‘spirituality in the workplace.’

The axis upon which meaningful work turns is the idea of individual agency being clearly manifest in the end product. This is an enormous challenge for large companies, firms and organisations in the 21st century when the connection between agent and product has been weakened by globalisation and outsourcing.

One response to this crisis is to re-evaluate our relationship with manual labour.  While this position is cogently argued by some, it is neither practical nor desirable for most people. The solution then lies in a complete revaluation of the nature of business, moving away from Milton Friedman’s assertion that the only social responsibility business has is to its shareholders.

Synthetic CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) however is not the answer. Rather the solution to meaningless work comes about through companies and organisations asking existential questions about their greater purpose. This, according to management consultant and philosopher Danah Zohar, is how a company accesses its Spiritual Capital. Spiritual in this context is not sectarian (organized religion) rather it refers to values, purposes, motivations that might be sacred to any human being. Applying this to a company or organisation it would be reflected in what an organization believes in, what it exists for, what it aspires to, and what it takes responsibility for.

We will discuss the practicalities and application of such thinking using various business models, in particular that of the banking industry by highlighting the enormous changes it has undergone in the past century.