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Viewing jobs as a spiritual calling helps workers tolerate them

Analysis of Gallup polling finds that those who view their work as a spiritual calling are, on average, more satisfied with their jobs, despite various types of discrimination they face.

20 July 2023

By Emily Reynolds

Discrimination in the workplace has a clear impact not only on people’s ability to integrate and excel at work, but also on their mental health.

Despite legislation and efforts to discourage discrimination, informal studies suggest that it is still rife. For example, a study from 2022 found that one in four people of colour had been subject to racist jokes in the workplace. Clearly, there is still a long way to go in efforts to stem this abuse. 

While the responsibility for dealing with these issues is on employers, rather than on those experiencing it, there may be psychological factors which protect workers from some of the negative emotional impacts of discrimination. One of which — the sense of work as a spiritual calling — is explored in a new study from a team of US-based academics in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. They look specifically at the idea of work as a destiny or vocation and the impact this has on perceived discrimination, finding that it can also be protective, helping people deal with the negative impacts of discrimination — or, perhaps, leading them to tolerate abuse longer. 

Data came from a large, nationally representative survey of English- or Spanish-speaking US adults (conducted by Gallup) which took place between October and December 2018. Participants responded either online or by post. Although 13,270 people completed the survey, the final sample size for this research was 9,907 adults who were employed in some form. 

The first relevant measure was job satisfaction, gleaned from two questions in the survey. The first asked participants to indicate how satisfied they were with their current job, and the second to indicate how much they agreed with the statement “I feel a strong sense of commitment to the organisation I work for.” Next, answers on perceived discrimination were analysed, with participants indicating how often they felt they had been treated unfairly throughout their career on the basis of their race, gender, or religion. Finally, in the last of the measures related to work, participants stated to what level they agreed with the statement “I see my work as a spiritual calling.” 

The team also looked at the effect of race, gender, and age. Religious identity was also probed, as well as how participants actually practiced their religious beliefs in terms of attending services, their own sense of religiosity, and how often they engaged in prayer. Finally, further details about the participants’ work were analysed, including how long participants had been at their workplace, and how senior they felt they were within it.

Most participants were satisfied with their jobs — the mean score on the job satisfaction score was just under 4 (out of a possible 5). Similarly, seeing work as a spiritual calling was equally skewed, though in this case in the other direction: the average score for the spiritual calling item was just over 2, meaning most people did not see their work as such. 

As expected, job satisfaction scores were related to how frequently individuals said they experienced gender, race, or age-related discrimination. Those who had never experienced discrimination had a mean job satisfaction score of 4 — a score which declined steadily as the frequency of discrimination increased. 

However, those who strongly disagreed that their work was a spiritual calling had a mean job satisfaction score of around 3.8, which then began to steadily increase as individuals identified more with their work as having religious or spiritual meaning to them. Individuals who strongly agreed with the statement had a mean job satisfaction score of 4.4, a difference of nearly a full point on the scale. 

This positive association held across discrimination experiences of all kinds, suggesting that seeing work as a spiritual calling can indeed act as a protective measure from the negative impact of discrimination. However, as the team points out, this could lead to people tolerating or putting up with behaviour that they simply should not have to, and a lower likelihood of such workers advocating for structural changes in the workplace. 

There were a few limitations to this study. Firstly, the direction of the relationship between job satisfaction and seeing work as a spiritual calling was not identified; we may be more likely to see our work as a spiritual calling when we enjoy our work, rather than the other way around. A worker’s position in the organisation was also relevant here, meaning the results may not be simply down to seeing work as a spiritual calling. Further investigations, and publications offering more in-depth analysis, may make these relationships clearer.

Read the paper in full