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Spirituality, religion, and career development: current status and future directions.

The growing interest in the role that spirituality and religion play in mental health has spawned research investigating the relationships between spirituality, religion, and career development. To date, only a limited number of studies have explored these variables in tandem, but generally these investigations have found aspects of spirituality and religion to relate positively to career decision self-efficacy, career values, and job satisfaction. Theoretical models that explore the connection between these variables are outlined, and future research directions and counseling implications are suggested.


Over the past decade, psychologists' interest in understanding the role that spirituality and religion play in healthy human functioning has increased greatly. Religiousness generally refers to a person's relationship with a certain religion, church, or faith community. Spirituality, in contrast, can refer to varying concepts, such as an individual's relationship with a higher power or powers, a type of energy or guiding force, or a belief system in a common good (Hill & Pargament, 2003; Miller & Thoresen, 2003). The study of spirituality and religion has catapulted into mainstream psychology as an area that can shed light on many variables, including those tied to work and working. Thus, the purpose of this article is to explore how aspects of spirituality and religion relate to career development in research, theory, and practice. An overview of the current research regarding the role of spirituality and religion in health is presented, and connections between these variables and the career development process are explored.

Until recently, research on spirituality and religion in the field of psychology was generally confined to their relationships with physical health. A large body of literature supports the notion that individuals who are highly spiritual or religious suffer fewer physical health problems, recover from illness more quickly, and experience less stress during serious illness than those who are not (Koenig & Cohen, 2002; Thoresen, 1999). Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain these correlations, most notably that spirituality' and religiousness serve as protective resources against contracting disease and as coping mechanisms when people are ill (Powell, Shahabi, & Thoresen, 2003). Research regarding the influence of spirituality and religion has slowly been broadened to encompass mental health as well as physical health (Hill & Pargament, 2003).

Spirituality and religiousness have each shown unique connections to aspects of mental health. Despite the varying definitions of spirituality, one way to conceptualize how it relates to mental health is through a support framework. Research has shown that across many mental health variables, strong social support contributes positively to life satisfaction and well-being (Turner, 1999). This research has been extended to suggest that individuals who feel supported by God incur a host of positive mental health attributes, such as less depression, lower levels of psychological stress, less loneliness, and higher levels of self-esteem (Larson, Milano, & Lu, 1998; Plante & Sharma, 2001). This support can also lead highly spiritual individuals to develop a worldview that promotes well-being and an optimistic outlook on life (Dull & Skokan, 1995; McIntosh, 1995; Sethi & Seligman, 1993). Research suggests that a person's spirituality can be analogous to a human relationship: Within this relationship, a person forms an attachment with a higher power or powers, which, if secure, can help that person feel supported and loved (Rowatt & Kirkpatrick, 2002; Sim & Loh, 2003). However, because an individual's spirituality is often very unique and nontraditional, the nature of spirituality as a support or coping mechanism remains an issue for debate and is still in need of extensive research.

Religiousness, whose definition has remained much more stable, has shown similar positive relationships to aspects of mental health. Research has shown that individuals who report higher levels of religiousness report lower levels of depression, higher levels of positive affect, less emotional distress, and greater life satisfaction (Fiala, Bjorck, & Gorsuch, 2002; Pargament, Koeing, & Perez, 2002). It is hypothesized that the majority of these positive outcomes are due to the material and emotional support that religious individuals receive from their social networks of fellow members and leaders of their religious communities. These social networks have been shown to be positive emotional supports in both calm and stressful times (Nooney & Woodrum, 2002; Stone, Cross, & Purvis, 2003). For religious individuals, the relationships with a faith community function as sources of support, which in turn relates to positive mental health attributes. Through strong, supportive spiritual and religious relationships, an individual appears better equipped to cope with life challenges and attain a more positive life outlook (Hill & Pargament, 2003).

Although the body of literature examining spirituality, religiousness, and mental health is just beginning to develop, most of the current research supports the notion of a positive relationship among these concepts. Spirituality and religiousness can have negative effects on mental health in some cases, however. In particular, individuals may feel rejected or ostracized if their religious communities do not tolerate a lifestyle choice, or their spiritual relationships may be characterized by guilt and fear. Similarly, consistent with the attachment literature mentioned earlier in this article, individuals can have insecure attachments with a higher power that could lead to anxiety and perceived lower levels of emotional support (Rowatt & Kirkpatrick, 2002). Nevertheless, research has shown that most people reporting high levels of spirituality and religiousness are more likely to feel supported and have higher levels of well-being (Hill & Pargament, 2003). The investigation of the role spirituality and religion play in the promotion of health functioning has provided a framework from which to explore additional areas of mental health that may be related to spirituality and religion. One of these areas is the study of how spirituality and religion relate to career development, work, and the workplace.

Spirituality and Religion in the Workplace

Like mental and physical health, career issues play a role in well-being and may also be affected by spirituality and religiousness (Bloch & Richmond, 1998; Lips-Wiersma, 2002). To date, the study of the relationships between career-related variables, spirituality, and religiousness has been primarily focused on the area of work and the workplace. According to Adams and Csiernik's (2002) extended definition, "workplace spirituality involves positively sharing, valuing, caring, respecting, acknowledging, and connecting the talents and energies of people in meaningful goal-directed behavior that enables them to belong, be creative, be personally fulfilled, and take ownership in their combined destiny" (p. 43). Recent empirical studies have shown that certain dimensions of spirituality in the workplace, such as meaning making, meditation, and sense of mission, relate positively to job satisfaction, job involvement, and productivity (Garcia-Zamor, 2003; Millman, Czaplewski, & Ferguson, 2003). These positive outcomes may benefit companies as well as their employees: Companies shown to have strong corporate cultures, or spirited workplaces, economically outperformed others in investment return and shareholder value (Thompson, 2000). The current conception of spirituality as it relates to the workplace has less to do with a support-based definition tied to a higher power or powers and more to do with value systems and community. Although the aforementioned studies may not have explicitly linked these sets of values and sense of community to an individual's relationship with a higher power, such a relationship may in fact account for the development of these values in some workers. In contrast, researchers examining religion in the workplace have generally adhered to traditional definitions of religiousness, which has also been shown to play a role in the workplace. Studies have found that a majority of businesspeople believe that their religious values can play an important role in their business decisions and career values (Childs, 1995; D. E. Lewis, 2001; M. M. Lewis & Hardin, 2002). Although most of the studies examining the interplay between spirituality, religiousness, and work are found in the management and organizational literature, counseling and developmental researchers have recently taken a greater interest in the role that spirituality and religiousness play in career development.

Spirituality and Religion in Career Development

Current research in the area of spirituality, religion, and career development is primarily focused on understanding the degree to which spirituality and religiousness affect the way individuals navigate career-specific tasks. To date, however, there have been a limited number of empirical studies that have explored this relationship. Duffy and Blustein (2005) surveyed a sample of college students to investigate how religiousness and spirituality relate to career choice commitment and career decision self-efficacy. Although no significant relationship was found for career choice commitment, they found that spirituality and religiousness each serve as significant positive predictors of career decision self-efficacy. Duffy and Blustein posited that an individual's attachment to a higher power may provide similar benefits as attachments to other people: Career development research has shown that variables that act as supports, such as positive relationships with friends and family, help individuals perform career development tasks (Blustein, Walbridge, Friedlander, & Palladino, 1991; O'Brien, 1996; Schultheiss, Palma, Predragovich, & Glasscock, 2002). Another quantitative study sampled a large group of adult workers, finding that workers who had higher levels of spiritual and religious well-being reported higher levels of job satisfaction (Robert, Young, & Kelly, 2006). In addition to this correlational research, a number of studies have explored the relationship of spirituality, religion, and career development qualitatively. Royce-Davis and Stewart (2000) interviewed a group of 10 undergraduates regarding the role that spirituality played in their career development. Of these 10 students, 4 believed that their spiritual struggles affected their career development, and 6 recognized the importance of spirituality at different points in their career decision-making process, in particular the integration of personal values in decision making. A similar study was completed recently with 12 African American undergraduates, who reported often using religious and spiritual strategies to cope with academic and career challenges. Also, many felt that God had a career plan for them (Constantine, Miville, Warren, Gainor, & Lewis-Coles, 2006). Finally, Lips-Wiersma (2002) interviewed a group of 16 adults regarding their spirituality and career behavior. In this study, spirituality was found to inspire a desire to serve others and positively relate to career coherence, or the finding of meaning and purpose in a career.

A few studies have examined individuals who view their career as a vocation or calling. Although there are no universally agreed-upon definitions of vocation and calling, these terms typically refer to careers that are not chiefly financially motivated and that are perceived to be for the good of a higher power or of society (Colozzi & Colozzi, 2000). In one of the first studies to empirically measure these constructs, a large group of Catholics and Protestants were surveyed regarding how they viewed their careers (Davidson & Caddell, 1994). Davidson and Caddell found that individuals who viewed their career as a calling, or a career chosen for them by God, were more likely to espouse social justice beliefs and report greater job security and satisfaction than those who did not. Results also indicated that people who believed that they were called to certain careers were more likely to work in settings that emphasized social interaction. In a similar study, Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, and Schwartz (1997) asked a group of adult workers if they viewed their work as (a) a job, which is primarily done to make money and is unfulfilling; (b) a career, which is moderately fulfilling but involves a constant process of trying to get promoted; or (c) a calling, which is valuable as an end in itself and serves the greater good. Those respondents who viewed their work as a calling reported greater satisfaction in both their jobs and their lives.

Holistic Theoretical Models

The empirical studies previously mentioned hint at complex connections between career development, spirituality, and religiousness. Currently, a number of holistic models have been put forth that could explain the relationship between spirituality, religiousness, and career development, although none of these models have undergone thorough empirical testing. These models could provide frameworks for such empirical testing, which in turn could shed light on how spirituality and religiousness might be incorporated into the career counseling process.

Witmer and Sweeney's Holistic Model of Wellness

Witmer and Sweeney's (1992) Holistic Model of Wellness proposes that each individual has five basic life tasks: spirituality, self-regulation, work, friendship, and love. Their model, which is consistent with other holistic approaches, posits that each of these five basic tasks builds on the others and, based on the level of importance placed on a task, serves to guide the other four tasks. The centerpiece of Witmer and Sweeney's model is spirituality, which is not necessarily tied to religious beliefs or higher powers but to "life enhancing beliefs about human dignity, human rights, and reverence for life" (p. 141). As the centerpiece, spirituality serves as the primary influence on the development of values, which in turn guide behavior at work. Similarly, spirituality can provide purpose and meaning to life, which in turn will have rippling effects on the other four life tasks. Although this model is not empirically based, the premise that spirituality influences values and purpose, which in turn influence work, is echoed in the limited empirical research discussed earlier.

Miller-Tiedeman's Lifecareer Model

The Lifecareer model developed by Miller-Tiedeman, or Life-Is-Career, proposes that individuals let life experience and values guide their career paths (Miller-Tiedeman, 1994). This model diverges from traditional career theory, which emphasizes career stages and the importance of timely decision making. Instead of worrying about making the correct career decisions and having control over career outcomes, the Lifecareer model encourages individuals to learn as they go, be flexible and open to new career paths, and develop their own personal theory about career decision making. Miller-Tiedeman proposed that the focus of life should not be about finding the right career but finding the right life, with a career serving as a complement and not as a primary goal. Aspects of spirituality or religion can play an important role in this model, given that for some individuals these aspects represent guiding life components and values that can heavily influence career choice over the life span. Spirituality and religion are not theorized to be the predominant guiding variables, but rather components that should be taken into account if they represent important areas of a person's life.

Brewer's Vocational Souljourn Model

According to Brewer's (2001) model, a person's life is guided by three basic principles: meaning, being, and doing. Meaning is the "what" of life and defines one's values, being is who one is, and doing is the action or "how" of life (Brewer, 2001). Brewer identified four types of work, or doing: job, occupation, career, and vocation. The Souljourn model is another example of a spectrum, where at one end job refers to temporary, financially driven work, and at the other end vocation refers to a personally significant path that serves as the highest nature of work. For Brewer, the highest form of work, or vocation, is something people are called to do by the Creator with a focus on the expression of their true selves rather than on earning fame or money. She also introduced the idea that even though all individuals have a propensity for a vocation, it may not be an occupation in the strictest sense but work done outside an income-earning capacity.

Brewer (2001) suggested that in order for individuals to have stability in their lives, their three principles of meaning, being, and doing need to be in equilibrium. She used Jungian (1954) precepts of energy to explain that when these three core principles are in disequilibrium, an excessive amount of energy is spent trying to repair this fracture. In contrast, if individuals are able to align their work (doing) with who they are as people (being) and what they value (meaning), obstructive boundaries between work and nonwork can dissolve, creating a free flow of energy throughout the system. Brewer contended that work, meaning, and being match most often in a vocation. Through her counseling experience, Brewer has noticed that individuals whose three principles are in equilibrium experience greater self-knowledge, more thoughtful sets of meanings, and more articulated aspirations. Brewer emphasized the usefulness of this model in working with clients to facilitate inner growth and outer expressions of their true selves, in particular the expression of the true self through work.

Bloch's Model of Spirituality and Career Counseling

Bloch's (2004, 2005) theory regarding the connection between spiritually and career development is founded in complexity theory. Essentially, complexity theory posits that in any system, such as a person or an environment, each component is directly or indirectly affected by the other components. Each system is composed of a certain amount of energy to be shared among all components and is in a constant state of flux. Within this system, spirituality and work are connected through seven principles that were developed by Bloch and Richmond (1998). Included in these principles are ideas explored in previous research, such as viewing work as a calling, believing work has a purpose beyond earning money, working in a setting consistent with one's values, and experiencing community and companionship at work. Bloch (2004) argued that people who understand their work as spiritual also consider their contribution to the world, avoid self-centeredness, and integrate their work lives with their personal lives.

Bloch (2004) extended this framework to career counseling, where counselors are asked to prepare students or clients for their life journey. In tying the framework back to complexity theory, Bloch (2005) urged career counselors to acknowledge with clients the great amount of change that occurs within career transitions and to have the necessary tools to help clients face these changes. Because clients often enter these transitions with little outside support, counselors need to help clients understand that they are part of a large community of workers and to value all the potential resources within this community. In addition, counselors should actively address with students not only the types of careers they feel drawn to but also the reasons behind these feelings, with the goal of helping clients discern their true calling rather than simply determine their most convenient or lucrative career opportunities. Finally, Bloch (2004) encouraged counselors to help clients realize what types of careers are most in harmony or union not only with their skills and interests but also with their values and sense of self. Although Bloch's (2004, 2005) implications for counseling were meant primarily for students entering the workplace, her research speaks to the potential benefits of incorporating values and purpose into decisions made at any point in one's career.

The common theme among these three theoretical approaches is that spirituality, religiousness, and career issues are connected by way of an overall developmental or holistic system. As such, this connection ideally plays out in the general tasks of career development, including career decision making, job satisfaction, and work values. Although all the authors of the models regard the integration of spirituality and career decision making as desirable, they do not believe that this integration occurs within every individual.

Future Research Directions

Because empirical explorations of the extent and the nature of the spirituality, religiousness, and career development relationship have just begun, a great variety of research is needed to develop a thorough understanding of this relationship. There is a push within the management literature to clarify the role of spirituality in the workplace; this push should be met in a similar fashion with regard to the role of spirituality and religion in the entire career development process. This research may be guided in part by the literature regarding the connections between spirituality, religion, and health and by the limited empirical research linking spirituality and religion to career-related variables. It may also be shaped by theoretical models that have been proposed to explain some connections between spirituality, religion, and career.

First, career counselors should investigate if and to what extent individuals' spirituality and religiousness shape the types of careers they decide to pursue. Do religious or spiritual people favor a specific type of job or work environment? If so, how influential a factor is their spiritual background in determining this preference? Similarly, given that several studies and theories have explored vocations or callings, counselors should determine the extent to which workers in the general population chose careers to which they feel called or motivated by a higher power or societal need. At the same time, better definitions of the terms calling and vocation are essential as researchers move away from these terms being strictly tied to God or religion.

Second, a comprehensive, empirically tested model of the role that spirituality and religion play in the promotion or hindrance of healthy career development is needed. It is important that counselors understand whether positive variables such as support individuals may receive from their religion or spirituality aid in their navigation of specific career tasks through development. Although Duffy and Blustein (2005) have provided preliminary evidence suggesting that spirituality and religiousness are predictive of career decision self-efficacy, this line of research should be expanded to include a variety of other career-related variables and populations at different stages in their careers. Additional research might explore how highly spiritual and religious individuals respond to career challenges such as unemployment or limited job opportunities.

Finally, future studies might also investigate how economic status and education level fit into the relationship between spirituality, religiousness, and career development. A key assumption in each of the theoretical models is that people have choices regarding the careers that they pursue. This assumption may be valid in the case of most college students but in no way can be extended to the general population. Many workers may believe that they had little if any choice in selecting their current occupations because they did not have the opportunity to explore their options or receive training for more desirable careers. For this group of people, it is important to understand how spirituality and religion affect their work lives, where religion and spirituality may be used more as a coping mechanism than as something that shapes career choices. In particular, the role of spirituality and religion may be especially important to clients from diverse cultures, and counselors should be aware of this when exploring a client's support system (Cervantes & Parham, 2005).

Additional research regarding the extent to which spirituality and religiousness affect career development is crucial to effectively incorporate these elements into career counseling. For example, if research suggested that only certain small populations did, or aspired to, integrate their spirituality and religion with their careers, counselors could emphasize these issues with those certain populations. On the other hand, if it was found that spirituality and religiousness affected the career choices of most people, counselors might expect to deal with such issues with the majority of their clients. Until additional research is completed, it is difficult to hypothesize about which populations might benefit most from the inclusion of spirituality and religiousness in career counseling.

Counseling Implications

Although there is currently a lack of empirical research connecting spirituality and religion to career processes, it is important that career counselors be open to understanding the relevance these variables may play in a client's career development. For many clients who are not spiritual or religious, these factors may play no role in their career process. Similarly, even those who do possess strong inclinations to be spiritual or religious may choose not to integrate these factors into their career development. However, counselors will not know the extent and reach of a client's spirituality and religion until they explore these issues with the client. In some cases, this exploration process could be as simple as asking clients about their religious or spiritual inclinations; if clients indicate that they are not particularly religious or spiritual, the therapist could simply move on to other issues. For clients who assert that spirituality and religion play an important role in their lives, the counselor is encouraged to explore how these values may play a role in the client's career development.

Several of the models discussed (e.g., Bloch, 2004; Brewer, 2001) include suggestions for how spirituality and religion could fit into the scheme of career counseling. For some clients, spirituality or religion may be a driving force in the career decision-making process, where choosing a career that they feel called to do is a primary form of motivation. For others, spirituality and religion may be important sources of support that could prove valuable throughout the career development process, especially during times of career instability. Although career counselors may not deeply explore spiritual and religious components with every client, it is important for counselors to be open to discussing these issues with clients who present them as important and to treat spirituality and religiousness as variables that can significantly contribute to the career development process. In addition, clients may have their own unique definitions of spirituality or religiousness, and it is critical that counselors accept these definitions without imposing their own belief systems, a behavior that is unethical in public institutions (Wolf, 2004).

Exploring spiritual and religious issues may be an effective process with both clients in the decision-making process and those struggling with issues related to their current job. In particular, these variables may be especially useful when working with clients who are unhappy with their jobs and are unable to draw meaning from their work. It would be erroneous to assume that all individuals can follow a vocation or earn a living doing what they love. Instead, many clients will be working in jobs that have little meaning and that leave clients with little sense of satisfaction. For these individuals, it is important that counselors explore where meaning and satisfaction could be found away from work, especially if the client's life circumstances do not allow for career change. Spirituality and religion may prove integral to life meaning and satisfaction for some clients, although insufficient research has been completed to suggest which specific populations these clients might be found in.

Finally, counselors are encouraged to assess the role of spirituality or religion with clients who are undergoing career hardships such as unemployment. Research has shown that in difficult times, individuals with large support networks and resources are most capable of overcoming the negative consequences and prospering (McKee-Ryan, Song, & Wanberg, 2005). Although career counselors may already work with clients to understand their supports and resources, it is important that spiritual and religious supports be included in these discussions. In particular, for multicultural clients, spiritual and religious networks have been shown to be especially important as coping mechanisms in times of hardship (Cervantes & Parham, 2005).


The empirical evidence and theoretical frameworks presented in this article by no means exhaust the current literature on the relationship between spirituality, religion, and career development. Even so, research in this area is still very limited, both by the relatively small number of studies conducted and by the size and nature of the samples. Given the exploratory nature of the topic, researchers and career counselors are encouraged to be open to incorporating these variables into their work, especially when working with participants or clients who have strong spiritual or religious beliefs. Because work, spirituality, and religion are fundamental features of many people's lives, a serious examination of the extent and nature of the relationships between these variables is important. This examination may uncover evidence that helps counselors better conceptualize the career development process and people's ability cope with the world of work.


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Ryan D. Duffy, Department of Counseling and Personnel Services, The University of Maryland, College Park. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ryan D. Duffy, Department of Counseling and Personnel Services, The University of Maryland, 0104 Shoemaker Building, College Park, MD 20742 (e-mail:
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Author:Duffy, Ryan D.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
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Date:Sep 1, 2006
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Religion, spirituality, and career development in African American college students: a qualitative inquiry.
Spirituality among a predominately African American college student population.
Journal file.

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